Now Playing Left Field for the Yankees… #9, Ted Williams
by Paul Semendinger
(Originally published, November 2019)
One of the great baseball stories that might be fact, and might be fiction, supposedly took place in the late 1940’s (although there is some discrepancy on the actual year) when the Yankees owner Dan Topping and the Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey traded Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams for each other. According to legend, this trade took place after each owner had had a few drinks, and, according to the story, when sober minds prevailed, the trade, supposedly consummated the night before, was called off.
Some reports seem to indicate that this trade talk could have happened as early as 1946, probably late in the season. Other accounts have the year as 1947, 1948, or 1949. Since the story wasn’t recorded at the time, it’s all speculation.
At that time, it is no doubt that these were the two biggest stars in the game. A trade of the two would have been monumental. And, because of the sides of the plate from which each of the players batted, DiMaggio a right-handed batter and Williams a left-handed batter, both players might have benefited from playing in the other’s ballpark – fields designed more to each’s batting side.
Joe DiMaggio, of course, was an icon for the Yankees. Ted Williams as well for the Red Sox. It’s hard to imagine either in their opponent’s uniforms. But, oh, what if it happened?
I decided to take a look at the supposed trade to see which team would have gotten the better of it. Because we don’t know the exact year that this might have taken place, I am going to take the liberty of using 1947 as the year. I’ll assume that the trade would have preceded the 1947 season.
The Yankees would easily be the losers in the trade if we go by the amount of pennants won by teams with Joe DiMaggio as compared to teams with Ted Williams from the 1947 season forward.
Joe DiMaggio appeared in the 1947, 1949, 1950, and 1951 World Series. The Yankees won all four of those World Series.
The Red Sox were never in the post season (with Williams) after 1946.
But here, the Red Sox would have been the losers if they had traded Teddy Ballgame. In 1947, Joe DiMaggio played his age-32 season. Ted Williams would have been playing in his age-28 season. Williams was four years younger than Joe D.
DiMaggio played just five more seasons. He retired after the 1951 season.
Williams played thirteen more seasons, not retiring until after the 1960 season. Of note, Williams missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons serving in the Korean War.
Joe DiMaggio is regarded as one of the best fielding outfielders of all-time. He covered a ton of ground and had a rifle arm. He was also a center fielder.
Ted Williams was considered a lack-luster or disinterested fielder. It was said that all he cared about was hitting. (That’s probably an over exaggeration.)
Still, DiMaggio wins this category hands down.
If the Yankees had lost DiMaggio, they would have had to find a center fielder. (The Red Sox’s defense would have improved as Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s brother and a great defender in his own right, would have presumably went to play left field as Joe took over in center.)
The following is how I assume the Yankees would have handled the center field problem.
1947 – Left Fielder Johnny Lindell would have played CF. He was an average to below average fielder based on his dWAR on baseball-reference.
1948 – Lindell would have probably played center field again
1949 – Cliff Mapes and Hank Bauer played 85 total games (combined) in center field while DiMaggio was injured. They were adequate there, but not of DiMaggio’s class.
1950 – Cliff Mapes would have been the center fielder, although there was a young Jackie Jensen who could have possibly played center as well.
1951 – Rookie Mickey Mantle would have patrolled center field in 1951 and then through the remainder of Ted William’s career in New York.
For the first four years of the trade, the Yankees would have had a worse defensive team without DiMaggio (and with Williams). By 1951, with Mantle, that would have changed. Of note also was the fact that DiMaggio was slowing down in those later years. He was also hurt for a significant period of time in 1949. Still, the Yankees would have been a poorer defensive team without DiMaggio and with Williams.
Batting Performance 1947-1951
But, looking at the batting stats for the years each played after the trade, we see that Ted Williams out performed Joe DiMaggio (all stats from Baseball-Reference):
GAMES: Williams (685) DiMaggio (625)
HITS: Williams (838) DiMaggio (719)
DOUBLES: Williams (175) DiMaggio (126)
TRIPLES: DiMaggio (41) Williams (20)
HOME RUNS: Williams (158) DiMaggio (117)
RUNS BATTED IN: Williams (623) DiMaggio (512)
RUNS SCORED: Williams (590) DiMaggio (451)
BATTING AVERAGE: Williams (.340) DiMaggio (.301)
ON BASE PERCENTAGE: Williams (.483) DiMaggio (.397)
SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Williams (..619) DiMaggio (.546)
OPS: Williams (1.101) DiMaggio (.943)
bWAR: Williams (38.6) DiMaggio (24.4)
When looking at these statistics, it is a slam dunk in favor of Ted Williams. It’s not even close.
If this trade had taken place, the Yankees would have absolutely benefited. Remember, DiMaggio was done after 1951. Williams put up the numbers above and then kept playing…until 1960.
The following are Ted Williams’ post Korean War seasons:
1954: .345/.513/.635 with 29 HR, 89 RBI, 136 walks
1955: .356/.496/.703 with 28 HR, 83 RBI, 91 BB
1956: .345/.479/.605 with 24 HR, 82 RBI, 102 BB
1957: .388/.526/.731 with 38 HR, 87 RBI, 119 BB
1958: .328/.458/.584 with 26 HR, 85 RBI, 98 BB
1959: .254/.372/.419 with 10 HR, 43 RBI, 52 BB
1960: .316/.451/.645 with 29 HR, 72 RBI, 75 BB
Joe DiMaggio is a Yankees legend. He was one of the greatest players ever to wear pinstripes and one of baseball’s absolute greats. He was The Great DiMaggio.
But if this trade went down, the Yankees would have gotten the better of it – by far.
Joe DiMaggio was great, but he wasn’t Ted Williams, especially in the years from 1947 on.