By Paul C. Smith
Baseball fans all over the world today are tipping their caps and saying, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."
Ted Williams is dead at the age of 83.
Williams, who suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years, was taken Friday to Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, Fla., where he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:49 a.m., hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Martin said. He had undergone open-heart surgery in January 2001 and had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000.
"The Splendid Splinter" was the last man to hit .400 in Major League Baseball. Also known during his 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox as "The Kid" and "The Thumper," he set the standard for rookie performances in 1939. He won baseball's elite Triple Crown twice, in 1942 and 1947. And he was the American League MVP in 1946 and 1949.
Williams used incredible discipline, 20/10 eyesight and quick, strong wrists to win six American League batting championships, hit 521 home runs, play in 18 All-Star Games and finish with a .344 lifetime batting average.
He led the American League in runs scored six times, home runs and RBIs four times, walks eight times, and slugging percentage seven times. He also struck out only 709 times in 7706 career at-bats. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, receiving an almost unheard of 93.38 percent of the possible votes (282 out of 302) in his first year eligible.
No wonder fans could only imagine what he would have accomplished if he hadn't missed nearly five seasons because of military service and two major injuries.
"I've always loved to hit," Williams said. "And from the first day I set foot in Fenway Park, I wanted to show everyone that I was the kind of hitter who belonged with the best in the game -- names like Foxx, DiMaggio and Greenberg."
It was at age 20 that he first said: "All I want out of life is that, when I walk down the street, folks will say, there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."
In 1971, Williams wrote "The Science of Hitting," a book baseball coaches still consider the bible of fundamental hitting. Many stars, such as former Padre Tony Gwynn, swear they learned how to properly hit a baseball by taking it from Ted.
"The most important thing about hitting I learned from Rogers Hornsby,'' Williams said. "And that was to wait for a good ball to hit. It sounds simple, but many players today simply can not or do not wait for a good pitch."
Williams will long be remembered not just as a Hall of Fame baseball player. He also was a military hero and an accomplished sports fisherman.
He was born Theodore Samuel Williams on August 30, 1918, in San Diego, California. He grew up with a bat in his hands. Unlike his father, Sam, he didn't smoke or drink. And Ted disliked chit-chatting, so he spent lots of time perfecting his swing. He would work on that swing inside, outside, day or night, rain or shine. His left-handed stance always started with his feet exactly 27 inches apart and the bat, by the end of his career, had to be a well-tended 33 ounces. They were often weighed for accuracy. His bats also never touched the ground, lest they accumulate moisture.
Williams got much of his perseverence from his mother, May, a well-driven Salvation Army missionary. Young Ted often accompanied his mother on her missions to bars and brothels in San Diego and Tijuana and witnessed the zeal with which she worked.
In his youth, Williams was a playground baseball legend. Then he led his high school, Hoover High, to a state championship. The scouts took early notice of the 6-foot-4, 190-pound outfielder.
When the Red Sox signed him, they sent him to play for his hometown San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. It was there at Lane Field, as legend has it, that Williams hit a home run so far over the right field fence that it landed in an empty boxcar in a train headed for Los Angeles.
Not too long after, Williams was headed for Boston.
In his rookie season of 1939, he hit .327 with 31 homers and 145 RBIs, easily the top batting statistics ever for a rookie. Quickly, he became a hero in a city known for its dedicated, enthusiastic and intelligent fans. As the new favorite of Bostonians, young and old, and even the media, he spent many a day tipping his cap to their ovations.
But during the offseason after his first year, Williams' parents divorced. He decided to avoid the pain of that situation and stayed in Minneapolis with his future wife, Doris Soule.
Once the conservative Boston media got wind of that situation, combined with Williams' slow start at the plate in 1940, he became increasingly unpopular.
It was then that Williams decided he did not trust the boys in the press. And he stopped tipping his cap for the fans when he did start hitting again. He was heckled and ridiculed and, late in the season, he stated that he no longer liked Boston and wanted out.
