Ted Williams: American Master


PBS’ American Masters series will profile Ted Williams on Monday night, an honor as overdue as the championship the Red Sox won two years after Williams’ death in 2002.

If Ted Williams isn’t an American Master, who is?

Williams batted .406 in one season, .388 at age 38 (39 by season’s end) and .344 for his career. He hit 521 home runs — before the chemical age, 521 was more impressive than the 12 more than Gary Sheffield’s 509 they are now; who knows how many he might have hit had he not missed all of three seasons to one war and most of two others to another.

In that second war Williams flew missions with a guy named John Glenn, who achieved fame of his own as an astronaut and U.S. senator, and Ted once landed a burning plane as deftly as he might hit a pitch on the outside corner off the left-field wall at Fenway Park.

After Williams landed safely and ran for safety, Yankees infielder Jerry Coleman, stationed at the same base, said, “Hey Ted, that’s a lot faster than you ever ran around the bases.”

Williams, as the story goes, responded with expletives, because that was Williams and because it was probably true. He was gruff and profane and stubborn and abusive to his own family. He feuded with fans and media, and it’s probably a good thing he didn’t have Twitter back in the day. He might have made the current president’s usage of the social media seem tame.

Good luck to PBS on fitting all that — plus Williams’ Mexican heritage, advocacy of Negro League stars, accomplishments as a fisherman, four years as a manager and his rivalry with Joe DiMaggio — into 60 minutes.

The PBS Williams episode is subtitled: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, which no doubt would have pleased Williams, whose greatest honorific, as repeated by Bob Costas in the episode, was to “walk down the street and have people say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'”

Fifty-eight years after he retired, 77 years after he hit .406 and 16 years after he died, a lot of folks are still saying it. If it wasn’t Williams, it was Babe Ruth.

Williams had that goal in mind often when he took batting practice, as memorably described by Jim Bouton in Ball Four:

“Ted Williams, when he was still playing, would psyche himself up for a game during batting practice, usually early practice before the fans or reporters got there.

“He’d go into the cage, wave his bat at the pitcher and start screaming at the top of his voice, ‘My name is Ted fucking Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball.’

“He’d swing and hit a line drive.

“‘Jesus H Christ Himself couldn’t get me out.’

“And he’d hit another.

“Then he’d say, ‘Here comes Jim Bunning. Jim fucking Bunning and that little shit slider of his.’

“Wham!

“‘He doesn’t really think he’s gonna get me out with that shit.’

“Blam!'”

For the record, Bunning was a Hall of Famer who no-hit the Red Sox in 1958 as Williams took an 0-for-4 and made the last out. It probably rankled Ted ever after.

Williams wrote the book on hitting with Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood and called it, “The Science of Hitting.” Wade Boggs, who otherwise might not seem like a voracious reader, said in the episode he read the book in a weekend while in high school and went out the next season and compiled a Williams-like .400-plus average.

“Patience and discipline,” are what Boggs said he learned from Williams’ book. Patience and discipline are what many of the best hitters of today stress; philosophically, Williams was several generations ahead of his time. So were defenses like the Indians, who shifted against him.

Today there are three true outcomes for the hitter — the walk, the strikeout and the home run. But for Williams there were many outcomes,  most of them good, because he mostly eliminated the strikeout.

The default for the most important categories on his baseball-reference.com page is bold, indicating he led the league. In the 15 seasons he played more than 100 games, he led the AL 12 times in on-base percentage, 10 times in OPS and nine times in slugging percentage and OPS+.  None of those include 1955 when he played just 98 games and had a 1.200 OPS.

He did all that without striking out much, which would be an anomaly in today’s game. Williams had more than 50 strikeouts only three times — all in his first four seasons — and never more than the 64 of his rookie year. He fanned 709 times in his career, which is three seasons for the Orioles’ Chris Davis (at $20 million-plus per year). Even Mike Trout, the greatest of modern players in his seventh full season, has already fanned 961 times, or 252 more times than Williams.

The year Williams hit .406, he fanned 27 times in 606 plate appearances; in 2018, the only player with so few strikeouts with at least 225 plate appearances is Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (16), which might help explain his career-best .307 average.

In 1941 Williams had 5.4 times as many walks (147) as strikeouts, six more doubles (33) and 10 more homers (37). Even Simmons won’t come close to approaching the former and latter.

