“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
Any argument as to the greatest hitter of all time always involves Ted Williams. It’s an argument that can never be definitively answered, but that it always involves Williams says a lot. If the name of the game is getting on base, no one ranks above Williams. His lifetime on-base average was .482, and think what that means. He reached base safely 48.2% of the time he came up to bat -- almost half the time. Ruth comes in second, at .474. One of the reasons Williams ranked first was his self-discipline; he refused to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. In time, he developed such a reputation that more than one catcher complaining about a pitch being called a ball was told by the umpire, “If Mr. Williams didn’t swing at it, it wasn’t a strike.” But The Kid had the strike zone down cold from the first. Even in 1939, his rookie year, Ted walked 107 times, ranking second in the American League (he led the league that first year in total bases -- by a big margin). Across his entire career, which touched four decades (1939-1960), Williams had a walks percentage of 20.75. More than one out of every five times, he took a walk.
Even with a pitch in the strike zone, he wouldn’t take a cut at it unless he felt it was a pitch he could drive. “Get a good pitch to hit” -- the philosophy imparted to Ted in Minneapolis by hitting instructor Rogers Hornsby, meant more than just a pitch in the strike zone. If the pitcher dropped in a good curveball low and away (which he knew was his most vulnerable spot in the zone), he would figuratively tip his cap, take the strike, and wait for a better pitch. Unless there were two strikes on him, he would take his chances that there was a better pitch coming.
Ted had strong opinions about what made for a great hitter, and it involved hitting for a combination of average and power. Had he been willing to sacrifice power for batting average, one suspects, he could have ranked right at the top instead of just fifth among “modern era” (post-1901) players. Had he been willing to sacrifice average and just swing for the fences, he would have hit more than 521 home runs. As a young man, he knew what he wanted. At age 20, he said, “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.’”
Becoming a great hitter was a goal Ted set for himself at a very early age. Born in San Diego on August 30, 1918, he was the first-born son of professional photographer (and former U.S. cavalryman) Samuel Williams and his wife, a Mexican-American who dedicated her life to Salvation Army work, May Venzor Williams. By the time Ted reached high school, he was an exceptional player who attracted the attention and support of coach Wofford “Wos” Caldwell. It was his bat that first caught coach Caldwell’s eye, but Ted excelled as a pitcher for the Hoover High Cardinals. He often struck out a dozen or more batters in a game, but he hit well, too, and found a place in the lineup for every game. Even while still a high school player, Ted signed his first professional contract -- with the locally-based San Diego Padres, of the Pacific Coast League. With the Padres, Ted got his feet wet in 1936, hitting a modest .271 but without even one home run in the regular season. Ted completed high school and then played for the Padres again in 1937, upping his average to .291 and showing some power with 23 homers. Boston Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins had spotted Ted while looking over a couple of Padres players and shook hands with owner Bill Lane on an option to sign the young player, which he exercised in time for Ted to go to the big league training camp in Florida in the spring of 1938.
Williams was a brash and cocky young kid who was deemed to need a full year in the minors and he was assigned to the Minneapolis Millers, where he proceeded to win the American Association Triple Crown with a .366 average, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs. There was no question that he would be with the Red Sox in 1939, and the buildup in Boston’s newspapers was unprecedented. The Kid was all that had been promised, and then some. Playing right field, he hit 31 home runs and batted .327. Not only did he lead the league in extra-base hits and total bases, he also led the league in runs batted in in his rookie year with 145, setting a major league rookie record that has never been beaten. His fresh and evident love of the game won the hearts of many Boston fans.
The following year, 1940, Williams switched permanently to left field and improved his average to .344, though he dipped a bit in home runs (23) and RBIs (113). He placed first in both on-base percentage and runs scored. It was the first of 12 seasons that he led the league in on-base percentage; remarkably, he led in OBP every year through 1958 in which he was eligible. From his very first trip across country to spring training in 1938, Ted became known for his relentless questioning of other players about situational baseball -- what was Ted Lyons’ “out pitch” to a lefthanded hitter late in the game with runners on base? What would Bobo Newsom start you out on first time up? Williams seemed to live and breathe baseball and it rang true when he later acquired the nickname “Teddy Ballgame.”
Maybe he seemed just too good to be true. After a brief honeymoon with the press in the highly competitive newspaper town that was Boston, the critical stories began to come out. Taking on Ted sold newspapers, and writers like Dave Egan and Austen Lake could get under Ted’s skin, sometimes provoking a story where none had existed before. He was easy to mock, taking imaginary swings out in the field and letting a fly ball drop in. He was so cocksure that he turned off some of the crusty ink-stained wretches, and a little sanctimonious -- declining an interview with one of the deans of the press corps, columnist Bill Cunningham, because the writer had been drinking. Some of the writers had it in for Ted, and let him have it. There commenced a feud with the writers that lasted Ted’s whole career, and beyond. He enjoyed barring the scribes from the Boston clubhouse, sniffing the air distastefully as one walked by, and more than once spit toward the press box in contempt. He earned some other monikers -- “Terrible Ted” and the “Splendid Spitter” -- the latter being a reference to his widely-known nickname as a lanky, gangly kid -- The Splendid Splinter.
