Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium in 1996
In 1999, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) rated the 100 greatest players of all time. Mickey Mantle finished 12th. Joe DiMaggio finished sixth.
SABR is a respected organization that is on the cutting edge of innovation with respect to modern statistics, but their rankings can be questioned. Many fans, especially today's New York Yankees fans, rate Mantle ahead of DiMaggio.
DiMaggio's peak seasons occurred consecutively from his rookie season in 1936 through 1941, when he hit in 56 consecutive games. DiMaggio had a good year in 1942, but it was well below the seasons that had preceded it.
After returning from helping to defend freedom during WWII, which cost him three seasons, DiMaggio never quite regained his earlier form.
From 1936-41, DiMaggio batted .345, had a .408 on base average, slugged .626 and averaged 33 home runs. When one projects his home run average to a 162 game season, home runs increase to 39.
Mickey Mantle didn't come into his own until 1955. Following an erratic, inconsistent rookie season in 1951, Mantle was a fine player the next three seasons and then matured.
From 1955-58, Mantle hit .331 with a .462 on base average and a .643 slugging average. He averaged 41 home runs, which increase to 46 when adjusted for a 162 game season.
The next two years were not Mantle's best, but he had excellent seasons in 1961 and 1962, hitting .319 with a .465 on base average and a .652 slugging average. He averaged 42 home runs, which increase to 50 when adjusted for 162 games.
Based on peak seasons, it is a fool's task to choose one over the other. Based on the rest of each player's career, DiMaggio gets a statistical edge, primarily because his only subpar season was 1951, when hit batted .263 with a mere 12 home runs.
Mantle's rookie year (.267/.349/.443) and three of his final four seasons were well below the norms set during his career. He batted .255 in 1965, .245 in 1967 and managed to hit only .237 in his final season.
Many fans and those in the media point out that despite his low averages, Mantle had solid on base averages during those three seasons (.379, .391 and .385), but his slugging averages (.452, .434 and .398) were unlike Mickey Mantle.
Those who saw DiMaggio play, and that number is decreasing with the passage of time, point out that DiMaggio was a far superior defensive player compared to Mantle, but one must wonder how much of that is based on legend or exaggeration.
Unlike Mantle, who played the outfield on speed and instinct, DiMaggio was exacting in his study of the hitting patterns of opposing players, and the effects of wind and ballpark peculiarities on the flight patterns of baseballs
Many writers, teammates and opponents have claimed that DiMaggio was such a natural outfielder that he never had to dive for a ball to make a catch.
In 1947, Joe was victimized in the World Series when Brooklyn's Al Gionfriddo robbed him of a potential game-tying home run by making one of the great catches in World Series history. Years later, DiMaggio spoke to a writer about the catch.
"Don't put this in the papers, but if he'd been playing me right, he'd have made it look easy."
Teammate Bobby Brown claimed that DiMaggio would have made the catch but without diving for it. That makes for good copy, but it is mere hyperbole.
DiMaggio was rarely fooled by a fly ball. He seemed to glide across the huge center field expanse of Yankee Stadium with little effort. He made the difficult seem easy, but he proved he was human during the 1936 All-Star Game.
In the second inning, Joe misplayed Gabby Hartnett's line drive into a triple, allowing Frank Demaree to score the game's first run. DiMaggio tried to make a shoestring catch, but the ball went between his legs and rolled to the wall.
DiMaggio was not a showboat. He made only the moves necessary to make the play.
He would reach the ball just as it fell into his glove, which seemed to make the catch inevitable. Baseball scribe Wilfrid Sheed wrote "In dreams I can still see him gliding after fly balls as if he were skimming the surface of the moon."
Mantle was originally a shortstop who was defensively challenged. He was switched to the outfield, where he became an above average defensive player.
Mantle had a great throwing arm, at least as good as DiMaggio's, until Red Schoendienst fell on his right shoulder on a pick off play in the 1957 World Series.
Mantle was faster than DiMaggio, but the latter was probably a better baserunner. Mantle was a much greater stolen base threat but Joe McCarthy, who was DiMaggio's manager for many years, made an interesting comment.
"He was the best baserunner I ever saw," McCarthy said. "He could have stolen 50, 60 bases a year if I let him. He wasn't the fastest man alive. He just knew how to run bases better than anybody."
No matter how one interprets the statistics and evaluates the opinions of those who saw both men play, Joe DiMaggio was just a little bit better than Mickey Mantle.