By Glen Sparks
Ted Williams set his goal about as high as a ballplayer might dare set one. He wanted to be the best hitter in the history of the game. He wrote that very thing on the first page of his 1969 autobiography My Turn at Bat.
Teddy Ballgame, elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame on Jan. 20, 1966, wanted people to walk down the street, look at him and say to a friend, a spouse or anyone else, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
Williams, born Aug. 30, 1918, in San Diego, tried his best to make that happen. He headed to the North Park Playground just about every day as a boy. He’d get together with the other neighborhood kids and play Big League (groundball past the pitcher was a single, hit the ball above the bar and it was a double, etc.) We’d play Big League by the hour, Williams wrote. Then, Ted might take a break for some orange juice, freshly squeezed, and he’d play more Big League, until long after it was time to go home, begrudgingly.
Home life was a mess for young Ted. His mom, May, worked as a soldier for the Salvation Army, mostly in Tijuana, Mexico. She was gone all day and some nights. Ted’s dad, Sam, ran a photo shop in downtown San Diego, taking pictures of Navy sailors and their gals. Young Ted Williams devoted his life to baseball.
He starred at Herbert Hoover High School and for the San Diego Padres, then of the Pacific Coast League. Eddie Collins, general manager of the Boston Red Sox and a Hall of Famer, first saw Williams while on a scouting trip in southern California to watch another young player, Bobby Doerr of Los Angeles.
Collins didn’t make a big deal out of spotting the Splendid Splinter. Sometimes, you just see a natural. And nothing ever looked more natural than Ted Williams swinging a baseball bat. Collins said, “It wasn’t hard to find Ted Williams. He stood out like a brown cow in a field of white cows.”
Williams debuted with the Red Sox in 1939. Too bad, they didn’t start handing out the Rookie of the Year award until 1947. Because Williams would have won that honor in ’39, no contest. The lefty batter slammed 31 home runs, drove in 145 (first in the American League) and hit.327 with an OPS of 1.045 (OPS+ 160). He finished fourth in the MVP race.
Two years later, in that legendary year of 1941,Ted Williams hit .406. Another pretty good player, the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, batted safety in 56 straight games and took home the MVP award. Who should have won? DiMaggio put up a WAR of 9.1, Williams put up a 10.9. The Yanks and Joe D, though, won the A.L. pennant, finishing 17 games ahead of the Red Sox and Teddy Ballgame. (Interesting note: DiMaggio batted .408 during the streak, but Williams hit .412. Williams also had a higher OPS during that span, 1.224 to 1.180).
Following another big year in 1942 (Triple Crown winner, runner-up to the Yankees’ Joe Gordon for MVP), Williams left baseball for the next three seasons. Lt. Ted Williams, U.S. Marine Corps aviator, trained pilots for combat during World War II.
Back with Boston in 1946, Williams finally won the MVP. He was runner-up in ’47 (another Triple Crown year), third in ’48 and first again in 1949. During the first inning of the 1950 All-Star Game, Williams banged up his elbow, crashing into the Comiskey Park wall while making a catch. The Red Sox great said he never again felt “swishy” at the plate.
Boston’s clean-up hitter left for Korea in 1952. At his final game before heading out, the Red Sox held Ted Williams Day at Fenway Park. The team gave him a Cadillac and a memory book signed by 400,000 adoring fans. Williams stepped to a microphone and told the crowd: “This is the greatest day in my life,” and he thought that he might never play again.
It was close. Marine Corps Capt. Ted Williams flew 39 combat missions and crash landed once in his Panther Jet. Enemy flak hit his aircraft Feb. 16, 1953, 15 miles from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. What could he do? He could ditch into the Yellow Sea, but it was nearly frozen and full of ice chunks. He could eject, but he was 6-feet-3 and thought he might tear off his legs. His plane on fire, smoke blowing out from the back, Williams hit the runway at his landing strip; he slid for 9,000 feet. Williams thought the plane might explode. It did not; it ran out of fuel.
The Kid, as some people called him, played baseball for nearly another decade. He retired after the final game of 1960, when on a cloudy, rainy day at Fenway, he belted a home run in his final at-bat. Williams didn’t tip his cap that day. He hadn’t done that for quite some time. Fickle fans and a nasty press were to blame, he said. Red Sox fan and famed writer John Updike didn’t let the snub bother him. He wrote an article for The New Yorker about Williams’ final game, Hub Fans Big Kid Adieu. Updike offered a reasonable alibi: “Gods don’t answer letters.”
Williams left his playing days with a sublime set of numbers. He smashed 521 home runs, drove in 1,839 runs and batted .344. His batting average is the highest of any player who spent his entire career in the live-ball era (post-1920). He posted a .482 on-base percentage, the best ever, and a .634 slugging percentage, the second-best ever (Ruth: 690).
Boston’s No. 9 put up a career OPS of 1.1155, No. 2 all-time (Ruth: 1.1636). He retired with an OPS+ of 190, also No. 2 all-time (Ruth: 206). Williams played on 19 All-Star teams and finished in the Top 5 in the MVP vote nine times.
Who was the greatest hitter who ever lived? If it wasn’t the Babe, it was Teddy Ballgame of San Diego, Calif., and the Boston Red Sox.