I once bumped into Ted Williams. Not figuratively or metaphorically but literally bumped into him. Our interactions with sporting greats are often fleeting and this was no exception. Outside the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1986 as part of the inauguration festivities I was waiting in line to enter the museum I stepped back into the path of an elderly gentleman who just said “Excuse me son”. I apologised, let him pass by and looked at my friend who had an astonished look on his face. “That was Ted Williams” he said. At that stage my knowledge of baseball greats was quite limited and unless they were called Ruth, Mantle, Berra or Gehrig then chances are I hadn’t heard of them. My friend, a baseball nut and Red Sox fan, proceeded to elaborate on who Ted Williams was and that I should feel privileged to have bumped into greatness – and next time to please get out of Mr Williams’ way a little sooner. Later on I got the chance to look at the Ted Williams plaque in the Hall and to read for myself the achievements of the man they called the ‘Splendid Splinter’.
It takes someone very sure of their own abilities, or perhaps to be very cocky, to say when aged just 20, “All that I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived'”. For most that would be an impossible aspiration to live up to but Ted Williams was no ordinary man. He remains the last man to hit over .400 in a regular season, recording an average of .406 in 1941. Many have flirted with .400 since then, notably George Brett and Tony Gwynn, but it is a testimony to the game of baseball that in over 70 years, not one hitter has avoided failure less than 6 times out of ten.
Born in San Diego in 1918 Ted excelled at baseball from an early age and signed his first professional contract whilst in High School with his hometown Padres, at that time in the Pacific Coast League. There he was spotted by the Red Sox GM Eddie Collins and Williams signed with the Red Sox in 1938. He spent one year in the minors with the Minneapolis Millers where he was fortunate to have ex Cardinal great Rogers Hornsby as his hitting coach. Being tutored by one of the greatest hitters of all time can only help you become one of the greatest hitters of all time. A great hitter knows the strike zone, which pitches to leave and which to swing at and it was this discipline that served Williams all through his career. This slavish devotion to knowing the strike zone, his capacity not to swing at pitches outside of it and even then if a pitch did come into the strike zone to only swing at those which he thought he could drive, led to a career walks percentage of over 20% and a career OBP of .482. In this latter stat he ranks the No.1 all time and this, for me, is his greatest achievement. Such became his reputation that an opposing catcher who once complained to an umpire about a pitch being called a ball rather than a strike was met with the response from the umpire, “If Mr Williams didn’t swing at it then it wasn’t a strike”.
After tearing it up in the minors his arrival in Boston was greatly heralded and the brash and cocky kid from California didn’t disappoint. In his first year in the majors in 1939 he hit .327 with 31 homers driving in a league leading 145 runs and he also ranked 2nd in the AL in walks and 1st in total bases. The year after his batting average improved to .344 but ranked first in on base percentage and runs scored. Then came 1941 and the magical .406 season. Entering the last day of the season his average was .3996 which would be rounded up to .400 and Williams was given the option of sitting out the last day when the Red Sox were playing a double header against the Philadelphia Athletics. He chose to play, went 6 for 8 over the two games and secured the .400 mark. Contrast that attitude with Jose Reyes who went into the last game of the 2011 season with the Mets with a slender advantage in the batting title race, got a hit to lead off the game and then sat out the rest of the game to secure his lead. That was his last game in a Mets uniform (ed. Correct for the original post in 2014) and the New York fans deserved better in my opinion.
In 1942 he got even better leading the league in batting average, home runs, RBI (the triple crown), walks, runs, on base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases and OPS. That was to be the last baseball he would play until 1946 as the league was suspended during World War 2. Williams trained as a pilot, becoming an instructor and was eventually based out of Pearl Harbour. Whilst he never saw combat at that stage the training was to prove itself later when he was called up during the Korean War in 1952 and 1953 and flew in 39 combat missions, even crash landing on one of the earlier ones. When looking at his overall career it is remarkable that he put up the sort of numbers he did when he effectively missed 5 seasons due to military service. What he could have achieved had he got those 5 seasons back is only to be imagined.
Reporting for baseball duty in 1946 Williams (again leading the league in OBP, total bases and runs and being named league MVP) led the Red Sox to the World Series and this was to be his only time playing in the Fall Classic. However playing in an exhibition game to keep loose prior to the World Series he injured his elbow and this was to hamper him significantly. He batted .200 during the Series and the Red Sox lost to the Cardinals in 7 games. He attempted to put the disappointment behind him in the following year with his second Triple Crown year (.343, 32 HR’s, 114 RBI). It’s interesting to me that in 1941 (the .406 season), the two years that he won the Triple Crown (1942 and 1947) and again in 1957 he only placed 2nd in MVP voting. In each season he lost out to a Yankee (including Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio twice) and in each season, in my opinion, Williams’ stats were significantly better. In each of those seasons however the Yankees won the AL pennant and it seems that the term ‘Most Valuable’ at that time really only applied to individuals helping their team to a pennant. But this was to be a consistent problem throughout his career. No matter how brilliant Williams was, the Red Sox, by and large throughout his career, were no match for the Yankees who were by far the dominant AL team during this period.
