Outspoken, immensely talented, patriotic, iconoclastic, demanding, larger than life: all apply to Ted Williams, for two decades baseball’s best hitter and one of the best who ever lived. No one loved hitting more than Williams, who called hitting a pitched baseball “the hardest single feat in sports,” and no other ballplayer spent more time at his craft. Williams lost nearly five years of his career to military service in World War II and Korea but managed to hit 521 homers and average .344 for his career, only once hitting below .316. Signed at seventeen by his hometown San Diego Padres, he produced adequate numbers in the tough Pacific Coast League and then tore up the American Association at Minneapolis. Williams at age nineteen was the brash kid who irritated sportswriters and drove his early managers wild. His cocky manner and disinterest in playing the outfield in spring training of 1938 led to Williams being ragged by veteran Bosox outfielders. Farmed out to the minors, the frustrated youngster blurted, “Tell them I’m going to make more money in this game than all three of them put together” – an accurate prediction.
He arrived in the majors for good in 1939, breaking in with a double off Red Ruffing in Yankee Stadium. Williams completed the season with a .327 average, 31 homers, and a league-leading 145 RBI, the first rookie to be RBI leader. Quickly nicknamed The Splendid Splinter, he commanded attention as a natural hitter. He combined his undeniable talent with an inexhaustible eagerness for hard work where hitting was concerned. His early roommates were sometimes awakened by the pajama-clad Thumper practicing his swing in front of the hotel-room mirror.
In 1941 Williams had one of the greatest individual seasons for any ballplayer in history. At age twenty-three he hit .406, the last ballplayer to reach that magic figure, won his first home run crown, and won the All-Star Game with the most dramatic hit of his career, a ninth-inning two-out homer off Claude Passeau in Briggs Stadium. Williams was hot all season, and his goal of reaching .400 seemed assured when he was at .413 in mid-September, but by the morning of the final day of the season his average had “slumped” to .39955. Given the opportunity by manager Joe Cronin to sit out the doubleheader and save his average, which would have rounded off to .400, Williams characteristically played both games and went 6-for-8.
Williams never got along with the baseball press, particularly Boston beat reporters, whom he dubbed Knights of the Keyboard. Always something of a loner, distrustful of many of the trappings of stardom, he lived alone in a Boston hotel and sought out the company of cab drivers, bellhops, and clubhouse boys. His relationship with the press became adversarial early in his career, but it reached its flash point in 1942, when his request for military deferment attracted disapproval in the press. Williams was the sole support of his mother, a Salvation Army worker, and the notoriety attached to an unhappy family situation hardened his animosity, which lasted throughout his career.
Following the 1942 season, which produced his first Triple Crown (.356, 36 HR, 137 RBI), Williams enlisted in naval aviation and served as a flight instructor. He missed three full seasons (age 24-26). In 1946 there was a return to normalcy, both for America and for baseball. Williams rejoined an already potent Red Sox attack and commenced a five-year period that produced one pennant, one playoff loss and two last-weekend losses to the Yankees. During this stretch Williams accumulated two batting titles, two home run crowns, three RBI championships, and his second Triple Crown in 1947.
In 1946, he led the Boston juggernaut to a huge lead (at one point 16 games ahead) and belted two All-Star-Game home runs at Fenway Park, the second a blast off of Rip Sewell’s “eephus” lob. He finished the season at .342 with 38 HR and 123 RBI, and was named AL MVP. After winning the AL pennant, the Red Sox played an exhibition against an AL all-star team to stay sharp during the Dodgers-Cardinals NL playoff. Williams was hit on the elbow by a pitch from Mickey Haefner and, playing in pain, hit only .200 with one RBI in the Series as Boston lost in seven games to St. Louis.
Williams’s Series output was hobbled not only by an injury but by the Cardinals’ application of the “Williams shift,” stacking the defense on the right side of the diamond, thereby daring Williams to pull the ball. First employed by Indians manager Lou Boudreau during the middle of the ’46 season after Williams had clubbed three homers in the first game of a doubleheader, it challenged Williams by placing as many as six fielders in his hitting zone.
Although Williams occasionally went to left field – he clinched the 1946 pennant with an inside-the-park home run to left against Cleveland – more often than not he responded by driving the ball to right field. The shift became an almost standard defensive alignment against Williams in the AL, and it undoubtedly whittled his lifetime average.
His 1947 Triple Crown performance produced another slap from the sportswriters, who elected Joe DiMaggio MVP by a single vote. DiMaggio had also been named MVP in 1941 when Williams hit .406, and when Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942, New York second baseman Joe Gordon was MVP. Williams won all six of his batting titles in back-to-back pairs, and in 1948 he batted .369 as the Red Sox fell to the Indians and Gene Bearden in the AL’s first playoff. The following year produced a second MVP Award, 43 HR, a career-high 159 RBI, and an amazing 162 walks for the second time in three seasons. Williams possessed exceptional eyesight (he was allegedly able to read the label of a spinning record), and had the patience to wait for his pitch. His thorough knowledge of the strike zone produced a nearly 3-to-1 ratio of walks to strikeouts, an unheard-of statistic for a power hitter. He fanned 64 times as a rookie, and never more than 54 in any other season.