There were fans who enjoyed egging Ted on, too, and during this second season he turned against the fickle fans. He later admitted he had “rabbit’s ears” and could hear the one loud detractor over the hundreds of cheering fans, and he let it get to him. He admitted he was “never very coy, never very diplomatic. As a result I would get myself in a wringer. …I was impetuous, I was tempestuous. I blew up. Not acting, but reacting. I’d get so damned mad, throw bats, kick the columns in the dugout so that sparks flew, tear out the plumbing, knock out the lights, damn near kill myself. Scream. I’d scream out my own frustration.” He just could not abide the fair-weather fans who’d be for him one day and against him the next. One thing he determined never to do was tip his cap to the fans; even though there were days that he truly wanted to, he just couldn’t bring himself to do so. He was a complicated man and yet, despite all the tumult and turmoil, he never showed up an umpire by arguing a call and never got tossed from a game. And, though he preferred to keep to himself, he got along fine with other ballplayers, both on his own team and on opposing teams.
It was in 1941 that The Kid had a season for the ages -- batting .406 despite the sacrifice fly counting against the hitter’s average. Few players had achieved the .400 mark, and no one has done so since. Ted also set a single-season on-base percentage mark (.553) that was never topped in the 20th century. (Barry Bonds now holds the highest mark.) Williams led the American League in runs and home runs. Two months after the season ended, Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor.
As sole supporter of his mother (his parents had divorced), Ted was exempt but that didn’t prevent some from questioning his courage when he chose to play baseball (and pay off an annuity he’d purchased for his mother) in 1942. He had already achieved national stature as a star baseball player at a time when baseball was unrivaled by any other sport. This made him a convenient target for criticism, but servicemen attending ball games cheered for Williams. Once he’d made his point, he signed up in the Navy’s V-5 program to begin training as a naval aviator when the season was over. In his fourth year of major league ball, Ted hit for the Triple Crown in the major leagues, leading both leagues, as it happened, in average (.356, down a full 50 points from the prior year), home runs (36) and RBIs (137). And then it was off to serve. For the second year in a row, Williams came in second in MVP voting.
Ted Williams spent three prime years training and becoming a Navy (and then Marine Corps) pilot -- and becoming so good at flight and gunnery that he was made an instructor and served the war training other pilots. He kept active to some extent, playing a little baseball on base teams but only as time permitted given his primary duties. Lt. T.S. Williams ended his stretch at Pearl Harbor and never saw combat.
After the war, Ted returned to the Red Sox and received his first MVP award from the baseball writers, helping lead Boston into its first World Series since 1918. He led the league in OBP, total bases, and runs, but an injury to his elbow while playing in an exhibition game to keep loose for the upcoming Series hampered his ability to compete effectively in the fall classic. Boston lost to the Cardinals in seven games, and Ted’s weak hitting helped cost them the championship.
In 1947, Ted had his second Triple Crown year, leading the A.L. with .343, 32, and 114. The Red Sox didn’t come close to the Yankees that year, and in each of the next two years, they lost the pennant on the final day of the season. Williams led the league in both average and slugging both seasons, among other categories. In 1949, he earned his second Most Valuable Player award -- and only missed an unprecedented third Triple Crown by the narrowest of margins. He led in homers and RBIs, but George Kell edged him by one ten-thousandth of a point in batting average.
The year 1950 might have been his best ever -- he had already hit 25 homers and driven in 83 runs when he shattered his elbow crashing into the wall during the All-Star Game. He missed most of the rest of the season, and said he never fully recovered as a hitter -- though one would hardly know it to look at the stats he posted. In 1951, he led the league once more in OBP and slugging.
Come 1952, as the war in Korea mounted, the Marines recalled a number of pilots to active duty. Among them was the less-than-pleased T.S. Williams, now a captain in the Reserve. When it was clear there was no choice but to comply, Ted determined to do his best. He requested training on jets and was ultimately assigned to Marine Corps squadron VMF-311 which flew dive bombing missions out of base K-3 in South Korea. Capt. Williams flew some 39 combat missions, though he barely escaped with his life on the third one when his Panther jet was hit and had to crash-land. The plane burned to an irretrievable crisp but Williams was up on another mission at 8:08 the next morning. It truly was an elite squadron to which Williams was assigned; on more than half a dozen missions, Williams served as wingman to squadron mate John Glenn. A series of ear infections consigned him to sick bay for two stretches and when it was obvious the war would be over in a matter of weeks, Williams was sent back Stateside and mustered out -- in time to be an honored guest at the 1953 All-Star Game. He threw himself into preparation to play and he got in 91 at-bats before the season was over -- batting .407 in the process.
