Greatest hitter ever? He's up there with Ruth
Ted Williams' place in baseball history is indisputable. He was the best left-handed hitter in the second half of the 20th Century, certainly the best since Babe Ruth and was obsessed with the art of hitting. It was his life-long passion. He was the "Einstein" of the batting profession and turned it into a science.
From the beginning, Williams worked tirelessly to excel. Early in his career he announced that his main ambition was to have people say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived." Some of his critics eventually acknowledged that he reached that lofty goal.
"When I grew up in San Diego," Williams once said, "I played baseball every day. I hit day and night. People said, 'Look, he's a natural.' It wasn't that. You've got to practice
He had a 19-year big league career, all with the Boston Red Sox, twice interrupted by his war service, and was the last and youngest .400 hitter -- .406 in 1941 at the age of 23, his third full major league season. Even the Babe never hit .400.
For two years Williams played in pain with a fractured collarbone pinned by a long silver spike. Yankee manager Casey Stengel, one of his great admirers, suggested "When the doctors take that pin out of his shoulder, they should send it to Cooperstown. That's where it belongs."
In every statistical analysis measuring all-around batting ability, hitting with power and for average, Ruth and Williams ranked first and second. Williams' lifetime .344 average is sixth among players with 4,000 at-bats; his .634 slugging average is second to Ruth, and his .483 on-base percentage is the highest ever.
But Theodore Samuel Williams was more than a great ballplayer. Like John Wayne, America's most admired celluloid hero, Williams was a star -- on land, on the sea, and in the air. He hurried in defense of his country and was a decorated Marine Corps pilot during World War II and again in the Korean conflict, and was among the leading fly fishermen of his time. Unlike John Wayne, Williams wasn't posing. He never played for the camera.
He was, in essence, a one-dimensional player, the only .400 hitter who didn't run fast. At best, he was a middling outfielder with an ordinary arm, and failed to distinguish himself in his four seasons as Major League manager.
But his curiosity was endless. He wanted to know how Nap Lajoie hit, how Rogers Hornsby stood at the plate, how the Babe gripped the bat, how Shoeless Joe Jackson swung his hips and turned his hands. He was a successful example of the Puritan work ethic and at the end of his career wrote "The Science of Hitting," a manual that has been studied by generations of hitters.
He was known variously as "The Kid," the "Splendid Splinter," "Teddy Ballgame," "The Thumper," and "Terrible Ted," an appellation hung on him by some of the Boston baseball writers in an attempt to portray him as a petulant adult who never outgrew his adolescence. Harold Kaese of the Boston Globe wrote that a man didn't qualify as a baseball writer until he had probed the Williams psyche.
His defining moment was on the final day of the 1941 season. He was batting .438 in June and .414 in mid-August. Going into a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics, he was hitting .3995, which rounded out to .400. No one had hit .400 or better since Bill Terry in 1930.
Williams could have benched himself and protected his average. Joe Cronin, his manager, and several teammates encouraged him to sit out. But Williams was in quest of immortality. "If I'm a .400 hitter," he told Cronin, "I'm a .400 hitter for the whole season, not for part of one."
He played both games and went six-for-eight to end up at .406, a demonstration of courage and his supreme confidence in his ability. He knocked out four hits in five trips in the first game and was two-for-three in the second game. One of his hits was a home run, his 37th of the year.
He won six batting titles, lost a seventh to Detroit's George Kell by a fraction of a percentage point. Kell batted .34291, Williams .34275. Williams also led the league in hitting in 1954 and 1955 but walks and injuries deprived him of the minimum four hundred at-bats needed to qualify for the batting title. He led the league in home runs and RBIs four times, won two Triple Crowns, and the Most Valuable Player award in 1946 when he led the Red Sox to their first pennant in 28 years.
"If he has any weakness, it's his anxiety to hit the ball," said manager Paul Richards. "He loves to hit and is afraid he'll be walked."
No one has offered a conclusive explanation of how his feud with the Boston press began. More than likely it was his refusal to cooperate and sit for interviews. Whatever, Williams paid the price. In 1947, he lost the MVP award by one point, 202 to 201, behind the taciturn Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees, his only rival. Earl Webb, a veteran Boston writer, should have disqualified himself from the 20-man voting committee. He had had a season-long feud with Williams and refused to include him among his 10 nominees. Had he listed him tenth Williams would have been the co-MVP with DiMaggio. A ninth-place vote would have put him ahead.
Four years earlier, in 1942, Williams won the Triple Crown, leading the league in average, home runs and runs batted in. He also led in total bases, slugging percentage and walks. But second baseman Joe Gordon of the triumphant Yankees, who hit .322 with only 88 runs driven in, won the MVP, 270 points to 249.
Williams, who hit a home run in his last time at-bat, had a career total of 521 home runs, at that time third behind Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. It was a remarkable achievement considering Fenway Park, a paradise for right-handed hitters but death valley for left-handers -- 382-feet to right-center. He drew 2,018 walks, only 38 fewer than Ruth.
His strikeout ratio, for a power-hitter, was equally astonishing, less than one for every 10 at-bats and believed to be the result of his rare plate discipline and keen batting eye. While in the service, his eyes tested at 20/10, better than the normal 20/20. His left eye was stronger. When he was a boy he was struck in the right eye by a walnut.
Once he was asked if it was true that he could see the ball as it hit the bat.
"Hell, no!" Williams replied. "And I couldn't see the seams, but in the last 20 feet I could see which way it was spinning."
Williams missed the equivalent of five full seasons, in his prime, in the military. Bob Kuenster, managing editor of Baseball Digest, estimated that if Williams had played without interruption he would have hit 677 home runs which would lift him into third place on the all-time list, behind only Ruth and Hank Aaron.
Kuenster also reported that Williams' 1941 average would have been .411, not .406, if the sacrifice fly rule, which had been in and out of the rulebook, had been in effect. He hit six long flies that drove in a runner from third.
From the beginning to the end, Williams refused to tip his cap to the fans, the traditional salute following a home run. Once, in an Arizona Spring Training game, he removed his cap as he was crossing the plate.
Hy Hurwitz of the Boston Globe rushed to the clubhouse to inquire what prompted the act. Williams insisted he didn't tip his cap, that he was wiping the sweat from his brow.
Hurwitz returned to the press box and wrote, "It wasn't the humility. It was the humidity."
Jerome Holtzman is the official historian for Major League Baseball and a frequent contributor to MLB.com.