The second-best season of Red Sox star Ted Williams’ career.
I mentioned in our last installment of this series that the race for second place was a toss up. Ted Williams was the best player in baseball from 1941-1942 and it’s a crime that he wasn’t awarded the hardware to recognize that status. Both seasons from the Boston Red Sox superstar were remarkable and I wouldn’t put up much of a fight if you insisted on swapping the order of those two years in these rankings.
Since we already covered his first Triple Crown campaign, that bring us to 1941.
What stands out most from this season is the career-high .406 batting average. It’s been nearly eighty years and no major league hitter has hit .400 over the course of a season since then. The only one who came close was Tony Gwynn when he hit .394 during the strike-shortened 1994 season. Gwynn’s 475 plate appearances wouldn’t even have been enough to qualify for a batting title under the normal circumstances of a full season.
Fans today look at the lofty batting average from Williams in wonderment but in 1941, Williams winning his first batting title was impressive yet hardly historic. Many avid followers of the game at that time were old enough to remember the late 1800s when hitting .400 wasn’t all that uncommon.
Sticking to the modern era, a .400+ batting average was achieved a dozen times between 1901-1940. Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby both did it three times. Williams was the first to join that exclusive club since 1930 but the accomplishment wasn’t quite as stunning at the time compared to how we view it now. If only people knew while watching Williams that this might be the last time in major league history anyone would witness this masterful display of hitting.
In addition to winning the batting title, Williams led the league with a .553 OBP, .735 SLG, 1.287 OPS, and 235 OPS+, each of which would end up being his career-high.
Williams also led the league with 37 home runs, 147 walks, and 135 runs scored while driving in 120 RBI.
Those league-leading categories weren’t enough to deliver Williams an MVP, as he finished as the runner-up to Joe DiMaggio. The New York Yankees star had a fine season in his own right, hitting .357/.440/.643 with 30 home runs and 125 RBI. He just wasn’t nearly as impressive as Williams. That’s reflected in DiMaggio’s 9.4 WAR comfortably trailing the 10.4 WAR Williams produced, which equaled his 1942 campaign for the second-best of his career.
As was often the case in those days, voters leaned heavily toward players from the pennant-winning team. The Yankees held the best record in the American League that year on their way to winning the World Series, giving DiMaggio the edge in the MVP race.
1941 was also the year that DiMaggio set the MLB record with his 56-game hitting streak. While Williams hitting over .400 was something fans had seen before, you have to go back to before the modern era to find a hitting streak that was even remotely close to DiMaggio’s. George Sisler‘s 41-game streak in 1922 was the closest anyone had seen post-1900. The 44-game streak by Pete Rose in 1978 is the longest we’ve seen since DiMaggio’s record.
The narrative of the hitting streak fueled DiMaggio’s candidacy for MVP as much as New York’s 17-game lead over Boston in the standings. We can objectively say that Williams had the better season in retrospect but given the tendencies of MVP voters at the time, Teddy Ballgame didn’t stand a chance.
It was the first time that Williams was robbed of an MVP award by a player from a pennant-winning Yankees team but it wouldn’t be the last.
While Baseball-Reference views his 1941 and 1942 seasons equally in terms of WAR, FanGraphs gives ’42 a slight edge with 11.6 fWAR compared to 11.0 in ’41. Williams set many career highs in 1941, including a .568 wOBA that factors heavily into the FanGraphs WAR formula.
The difference is primarily on the defensive side, where Williams loses significantly more value with a -8.8 DEF rating than he does the following year. Defensive metrics from that time period aren’t as articulate as they are today so I’m a bit skeptical that he improved that much in one year (although, his -1.5 DEF rating was still below average in ’42).
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They didn’t hand out Gold Glove awards back then but it’s fair to say that Williams wouldn’t have been in the running anyway. His value stems from his bat and nobody was better at swinging the stick than the Splendid Splinter. His production at the plate was better in 1941 than it was when he won the Triple Crown a year later, which is why I give that year a slight edge.