SABR

Ted Williams

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

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. One could probably count the legitimate contenders on the fingers of one hand. Most would narrow the field to just two players, Babe Ruth being the other. One could make a good case for Lou Gehrig, and a very small handful of others. Ted himself ranked Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe DiMaggio as the top five (he elected not to include himself in any such ranking).

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.’” In conversation late in life, when someone asked whether he thought he’d accomplished that, he simply said he didn’t know but that it was a great honor just to hear his name in the same sentence as a Ruth or a Gehrig.

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. It wasn’t the happiest of marriages and both parents were frequently out of the home, often leaving Ted and his brother, Danny (two years younger), to fend for themselves. Fortunately, neighbors welcomed Ted in, but he spent endless hours playing ball on the North Park Playground in the Southern California city where the climate allowed one to play pickup ball all year round. A dedicated playground director, Rod Luscomb, saw Ted’s drive and took him under his wing. 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. The day he received his commission, he married Doris Soule -- the first of three marriages. 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. He was to turn 34 that August, and Doris and he had a young daughter, Barbara Joyce (Bobby-Jo.) 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. How much better he would have done had he played in a park with a friendlier right field, like Tiger Stadium or Yankee Stadium, remains unknowable. How much better he might have done had he had a Lou Gehrig hitting behind him in the lineup, or had he not missed five seasons to military service, remains unknowable.

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.

Save for appearances for the Jimmy Fund, Ted took time off and spent the next several years catching up on his fishing while bringing in some endorsement income through a long association with Sears Roebuck, which produced an extensive line of Ted Williams brand sporting equipment -- all of which Ted insisted on testing personally, right down to the tents and sleeping bags that would bear his name. Ted married a second time, to Lee Howard of Chicago in September 1961. It was a short-lived marriage, perhaps in part because Ted had already met the woman who was perhaps his soulmate in life, Louise Kaufman. Though they never married, she loved Ted through both his second and third marriages (the third, to Dolores Wettach, occurred in 1968, when she was apparently already pregnant with the son who became John-Henry Williams.) Dolores and Ted later had a daughter, Claudia Franc Williams, born shortly after Ted and Dolores separated a few years into the marriage. Always in the background was Lou Kaufman, who -- though six years older than Ted -- was a fishing champion in her own right and apparently had enough salt to spar with Ted with the sort of banter he liked to dish out. There were other women, of course. In many ways, Ted Williams was a “man’s man” and perhaps didn’t have the patience for a relationship. Visiting one afternoon in the late 1990s at Ted’s house in Florida, this author was presented with a blunt, candid, and unanswerable remark when -- out of the blue -- Ted declared, “Yeah, I guess I was a great hitter, but I was a lousy husband and a crummy father.”

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.

He wrote in his autobiography My Turn At Bat (published in 1969) of his Mexican-American mother, “If I had had my mother’s name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California.” One can speculate that his own awareness of prejudice may have informed his remarks at the Hall of Fame. The first African American in the American League, Larry Doby, says that Williams went out of his way to make him welcome -- not grandstanding but with the simplest of private gestures on the field. When the Red Sox finally integrated by adding Pumpsie Green to the big league roster in 1959, Ted chose Pumpsie as his throwing partner before games.

In the same year as his remarkably self-revealing autobiography was published, Williams became manager of Bob Short’s Washington Senators ball club. The team showed a fairly dramatic improvement in team batting his very first year and, while on safari in Africa, Ted received word that he had been named Manager of the Year. It was good timing for Ted’s second book (written as had been the first with author John Underwood) -- The Science of Hitting. The book demonstrated the Ted Williams approach to the game and, as with My Turn At Bat, has remained in print ever since -- no small feat in the world of books. Even in the 21st century, The Science of Hitting is often the book of choice for aspiring batters.

Ted had signed on as manager for five years, but he lost interest after the Senators failed to further improve (and some of the ballplayers chafed under his regime to the point of near-insubordination). Ted traveled to Texas with the franchise and served as the first manager of the Texas Rangers in 1972 but he begged out of the fifth and final year of the deal.

Throughout his years as player and as manager, he was always a colorful “larger than life” figure with a booming voice and a presence that defined charisma. He was often a lightning rod of sorts, loved or hated by fans, and a reliable source of controversial copy for sportswriters and reporters. He was loud and boisterous, but as he himself admitted in his autography, he was “never very diplomatic. …I did a lot of yakking, partly to hide a rather large inferiority complex.”

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. When Carl Yastrzemski was struggling in his first year of trying to fill Ted’s shoes as Boston’s left fielder, the team flew Williams in from where he was fishing in Canada and he spent a few days working with Yaz. Yastrzemski says, “He really didn’t say anything; he was just trying to build me up mentally. He says, ‘You’ve got a great swing -- just go out and use it.’” Yastrzemski realized he was trying too hard to emulate Williams as a home run hitter, but Ted helped him settle down and helped him become himself. Over time, Yaz says, “I think the big thing that I learned from him, which he talked about, was the strike zone, strike zone, strike zone.”1

For many years, Ted lived in a small but comfortable cabin on New Brunswick’s Miramichi River where he was able to fish for his beloved Atlantic salmon, a fish he so admired that he became a leader of the fight to preserve the species from overfishing and other encroachments on its habitat. An annual “Ted Williams Award” is presented to others who have joined in the cause. Ted enjoyed the companionship of Lou Kaufman in his later years.

Ted Williams was active on the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committee (and sometimes criticized for being too vocal an advocate for players he championed such as Phil Rizzuto and Dominic DiMaggio). As he grew older, many of the hard attitudes toward Ted softened and, in the words of Doris Kearns Goodwin, “It seemed like his stature…his stature was always there -- I don’t think anyone ever disputed how great he was -- but the kind of emotions he generated in the fans got stronger as time went by rather than weaker, which is really nice. I’m glad he’s lived to see all that. It seems to have mellowed and made him a happier person, too.”2

He always engendered strong opinions and harbored many of his own. This was a man of many interests and an intellectual curiosity perhaps surprising in a ballplayer, a man whom his Marine Corps instructor could conceive of as a Shakespearean scholar and whom Tommy Henrich of the New York Yankees could envision as a brain surgeon or nuclear scientist. Biographer David Halberstam once said that Ted “won 33,277 arguments in a row…the undisputed champion of contentiousness” -- but then went on to write a book about the friendship between Ted, Bobby Doerr, Dominic DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky that endured for six decades.

For the last several years of his life, Ted became active in the memorabilia market, attracting very large sums to appear for occasional signings at industry shows. Some took advantage of his natural generosity and in one case Ted pursued a man who had defrauded him, the case becoming an episode on the America’s Most Wanted television show. Ted’s son, John-Henry Williams, took over management of the marketing of his father with mixed success. Many criticized John-Henry for being too zealous in his father’s behalf and for some of his business schemes, but there was no doubt that Ted very much loved his son and was prepared to turn a blind eye to any faults. Ted suffered a stroke and a subsequent heart operation sapped his health, and he entered a period of decline that ended with his passing on July 5, 2002. In death, as in life, controversy swirled around Ted Williams as two of his three children had his body cryonically frozen for the possibility of some later revival if science someday learns a way to restore life to those who have been so preserved. Many of Ted’s closest friends were aghast but efforts by his eldest daughter to reverse the decision were in vain. An outpouring of more than 20,000 people attended a memorial at Boston’s Fenway Park later in July 2002 and the memory of the man they called The Kid lives on.

 

Notes

1 Ted Williams, telephone interview, August 31, 1997.

2 Ted Williams, telephone interview, May 3, 1997.

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