September 28, 1941: With .400 at stake, Williams decides to play
The Red Sox split a Sunday doubleheader with Connie Mack’s Athletics on the final day of the 1941 season — meaningless games, with the Sox in second place, 17½ games out, and Philadelphia 20 games behind them. But these were professionals. And there was something else at stake.
From May 25 until they arrived in Philadelphia for the final three games of the season, 23-year-old Ted Williams had been above .400 except for a stretch from July 11 through the 24th when he dipped as low as .393.
On Saturday, September 27, Williams was 1-for-4 against 30-year-old rookie Roger Wolff, and his average dropped to .3995535. It would have been rounded up to .400.
There’s a long-standing legend that Red Sox manager Joe Cronin had told Ted he could sit out the games to preserve his average. No one would have blamed him if he had. Williams had taken “a special session of batting practice at Shibe Park” during the day on Friday, after the Red Sox arrived in town, and Ted told the Philadelphia Bulletin’s Frank Yeutter, “I either make it or I don’t.”
Yeutter mentioned to readers a couple of obstacles Williams would face: “The lengthening shadows of autumn afternoons, and facing strange young pitchers getting the usual end-of-the-season tryouts.” The advantage, he said, was in the pitcher’s favor.
Naturally, Williams wanted to hit .400. Ty Cobb had done it three times, and so had Rogers Hornsby. (Hornsby could have done it a fourth time, if one applied rounding. Entering the last game of the 1921 season, he had been hitting .39966. Hornsby went hitless and wound up at .397.)
For a retrospective book 50 years later, Williams recalled Cronin telling him, “You don’t have to be put in if you don’t want to. You’re officially .400.”1 Ted reported his reaction: “Well, God, that hit me like a goddamn lightning bolt! What do you mean I don’t have to play today?”2
The Sporting News said Ted had declared, “I want to have more than my toenails on the line.”
Truth be told, .39955 is not .400 – as he would have been reminded by Sunday headlines he may have seen. The Philadelphia Inquirer was unambiguous: “SOX TOP A’s; WILLIAMS FALLS TO .399.”
Everyone knew what was on the line. He’d be facing Dick Fowler in the first game – a rookie like Wolff. A’s pitcher Porter Vaughan said, “Connie Mack didn’t talk to the pitchers but he talked to the catcher, Frank Hayes. Frank was a good catcher. When Ted came to bat, he told Ted that the pitchers had the word from Mr. Mack that they didn’t ought to let up at all on Ted, and if they did, they’d have to pay the consequences.”3
Cronin had told the Boston Globe before the game: “If there’s ever a ballplayer who deserved to hit .400, it’s Ted. He’s given up plenty of chances to bunt and protect his average in recent weeks. He wouldn’t think of getting out of the lineup to keep his average intact. Moreover, most of the other stars who have bettered the mark before were helped by no foul strike rules or sacrifice fly regulations.”4 Indeed, had the rule been in effect that does not count a sacrifice fly as an at-bat, Ted would have entered the day hitting comfortably above .400, at .4049773.
Ted himself kept it simple: “‘Gee, I only hope I can hit .400,’ was all he would say.”5
The Philadelphia Bulletin’s Yeutter reported that “Before the two games started he was nervous and sat on the bench, biting his fingernails. His mammoth hands trembled. He condemned himself for getting only one hit for four times at bat Saturday.”
Ted was nervous, and he had been since the end of the game on Saturday. That evening, he said, he walked the streets of Philadelphia for several hours with Red Sox clubhouse man Johnny Orlando, walking maybe ten miles.6
Williams was batting cleanup and Fowler retired the side in the first, so Ted led off the top of the second. “Bill McGowan was the plate umpire, and I’ll never forget it,” Ted recalled. “Just as I stepped in, he called time and slowly walked around the plate, bent over and began dusting it off. Without looking up, he said, ‘To hit .400 a batter has got to be loose. He has got to be loose.’”7
The first pitch was low and outside. The second was low and inside. On the 2-0 count, Ted was ready and he swing at Fowler’s pitch. He “singled sharply to right,” according to the Inquirer’s Stan Baumgartner. Williams called it “a liner between first and second” in My Turn at Bat. Gerry Moore of the Globe called it “a sizzling single past first baseman Bob Johnson’s right.”