That fired up the media even more, and some of Williams' teammates. But other players stood up for him and stopped talking to the media altogether. Williams finished with another great year (.344, 23 homers and 113 RBIs) but the damage to his image was done. And, one of the other things Ted Williams will always be known for, was stubborness. He could hold a grudge as tightly as anyone.
His relationship with baseball writers, who voted on the major awards, probably cost him at least one MVP Award, in 1947, when one Boston sportswriter left him off the ballot completely. Williams lost by one vote.
Of course, in 1941, Williams put together one of the finest seasons ever by a professional player. But it also happened to be the year of the incredible 56-game hitting streak by Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees.
On the next to the last day of the year, Williams was hitting .3995, which would have rounded up to .400 and been the first time since 1923 that an American League player (Detroit's Harry Heilmann) would have attained that magical number.
Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered to let Williams sit out a double-header on the last day of the season to guarantee the mark. But, after staying up all night thinking about the decision, he said, "The record's no good unless it's made in all the games."
Williams went 6-for-8 in the double-header and raised his average to .406.
The next year, the United States was engaged in World War II. Williams was listed as draft status 1-A but received a deferment because his mother depended on him for support. Once again, he got heat from the fans and media in Boston.
Eventually, he enlisted in the Navy reserves and learned to fly. In three years, he never made it into battle.
Williams returned to baseball in 1946, hitting a home run in his first at-bat of the season. He was the league's MVP that year despite often facing, "the Williams Shift" with the opposing team's defense aligned with most of it players on the right side of the field. Williams, a strong pull hitter, clinched the Red Sox's first pennant in 28 years by hitting an inside-the-park home run to a vacated left field.
He won another batting title in 1948 (.369) and was MVP again in 1949. But he still refused to tip his hat to the Boston fans. However, he started doing charity work with kids with cancer and the infamous Jimmy Fund, which raised money for medical research at a Boston hospital.
Williams broke his elbow in the 1950 All-Star Game but still came back to hit 28 homers and drive in 97 runs, in 334 at-bats.
In 1952, the U.S. was in the Korean Conflict amd Williams was headed back to the military. This time, he was chosen to fly with future astronaut and senator John Glenn. Williams was awarded many medals for his 39 missions but lost some of his hearing because of the gunnery noise.
After leaving the military in 1953, he wasn't sure he wanted to play baseball again. But he was asked to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game and the thunderous ovation helped him change his mind.
He played in 37 games that season, without any Spring Training, and hit .407, but didn't qualify for the batting title.
In 1954, he broke his collarbone early in Spring Training and missed a third of the season but still finished with 29 homers and a .345 average.
The rest of the '50s, he continued to hit, including leading the league in batting average in 1957 (.388) and 1958 (.328). Then, in 1959, at the age of 40, he hit .254. That was his only season batting under .300. And he couldn't end his career that way.
The next season, at 41, he hit .316 with 29 homers and 72 RBIs. He homered in his final at-bat in Fenway but, despite the urging of the fans, players and even the media, refused to tip his cap.
In 1969, he went to work for the Washington Senators and was voted Manager of the Year. That career lasted four years, including a franchise move to Texas to become the Rangers.
After that, he got married and divorced twice more, and had two children (John Henry, born in 1968, and Claudia, born in 1971). He also went fishing a lot and founded Hitter.net with his son.
He had two strokes and a broken hip but still found time to make regular visits to his Hitters Hall of Fame in his new hometown of Hernando. Fla. Last year, the well-stocked museum, built in the shape of a baseball diamond, celebrated the 60th anniversary of Williams hitting .406.
On the 50th anniversary, in 1991, the Red Sox held "Ted Williams Day" at Fenway Park. The legendary hitter gave a speech that mentioned his true love for Boston's fans but that he never really showed his appreciation.
"When I finally consented to do this, I started to think, 'What am I going to say?'" Williams said. "Then I thought it might be nice to tip my hat."
But Williams realized he didn't have a Red Sox hat.
He asked Jeff Reardon to borrow one. But the former Boston reliever refused because it was the only hat he had.
"I'll give it back in a minute," Williams snarled.
And, with that, the greatest hitter who ever lived, tipped his hat to all his fans.
Paul C. Smith is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.