In 1949 Williams missed out on what would have been an unprecedented third Triple Crown losing the batting title by just one ten-thousandth of a point, although as some slight compensation he did win his second and final MVP award. In the following year he once again was having a tremendous season hitting 25 HR’s with 83 RBI before he shattered his elbow during the All Star game. That ended his season and he said later that he never recovered as a hitter. After his return from the Korean War he progressively lost more games through injury but still maintained his high standards hitting no lower than .345 from 1954 to 1956. In 1957, aged 38 he rolled back the years hitting a league leading .388 with 38 home runs leading the league also in on base percentage (0.526) and slugging percentage (0.731).
Williams eventually retired in 1960 after an illustrious career with the following achievements:
- Career batting average of .344, on base percentage of .482 (leader all time) and slugging percentage of .634 (OPS – 1.116)
- Hit 521 Home Runs and 1,839 RBI
- Won Triple Crown twice
- Two MVP awards and runner up four times
- Won AL batting title 6 times, AL in on base percentage 12 times and slugging percentage 9 times.
What of Ted Williams the man? His self confidence often led to a turbulent relationship with the press and he had long running feuds with many of the hacks from the Boston press box. He took criticism very much to heart and admitted that he could hear one loud detractor in a crowd over many more cheering fans. He admitted later in life that he let such critics get to him (Boston, like New York, is a tough crowd) and throughout his career he never tipped his cap to fans. By his own admission he was a complicated man, perhaps borne out by his three failed marriages, and later in life to a biographer he described himself as being ” a lousy husband and a crummy father”. He was loud and boisterous with a booming voice, never short of an opinion and his personality was such that he was loved and hated in equal measure. The same man however used his Hall of Fame acceptance speech to make an impassioned plea for the Hall to recognise the Negro League ball players who had not been allowed to play in the majors prior to 1947. It took the Red Sox until 1959 to add a black man to their roster (Pumpsie Green) and Williams immediately chose him as his throwing partner. Prior to his final season in 1960, and coming off a relatively poor year he insisted that the Red Sox cut his pay by 30% due to that underperformance – he simply felt that he had not earned the money he was paid. Hard to see some of the present day players doing that. He retired in 1960 but not with a farewell tour or banquet dinners, making his final stop in Boston visiting a dying child suffering from leukemia, a cause to which he had devoted some efforts to since the late 1940’s.
After retiring as a player, he was elected on his first ballot to the Hall of Fame and later became manager of the Washington Senators – not unexpectedly, they immediately showed a dramatic improvement in their hitting. He remained with the Senators until 1972 staying with them during their move to Texas where they became the Rangers but then left as the team failed to improve further. Hitters like Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski sought him out when they had hitting problems and Yaz later recounted that Williams constantly drummed into him the importance of knowing his strike zone – Yaz later went on to win his own Triple Crown. Ted also wrote a book named ‘The Science of Hitting’ demonstrating his approach to the game and the book has remained in print ever since. The reverence with which he is held in baseball was demonstrated most notably during the 1999 All Star game held at Fenway Park when he was driven in a cart around the field to be surrounded by the current players many, like Mark McGwire and Derek Jeter, seemingly giddy with excitement at the prospect of meeting him. He received a standing ovation lasting several minutes – and he finally tipped his hat to a crowd. In his retirement he spent much of his time pursuing his other lifelong passion of salmon fishing and was even named to the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame in 2000 – it must be rare for one man to be named to two Halls of Fame in a lifetime.
Ted Williams died in July 2002 following a cardiac arrest although his health had been deteriorating for some time. Even in death however he made headlines as he requested that his remains be cryogenically frozen – this became a matter of an intense legal fight between members of his family regarding the authenticity of this wish. It is for his hitting though that he should be remembered as was his wish when uttering that fateful statement when aged 20. In later life he was asked if he felt that he had achieved his aim of being the greatest hitter who ever lived. His reply was that he himself considered Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to hold that honour but that to be mentioned in the same sentence as those greats was an honour in itself for the older, wiser Ted Williams.
It is always difficult to judge the greatness of sporting legends from different eras but it’s clear from his numbers that he was one of the greatest hitters who ever lived and if that street happened to be in Boston then my guess is that the comments would be that he was the greatest. At the very least he’s the greatest hitter that I have ever bumped into.