After that first hit, Ted’s average stood at .4008908. If he’d made an out his second time up, he’d be exactly .400. He had nothing to lose by taking that second at-bat. He led off the fifth inning, still facing Fowler, and homered on a 1-0 pitch driving the ball over the high right-center-field wall, a shot of perhaps 440 feet. It was his 37th homer of the year; he led both leagues in homers. Now he was batting .4022222. He could make outs each of the next two times up and still be a little over .400.
But he didn’t. The Red Sox had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth, but the A’s scored nine times in the bottom of the inning, building up an 11-3 lead. Next time up, in the top of the seventh, Ted was facing reliever Porter Vaughan, who threw two straight curveballs, both of which missed the plate. Vaughn threw another curve, and Ted guessed right. He was waiting for it. “I hit a bullet right through the middle – base hit.”8 It was a single, and the Red Sox scored six runs that inning, closing the gap to 11-10 (they’d scored once in the sixth, too), and Williams singled off Vaughan a second time.
Vaughan told the story: “He got two clean singles off me. On the first one, he hit off a curveball. Our second baseman was Crash Davis. Crash and I had come up at the same time. He played Ted in the hole between second and first. Ted hit the ball to the right of the second baseman. The second one he hit was a fastball. I threw him a fastball. Bob Johnson, who was a left fielder, was playing first base. Dick Siebert, our regular first baseman, had gone back to Minnesota; he taught out there. Johnson didn't get to the ball; it was between him and the base. It was close to first base. Ted hit it right down the line. Obviously I didn't fool him at all. He had wonderful eyesight and very quick hands. It was almost impossible to fool him. He really studied pitchers and remembered everything they threw him.”9
Williams was 4-for-5 in the first game with two RBIs and two runs scored. He might even have been 5-for-5 but for the official scorer. Batting against Newman Shirley, yet another rookie (the hardest pitchers of all for Ted to hit, since they were neither predictable nor necessarily accurate), he grounded to second base and reached base, but with an error charged to second baseman Crash Davis. The Associated Press said that “a very ponderous” scoring decision “robbed” Ted of his fifth consecutive hit, though John Holway has noted that none of the other writers argued the decision.10
And even though Boston scored twice in the top of the ninth and won the game, 12-11, the Philly fans were all for Ted all day long. “Each time he came to bat the crowd roared, and when he went back to left field each inning the bleacherites gave him added applause,” wrote the Evening Bulletin.
By the end of the first game, Williams was batting .4039735. He could have gone 0-for-4 in the second game and still been above .400. He didn’t. He went 2-for-3, and was 6-for-8 on the day,
and hitting .4057. Or, rounded up: .406.
“There was not a questionable hit among the group,” wrote the Inquirer. “All were slashing drives that whistled through the infield or fell far out of reach of the outfielders.”
After the game Ted said he’d never felt nervous in baseball before. Now, he said, “I was shaking like a leaf when I went to bat the first time. Then when I got that first hit I was all set. I felt good. Gee, there’s a lot of luck making that many hits.” He turned to Jimmie Foxx and exclaimed, “Just think – hitting .400. What do you think of that, Slug? Just a kid like me hitting that high.”
By virtue of reaching base six of the eight times up (not counting reaching on the error), Ted Williams had achieved a season on-base percentage of .553. More than half the times he came to bat in 1941, he got on base. And he struck out only 27 times all season long.
Thanks to Rock Hoffman for providing photocopies of the Philadelphia newspapers of the day.
1 Ted Williams with David Pietrusza, My Life in Pictures (Kingston New York: Total Sports Illustrated, 2001), 43.
3 Porter Vaughan interview with author, July 30, 1997. Williams says Hayes told him, “Ted, Mr. Mack told us if we let up on you he’ll run us out of baseball, I wish you all the luck in the world, but we’re not giving you a damn thing.” Ted Williams, My Turn at Bat (New York: Fireside Books, 1969), 90.
4Boston Globe, September 29, 1941.
5 Boston Globe, September 29, 1941.
6 My Turn At Bat, 87.
7 My Turn At Bat, 90.
8 John B. Holway, The Last .400 Hitter (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1992), 285.
9 Porter Vaughan interview with author, July 30, 1997.
10 Holway, 287.