Gwynn, Brett, others have challenged the 1941 mark, but it's the last .400 on record
By Matt Kelly
Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the culmination of Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak, as the Yankees star went 0-for-3 against Cleveland pitchers Al Smith and Jim Bagby on July 17, 1941.
But while Joltin' Joe's record run captured the imagination of the American public, his friendly rival, Ted Williams, may have set an even more untouchable mark when he finished that 1941 season with a .406 average.
Consider this: While DiMaggio batted .409 during his streak, Williams actually bested him with a .412 average during that same span. In the last three-quarters of a century, no player has had the same kind of consistency needed reach just the .400 plateau, let alone tie Williams' .406.
To put it in contemporary terms, think of it this way: If Daniel Murphy, the Majors' current batting average leader at .348, were to finish with 584 at-bats this season (his average over the last three years), he would have to hit roughly .472(117-for-248) the rest of the way to join Williams in the .400 club. The best Murphy has ever hit over a full second half of a season was .307 in 2013.
To picture just how tough a time hitters have had trying to match Teddy Ballgame's .406, here's a look at the 10 players who have come the closest to reaching .400, in order of their season-ending average, over the last 75 years:
1. Tony Gwynn, 1994: .394
Many who watched Mr. Padre during the 1994 season will still argue that he could have topped .400 if his season hadn't been cut short by the players' strike in mid-August. Indeed, Gwynn was heating up, hitting .420 (50-for-119) in his last 30 games before the strike. Though Gwynn would not see his average rise above .400 after May 15, he would also not see it dip below .376 after April, suggesting that he was consistent enough to stay in the chase until the very end. (Fun fact: A year earlier, John Olerud was still hitting .400 as of August 2, but he slumped down the stretch and finished with a .363 mark in 1993.)
Last date at .400: May 15
How short was he? We'll never know how many total at-bats Gwynn would have ended up with if his 1994 season had gone to completion, but he would have needed just three more hits to finish at .400 during his strike-shortened campaign.
2. George Brett, 1980: .390
The greatest hitter in Royals history actually began the 1980 campaign 1-for-7, and did not see his average rise above .300 until his last game of May. But after a red-hot summer, Brett woke up on the morning of Sept. 20 with an even .400 average -- the latest date that anyone on this list was at or above the magical mark. He would bat a more human-like .304 over his final 13 games to finish five hits shy of history.
Last day at .400: Sept. 19
How short was he? Five hits shy of .400.
T3. Rod Carew, 1977: .388
Carew and Williams each batted .388 exactly two decades apart, but we'll start with Carew, who maintained a .400-plus average into July en route to his sixth career batting title. Carew saw his average drop to .374 on Aug. 26, but the eventual American League MVP made one last run, batting .441 over his final 31 games to finish seven hits shy of .400.
Last day at .400: July 10
How short was he? Seven hits shy of .400.
T3. Ted Williams, 1957: .388
A full 16 years later, Williams proved he had plenty of magic left in his bat in 1957. The Splendid Splinter posted the highest single-season batting average in the modern era by a player 38 years of age or older -- 10 points higher than 38-year old Ty Cobb's .378 in 1925. At season's end, Williams was five hits shy of .400 and eight knocks shy of besting his trademark .406.
Last day at .400: June 5
How short was he? Five hits shy of joining himself in the .400 club.
4. Larry Walker, 1999: .379
Two seasons after claiming the NL MVP Award, Walker followed up with his best season at the plate by average. There is one major qualification to Walker's 1999 season, which is that his average in the thin home air at Coors Field (.461) was a full 175 points higher than his clip on the road (.286). At season's end, Walker stood nine hits shy of history.
Last day at .400: May 26
How short was he? Nine hits shy of .400.
5. Stan Musial, 1948: .376
Vin Scully once said that Musial was "good enough to take your breath away," and in 1948 he reached perhaps his most dizzying heights. The Cardinals star missed out on the NL Triple Crown by just one home run, and he hit remarkably better on the road (.415) than at home (.334) that season.
Last day at .400: July 11
How short was he? 14 hits shy of .400.
T6. Nomar Garciaparra, 2000: .372
Four players posted a .372 average in their chase of Williams from 1997-2004, one of the best offensive eras in baseball history. We'll start with Garciaparra, who carried a .400-plus average longer than anyone else (July 20) in the quartet and, fittingly, came the closest in this group to matching the Red Sox legend.
Last day at .400: July 20
How short was he? 15 hits shy of .400.
T6. Gwynn, 1997: .372
In his second chase of Williams, Gwynn flirted with the .400 mark until the middle of July, and remained above .390 until the middle of August, sparking hope that this could be the time he made history. But with a full season at his disposal this time, Gwynn tailed off down the stretch, batting .328 over the final two months of the season.
Last day at .400: July 14
How short was he? 17 hits shy of .400.
T6. Todd Helton, 2000 .372
One year after Walker ignited the Rocky Mountains with his .400 chase, teammate Helton gave it a try. Helton's average remained at .390 all the way through Sept. 3, but a .284 average over Helton's final 26 games dropped him off the historic pace.
Hard as it is to believe, Ichiro actually did not spend a single day of his 2004 season at or above .400. He went on a mid-summer tear, batting .432 in July and .463 in August, but simply had too much ground to make up at season's end. It's hard to knock him for effort, however, seeing as collected 262 hits to break George Sisler's 84-year-old record that season.
Last day at .400: N/A.
How short was he? 20 hits shy of .400.
It's been 16 years since we've even seen a hitter sit above .380 at the All-Star break, signifying that the chances of seeing anyone break the .400 barrier in a season may be getting slimmer and slimmer. Though Williams' .406 average was just a footnote in wire-service accounts in 1941, it's status grows more mythical with each passing year.
"It was something that required a kind of nonstop consistency," Williams said on the 50th anniversary of the feat in 1991. "If I had known hitting .400 was going to be such a big deal, I would have done it again."
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.