Ted broke his collarbone in spring training in 1954 and missed so many games at the start of the season that come season’s end, he fell 14 at-bats short of having the requisite 400 to qualify for the batting crown he would have otherwise won with his .345 average. Ted appeared in only 117 games, but still drew enough walks to lead the league (136). The walks hurt him, though, since the batting title was based on “official” at-bats alone. This seemed so unfair that the criteria were changed in later years to be based on plate appearances. After the 1954 season, he “retired” (the term is placed in quotation marks because it seemed as though retirement was a strategic move in a divorce) and did not make a start in the 1955 season until May 28. He completed the year with 320 at-bats, but hadn’t lost his touch as indicated by his .356 average and 83 RBIs in the two-thirds of a season he played. In 1956, he had what by Williams standards seemed like a pedestrian, even somewhat lackluster year, accumulating an even 400 at-bats with 24 homers, but still hit at a .345 clip. A.L. pitchers were no fools; he drew over 100 walks and led the league in on-base percentage.
The year 1957 is what was arguably the year in which Ted Williams proved what a great hitter he truly was. No longer the Kid who turned 23 while hitting .406 back in 1941, Ted entered his 40th year in that season. He might have been “splendid” but he was no splinter. He’d filled out his physique, gone through war and divorce, suffered broken bones and pneumonia. Despite all the accumulated adversity, Ted hit .388 (just six more hits would have given him .400 again, hits that a younger man might have legged out) and led the league by 23 points over Mickey Mantle. His .526 OBP was the second highest of his career and so was his .731 slugging average. So, too, were the 38 home runs he hit. It was truly a golden year.
His final three seasons saw a decline, though batting .328 as he did in 1958 would for almost any other player be spectacular. In fact, it was enough to win Ted the batting championship even if it was some 16 points below his ultimate .344 lifetime average. The batting title was his seventh, not counting 1954 as per the rules of the day. 1959 was his one really bad year; he developed a very troublesome stiff neck during spring training that saw him wear a neck brace and have a very difficult time trying to overcome it. He never truly got on track and batted a disappointing .254 with only 10 homers and 43 RBIs in 272 at-bats. It was sentiment alone that placed him on the All-Star squad, one of 18 times he was accorded the honor. Everyone expected him to retire; even Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, with whom Williams had a good if distant relationship, suggested it might be time.
Ted Williams didn’t want to leave with a season like 1959 wrapping up his career. He came back for a swan song season, but insisted that he be given a 30 percent pay cut because of his underperformance in 1959. He felt he hadn’t earned the money he was being paid, at the time -- as it had been for many years -- just about the highest salary in all of baseball, understood to be around $125,000. Williams had hard work in 1960 but he produced, batting .316 with 29 home runs -- the last of which was hit in what had been announced as his very last at-bat in the major leagues.
In his latter years, Williams had played for a Red Sox team that offered him little support in the lineup, had not much in the way of pitching, and didn’t draw many fans. Even Ted’s final home game drew just over 10,000 fans to Fenway Park. Leaving on such a high note, Williams couldn’t resist a final shot at the Boston press corps with whom he had so frequently feuded since his second year with the Red Sox. The “knights of the keyboard” wouldn’t have Williams to kick around anymore. And Ted Williams left town, though in lieu of any farewell dinners he quietly, and without publicity, stopped to pay a visit to a dying child stricken with leukemia. Teddy Ballgame, as he was known, had been the leading spokesman for Boston’s “Jimmy Fund” for many years. Ted had appeared on behalf of Dr. Sidney Farber’s children’s cancer research efforts since the late 1940s, in fact since before Dr. Farber (the “father of chemotherapy”) first achieved remission in leukemia. Today, over 85 percent of children with leukemia are cured.
After leaving full-time employment in baseball for good, Ted served for years and years as a “special assignment instructor” with the Boston Red Sox. Typically, this meant he would show up at spring training for a few weeks and look over the younger hitters, occasionally taking a player aside later in the year as well. After the requisite five years following his playing career, Ted Williams was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. When he was inducted in the summer of 1966, Williams wrote out his speech by hand the evening before (the original is in the Hall of Fame) and after thanking those who helped him on his way, he devoted part of the core of his speech to an impassioned plea that the Hall of Fame recognize the many Negro League ballplayers who had not been allowed to play in the segregated major leagues prior to 1947.