The greatest hitter who ever lived
By Mike Petraglia
The man wanted to be known for one thing.
"When I walk down the street and meet people," Ted Williams once said, "I just want them to think 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "
Judging by his .344 career
average and his 521 home runs, the most ever by a
Red Sox player, Williams accomplished his goal. The San Diego-born baseball
legend wasted no time making his mark on the sport. In 1939, his rookie
season, Williams hit .327 with 31 home runs and 145 RBIs. That season he
established Major League records for RBIs and walks, with 107.
But perhaps Williams is most famous for what he accomplished two seasons
later. The Boston left fielder entered the last game of the season that year
with a .3995 batting average. If he sat out, he would have been credited with a .400 batting average for the season.
But being passive was hardly the Williams way. He asked manager Joe Cronin
to put him in the lineup for the season finale.
Williams responded with four hits in six at-bats to finish the memorable
season with a .406 average. It is the last time a Major League player hit
.400 in a full season.
But numbers, as is usually the case, don't come close to telling the entire
story of one of the best all-around players ever to put on a uniform.
"Ted was a fierce competitor," said longtime teammate Johnny Pesky. "He did
things in preparation that we see all the time now but were not all that
common back then. Things like reading a pitcher in the on-deck circle,
making adjustments and keeping a mental 'book' on pitchers he had faced
"Ted was always looking for an edge," said former Red Sox infielder Frank
Malzone, who also played alongside Williams in the 1950s. "He was intense
and sharp, always thinking ahead on the field. I think he wanted that to rub
off on his teammates. He expected everyone to give it 100 percent, not only
physically but mentally."
But the teams that Williams faced followed suit, not wanting to let the
"Splendid Splinter" get an upper hand.
It was 1946 when Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau came up with a
unique strategy for playing the Red Sox left fielder at the plate. He
ordered his shortstop to play behind the second base bag or even slightly to
the first-base side, allowing three infielders to play the right side
against the left-handed hitting Williams. It became known as "the Williams Shift."
Williams, as most great hitters do, possessed more than just a keen eye. He
had extraordinary vision, rated at 20/10 and made the revelation midway
through his career that he could read the spin on a ball in mid-flight from
the pitchers hand to the plate.
Williams decided to use his more-than-impressive resume and his ability to articulate what he saw at the
plate and relate his experiences in a book. The work, "The Science of Hitting," remains to this day as one of the authoritative resources available to players at all levels who are looking to improve their hitting.
"Past confrontations should be going through your mind. ... I'd watch the
pitchers warm up," Williams wrote in "The Science of Hitting," published in 1971. "... Sometimes when I led off an inning later in the game, I'd get so close watching a pitcher warm up that guys like Frank Lary would
brush me back a little, letting me know they didn't appreciate that close a
scrutiny. ... You are not just "taking" pitches, you are taking specific
pitches. You learn from them."
If ever there was a baseball player qualified to write about hitting, it was
Williams. And so in 1971, while managing the Washington Senators, Williams,
along with writer John Underwood, wrote the book that would raise the
respect for Williams to a new level.
"It's a pendulum action," Williams wrote. "A metronome--move and countermove. You might not
have realized it, but you throw a ball that way, you swing a golf club that
way, you cast a fishing rod that way. You go back, and then you come
forward. You don't start back there. And you don't "start" your swing with
your hips cocked."
"I've been a big fan of Ted's ever since someone handed me his book, 'The
Science of Hitting,' " said former outfielder Dante Bichette, who compiled more
hits than any Major Leaguer between 1995 and 2000. "I remember he asked me
once what my (philosophy) on hitting was. I told him I swing down on the
ball and then follow through (up swing). He said, 'WHAT? You swing down then
up?' Then I changed.
"Ted's the man when it comes to hitting," added Bichette.
"I've read that book and have a copy. Sometimes I go back and reference it
because there's so much in it. He had a way of expressing what we, as
hitters, all go through."
In a sign of respect and admiration, Bichette had his 1997 Harley-Davidson
"Fat Boy" motorcycle spray-painted in 2000 in honor of Williams, as he had
Williams and the number "9" added to the gas tank of the bike.
But perhaps there is no better bridge to the legendary past of Ted Williams
than the Red Sox hitter who won back-to-back AL batting titles in 1999 and
2000. Williams said many times, while watching Nomar Garciaparra hit, he was
seeing the one player he thought could hit .400 in a season.
"I've talked with Ted a couple of times," says Garciaparra, a player
Williams once compared with Joe DiMaggio. "He was just a phenomenal hitter
with great skills, maybe the greatest skills ever. Coming from him, those
words do mean a lot. He knows what it is to work hard and treat the sport
with the respect it deserves. And his numbers showed it. He always looked
for ways to improve his hitting, even though he was already outstanding.
"That's what I learned from him. No matter how good you think you might be
doing, there's always things you can do to improve."
Garciaparra has gone on the record as saying his attitude with each at-bat
is to make the pitcher adjust to him, not the other way around, a Williams
trademark. Garciaparra hit .372 in 2000. His average was the fourth-highest
single-season mark in Red Sox history. No surprise that Williams holds the
top two with his .406 in 1941 and .388 in 1957.
Williams never wanted people to think that hitting was easy simply
because he made it look that way.
"Hitting a round object with another round object as it is moving," Williams once said, "is the hardest thing to do in all of sports."
Williams should know. No one ever did it as well as "the greatest hitter who
Mike Petraglia is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.