A Distinguished Phil Rizzuto
Following the 1949 season, Ted Williams made some statements that were highly respected at the time, but which would be ridiculed today.
In 1949, the New York Yankees won the first of what would turn into five consecutive World Championships. Their shortstop was Phil Rizzuto.
Trailing the Boston Red Sox by one game with two left to play, the Yankees beat the Red Sox twice to win the pennant, and went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.
Ted Williams was upset. Winners are always upset when they or their team loses.
Ted Williams was on first base in the first inning of the first of the two game. He was held close to the bag by Tommy Henrich.
Williams pointed toward shortstop. "If we had that little squirt we'd be out in front by 10 games right now."
The shortstop Williams was referring to was Phil Rizzuto. The Boston shortstop was Vern "Junior" Stephens. The statistics were not even close.
In 1949, Stephens hit .290. Rizzuto hit .275,
Stephens hit 39 home runs and batted in 159. Rizzuto hit five home runs and batted in 64.
Those were the primary statistics used at the time to compare players. Modern statistics favor Stephens even more.
Vern had a .391 on base average and slugged .539 with an .872 OPS.
Rizzuto had a .352 on base average and slugged all of .358 with a a .711 OPS.
Today, anyone who compares the 1949 Phil Rizzuto to the 1949 Vern Stephens and concludes that Rizzuto was more valuable would be a laughing stock, but that graphically illustrates the fact that statistics must be interpreted within a specific context.
During their record streak of five consecutive World Championships, the Yankees never had the best player in the league and they never had the best pitcher, but they had 25 good to excellent players who played together as a team. What statistic measures that?
Few individuals knew more about hitting than Ted Williams, but Williams knew what it took for a team to win. As a member of the Boston Red Sox, he was quite familiar with going fishing while the Yankees played in the World Series.
What was it that made Williams realize that RIzzuto was more valuable that Stephens? Rizzuto was a "team" player. It was believed that Stephens was not.
There is more to a championship team than statistics.
Stephens had a great season, but he struck out more than twice as many times as Rizzuto (73 to 34). In 2011, a strikeout is considered just another out until there is a runner on third with less than two outs in a crucial situation.
The chances of getting the run home were better with Rizzuto hitting than with Stephens hitting.
Defensively, Stephens was often spectacular, but he was less consistent than Rizzuto, who had greater range.
Williams was not the only one who realized the difference Rizzuto made.
Tommy Henrich considered him the Yankees most valuable player. When Henrich was hurt in early August, he said "We'll still win if Rizzuto doesn't get hurt."
Ted Williams was the 1949 American League MVP, garnering 81 percent of the possible votes. Guess who finished second with his .275 batting average and five home runs.
Rizzuto received 52 percent of the possible votes. Vern Stephens finished seventh with only 30 percent of the possible votes.
But the clincher came from Stephens' own team. After the season, the Red Sox let it be known that they were willing to trade Stephens.
Cobbledick, Gordon. "Why It's Rizzuto Over Stephens." Baseball Digest. Apr. 1950. p. 67.