Williams had gotten off to an unusually hot start in 1950 as the Red Sox battled the Yankees for the American League lead. But the All-Star Game, which had provided Williams with his share of thrills, now robbed him of another great year. He fractured his elbow crashing into the Comiskey Park wall while catching a Ralph Kiner fly ball in the first inning, but remained in the game. He wound up missing more than sixty games because of the injury, but still managed 28 homers and 97 RBI in only 89 games. The injury jeopardized his career at age 32. Williams returned in 1951 to hit .318, but the Red Sox slid to fifth and would not challenge the Yankees again.
Williams was called up to active duty in the Korean War after six games in 1952 (with a .400 average); his service in two wars was unique for a star ballplayer. Typically, Williams left with a bang, homering off of Dizzy Trout in his final at-bat on Ted Williams Day at Fenway Park. Unlike many wartime ballplayers, who continued to play baseball for service teams while in uniform, Williams was a pilot and flew combat missions over Korea. Hit by small-arms fire during one run, Williams crash-landed his crippled jet and escaped from the flaming wreckage. Shortly thereafter he contracted pneumonia and was sent stateside after thirty-nine missions.
At age 35, a veteran of two wars, Williams appeared finished; but he homered off Mike Garcia in his first Fenway appearance in 1953 and proceeded to hit .407 for his 37-game season. Included in his feat were 13 home runs and a .901 slugging average – an incredible pace for a veteran whose spring training had been spent inside a fighter plane.
The 1950s included well-chronicled instances of the Williams temper: spitting at the pressbox during a home run trot (he was fined $5,000 by owner Tom Yawkey, although the fine was never paid), flipping his bat into the stands after a strikeout and hitting an elderly woman on the head (she turned out to be Joe Cronin’s housekeeper), and a multitude of tirades at the press. Opinionated, and not one to suffer fools gladly, he was his own man and cut a solitary path through the decade. Yet his concern for charitable causes was legendary in Boston and his efforts on behalf of the Jimmy Fund, a New England organization combating children’s cancer, were numerous, often unpublicized, and made from the heart. A complex man, Williams was refreshingly human.
Williams continued to play through the 1950s, although his body protested the daily demands. He broke his collarbone diving for a ball in spring training in 1954, missed much of the 1955 campaign with an assortment of injuries, and spent an increasing amount of time fighting nagging aches and pains. There were triumphs, too. Williams’s longevity had propelled him to remarkable lifetime power totals and he maintained his high average, hitting no lower than .345 his first four seasons back from Korea. He missed two more batting titles in 1954-55 due to the eligibility rules of the day, which counted at-bats, not plate appearances. In 1954, Williams hit .345 in only 386 at-bats, but was also walked 136 times. Bobby Avila won the title with a .341 average.
In fact, Williams had announced his retirement in a national magazine article just before the 1954 season, to take place at the end of the campaign. His plans were changed by a chance encounter with the most important baseball fan in history, Eddie Mifflin, at the Baltimore train station in July of that year. Mifflin persuaded Williams that retiring at that point would leave him short of the commanding lifetime numbers necessary to assure Hall of Fame election on the first ballot. His successful appeal was responsible for some of the most remarkable hitting performances by an older player in the history of the game.
His 1957 campaign was arguably the greatest season ever by a veteran player. He hit .388 at age 39, had 38 homers (only 87 RBI), and missed hitting .400 by five leg hits that a younger player might have had. In the second half of the season he batted .453. Williams’s charge to reach .400, sixteen years after first attaining that elusive figure, captured the nation’s attention, and his popularity reached an all-time high. He finished second to Mickey Mantle in the MVP balloting.
Although his average “slumped” sixty points the following season, he still won the batting crown, rallying to overtake teammate Pete Runnels during the last weekend of 1958.
Bothered by a stiff neck and other pains, Williams had his worst season in 1959. He hit .254 with only 10 homers, and appeared finished to many. He was even advised to quit by Tom Yawkey. “That burned my ass,” he recounted in his autobiography My Turn at Bat. Clearly Williams felt that he should not conclude his career with a .254 swan song. Instead, he finished strong in 1960, batting .316, with 29 homers. His final at-bat produced his 521st homer.
Retired from the game, Williams became a full-time fisherman. He was easily elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966, his first year of eligibility. Then Williams surprised nearly everyone in baseball when in 1969 he became manager of the Washington Senators. Ignoring critics who said he wouldn’t have the patience to deal with ordinary ballplayers, Williams brought his first team in at 86-76, a 21-game improvement over the previous year. For this feat he was voted Manager of the Year. It was his high-water mark and Williams resigned in 1972 when his team, now in Texas, had slumped to 54-100.
A generation after retirement Ted Williams is still regarded as the epitome of hitting. “I want people to say `There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived’,” he wrote in My Turn at Bat. (PB/MS)