A perfect swing from an imperfect man
By Jim Street
A picture-perfect swing developed through endless hours of practice made Ted Williams one of the greatest hitters who ever lived. At the same time, a less-than-ideal attitude developed during numerous years of butting heads with fans and sportswriters made him a royal pain in the you-know-where.
There never seemed to be any gray area with Ted Williams. Either you adored him, or you disliked him.
As the baseball world remembers the last Major League player to hit at least .400 -- he batted.406 in 1941 -- both sides of the man emerge loud and clear. He could turn on the charm for a youngster or teammate and be a hero and friend for life. And he could just as easily ignore his Boston Red Sox fans wanting a tip of the cap, or a sportswriter wanting an interview, and become viewed as a non-appreciative jerk.
"I was a teammate of his for seven years and he was the most humble and nice guy I ever met," former Red Sox teammate Mickey McDermott said. "For whatever reason, I had a good rapport with him, better than most. He lived in a tunnel, so to speak, and didn't let many people in."
Most of those who entered Williams' world were either hitters or fishermen. He had a passion for both and that never changed. Ted Williams was to hitting what Einstein was to mathematics.
"Theodore wanted to be the greatest hitter that ever lived," McDermott said.
The intense drive to reach that goal started when Williams was growing up in San Diego, Calif. His father was a heavy drinker and his mother played her tambourine on the street corners in San Diego and nearby Tijuana, Mexico for money.
"He had a tough childhood," McDermott said. "Really tough."
A hitting star began emerging in grade school and by the time Williams had entered Hoover High School, he already was well known in the area. Many kids idolized the man who would become known as "Teddy Ballgame" and "The Splendid Splinter."
Ray Boone was one of those kids.
"He was just awesome in high school," Boone said. "To us, he was better than Babe Ruth."
Boone, who later also would become a baseball star at Hoover and play shortstop in the Major Leagues, said he and some buddies would attend as many of Williams' games as they could. "When we couldn't see a game, we'd be on the phone asking, 'How did Ted do?'"
"All of us just idolized him," he added.
With a five-year age difference, Williams was a professional baseball player before Boone started high school. Several years later, their paths crossed in the American League.
"I had been called up by the Indians and the first time we played the Red Sox, I thought about going over to the batting cage and introducing myself to him," Boone recalled. "But he already was a big star, so I didn't do it. I didn't want to bother him."
Several weeks later, when the teams played a series in Fenway Park, a meeting of another sort occurred.
"I hit two home runs on a Friday night, another one on Saturday and another on Sunday," Boone said. "As I was going out to my position, Ted ran in from left field and said, 'They can't get us Hoover guys out, can they?'"
Even now, more than 50 years later, that moment remains imbedded in Boone's brain.
When it came to hitting, Williams was ready and willing to talk about it and help anyone who asked for batting tips. Even if they were from other teams.
"He was always willing to help," said Irv Noren, who played for the Washington Senators and then the great New York Yankees teams in the early- and mid-50s. "I wasn't feeling too good at the plate and I asked Ted if he would watch me in batting practice. He stayed out there by the cage, watched and gave me a few pointers."
McDermott recalled a similar incident.
"We had traded Walt Dropo to the Tigers one year and Theodore was giving him some batting tips," McDermott recalled. "I told him, 'Theodore, I am having a tough enough time against these guys without you helping them.'"
The hitting session continued.
Cliff Keane, a Boston sportswriter who covered Williams from 1943 through the remainder of Williams' career, saw another side of the great hitter. "He didn't like any kind of criticism. I wrote one time that he should have played in a certain game against the Yankees -- I think he had hurt his toe stepping out of the shower -- and he called me over the next day and read the story I had written.
"He said I had called him a quitter and he was mad as hell. He stayed mad as hell for a long time."
Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for the New York Times, said Boston writers went out of their way to criticize Williams.
"They used to rip him all the time," Anderson said. "When they didn't win the World Series in '46 (Williams batted .200), then lost to Cleveland in '48 and the Yankees in '49 and '50, I think that really hurt his relationship with them.
"He resented it and it became a long-standing war."
Actually the feud already had started. Williams had a terrific rookie season in 1939, batting .327 with 31 home runs and driving in 145 runs. But he started the '40 season slowly and writers jumped all over the sophomore jinx theory. Before long, fans got on the bandwagon and the warm relationship built in that 1939 season never was repeated.
It got so bad that the relationship cost him the 1947 Most Valuable Award. He lost by one point to Joe DiMaggio because one of the voters -- a Boston writer -- left Williams off the ballot completely because he didn't like Williams.
That had to hurt.
Keane said Williams intimidated several beat writers, "Because he had a tough tongue, a nasty tongue. I never met anyone quite like him. He was great with sick people and kids, but he didn't do well with rich people."
Keane, still living in the Boston area, said Williams was one of the greatest hitters he ever saw. "But I would put Babe Ruth first, Williams second and Rogers Hornsby third."
McDermott says Williams never got along with the writers because, "He considered them to be a pain in the ass. They followed him wherever he went at the ballpark and that kept him from focusing on his hitting. He didn't want, or need, any publicity."
Williams just wanted to hit.
Opposing teams tried to get into his head by using the "Williams Shift," putting three infielders on the first base side of second base. That didn't work.
Yankees manager Casey Stengel tried another tactic.
"Whenever Ted was batting, Casey would start whistling before every pitch," Noren recalled. "Ted didn't like anyone to disturb him when he was hitting. Not only that, but Casey would never even pitch to him, never give him anything good to hit.
"Casey would holler, 'You ain't gonna beat me, big guy!' Casey figured Ted might swing at a bad ball."
That didn't work very often either.
"Ted is best known for his hitting," Noren said, "but he also was a great outfielder. He played that wall (Green Monster) in Fenway as well as anyone ever played it."
Looking back, McDermott put Williams' life this way: "He was the man John Wayne wanted to be."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.