Until his death in 1999, four years after Mantle’s passing, DiMaggio had a contractual deal at every appearance that he would be introduced as “the greatest living ballplayer,” even in the presence of Mick, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron and others.
But a new book, DiMag & Mick: Sibling Rivals, Yankee Blood Brothers, has produced a retrospective on baseball’s legends, in particular DiMaggio and Mantle.
“If you could magically teleport him to today’s game,’’ says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, about DiMaggio, “he would not be the same player. In 1969 he was voted baseball’s greatest living player. Today we would find that hilarious, considering that Ted Williams and Willie Mays were alive at the time.”
What makes this re-assessment possible, says author Tony Castro, is the evolution of analytics in baseball, particularly defensive metrics in this case.
“There is this image of the Yankee Clipper sailing so gracefully in the outfield that he never had to dive for a ball,” says Thorn. “But the reality is that his contemporaries recorded more putouts.
“There is a trend toward baseball analytics now and the more you apply them, the more you chip away at the DiMaggio myth,” continued Thorn, elaborating on DiMaggio who would have turned 100 last year. “On his 100th birthday you can still call him an all-time great but he was not the peerless center fielder he was made out to be.”
On the other hand, says Thorn, under sabermetrics, Mickey Mantle “looks great” and possibly closer to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a different era.
“Their reality is closer to the myth,” says Thorn. “They were all greater players than DiMaggio in my estimation.”