Williams had a 1.287 OPS in 1941, which ranks seventh all-time; only Babe Ruth and post-PED Barry Bonds had better. Still, Williams was second in the MVP voting — sometimes a .553 on-base percentage and .735 slugging percentage aren’t enough.

DiMaggio was the MVP, in large part because the hitting streak captivated fans more than Williams’ .406. The Les Brown Orchestra performed Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, and even today it resonates. Who wouldn’t want Joe on their side?

Nobody was writing songs or odes to someone nicknamed “The Splendid Splinter.” Bill Terry had hit .401 11 seasons before; the hitting streaks DiMaggio passed (George Sisler, 41 games in 1922; Bill Dahlen, 42 in 1894; Wee Willie Keeler, 45 in 1896-97) were far more ancient.

Nobody used WAR in 1941 — Williams’ was 10.6 to DiMaggio’s 9.1 — but there was a damning piece of evidence if voters cared to use it. DiMaggio batted .408 for his 56-game hitting streak; Williams batted two points lower for the entire season.

Williams won MVPs in 1946, when the Red Sox won their only pennant during his tenure, and 1949, when they nearly won a second. He was second four times, third once, fourth twice, sixth once and seventh twice. He received MVP votes in every season he played, except 1952 when he only played six games — even 1953, when he batted .407 in 37 games, and 1959 when he had his worst season at age 40, hitting .254. He probably wanted to give those votes back.

Twice he won the Triple Crown and didn’t win the MVP, in 1942 to Joe Gordon and 1947 to DiMaggio. The second time his WAR (9.9) was more than twice DiMaggio’s (4.8), but DiMaggio had better teammates and finished one point ahead as the Yankees finished 14 games ahead (that was the year, as the episode describes, a writer left Williams completely off his ballot).

He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1966 on the first ballot and instead of priming his feud with writers and the 20 who didn’t vote for him, he de-escalated it in the honest opening to his speech.

Williams: “I received two hundred and eighty-odd votes from the writers. I know I didn’t have two hundred and eighty-odd close friends among the writers. I know they voted for me because they felt in their minds, and some in their hearts, that I rated it, and I want to say to them: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

Williams’ speech was the contradiction that was Ted. He spoke on behalf of Negro League stars, even as he called his owner Tom Yawkey, who had refused to sign them, “the greatest owner in baseball.”

Williams: “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”

Little known as Williams lobbied for Negro League stars to enter the Hall — five years later Paige was inducted — was that Williams’ mother was of Mexican heritage. Neither of his parents ever saw him play a major-league game, which seems impossible today when both parents often not only attend a player’s debut, but are interviewed during his very first game.

From the Associated Press’ Russell Contreras’ review of the PBS episode: “After his sensational 1939 rookie year, Williams returned to San Diego to find around 20 of his Mexican-Americans relatives waiting for him at the train station. Williams took one look at them and fled.”

Almost all of this will be covered by PBS. As Williams rarely wasted an at-bat, the film must not waste a second of its allotted time.

I doubt it will get to my favorite Williams story, which might be the quintessential story of two Hall of Famers and two of MLB’s greatest hitters.

From Leigh Montville’s wonderful Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero:

“(Williams friend Joe) Lindia told a story. In one of Williams’ last seasons as a player, the Red Sox trained in Scottsdale, Az. Lindia went out to visit. One day, an off day, Williams said they should take a ride. They drove to the far edge of the town and went to a seedy motel. Williams directed Lindia to a certain room at the back. Lindia had no idea what was happening. Williams knocked on the door. An old man, looking as seedy as the motel itself, answered.

“‘Joe,’ Williams said. ‘Say hello to Ty Cobb.’

“They went into the room with Cobb. A bottle of whiskey was opened. Cobb and Williams talked baseball for a number of hours. Cobb, it seemed, had one theory about hitting. It was directly opposed to Williams’ theory. The argument became intense. The two men were shouting at each other. They looked as if they might even begin to fight.

“‘Look, I know how we can settle this,’ Williams finally said. ‘Ty, you say one thing. I say another. Joe, what do you say?’

“‘Funny, huh?’ Lindia said. ‘The two greatest hitters in the history of baseball. I’m supposed to break the tie. I couldn’t hit a baseball for a million dollars.'” 

That also was Williams, trying to settle an argument between two of MLB’s greatest hitters by a third party. Montville doesn’t say how Lindia answered Williams’ question. That Lindia was around to tell the story, we can assume it was done tactfully.

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