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Thursday, April 11, 2013
What it was like to face Ted Williams

By David Schoenfield

There's a neat book out called "Facing Ted Williams" that's worth checking out if you're a Red Sox fan, Williams fan or just a fan of players talking about baseball from the old days.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams played his last game in 1960 but he's still worth reading about.
Writer Dave Heller interviewed dozens of players who played against Williams -- from pitchers who faced him many times to players who appeared in only a few games in the big leagues -- and gets some great insight and anecdotes.

One of the best interviews was with Virgil Trucks, who just recently died at the age of 95. He was old when Heller interviewed him but remembered so much. Williams hit 12 home runs off Trucks, the most he hit against one pitcher. Here's Trucks:
You couldn't fool him on pitches. I never even tried to fool him, because it would just be wasting a pitch anyway. ... You try to hide the ball from him, and he could still pick it up. He'd see that ball and he could see those seams and he knew what you were throwing. If you showed him that ball at all -- just up here before you release it -- he could pick it up right there. He could see a gnat on a gnat's nest from 100 yards.

Williams hit 10 home runs off Hall of Famer Bob Feller, although we don't have complete data for the rest of their numbers (missing 1939-41 and 1946-47). From the numbers we do have, Williams hit .333 with 34 walks and 10 strikeouts. In typical Feller fashion, however:
Was he the toughest out [I ever faced]? No, I had dozen fellows that were tougher than Ted. A lot of left-handed hitters like Tommy Henrich and Taft Wright, Stan Spence and Roy Cullenbine, who was a switch-hitter, Johnny Pesky, Nellie Fox, Rip Radcliff -- they were all tougher than Ted. DiMaggio hit me pretty good. ... I have no idea why he didn't hit a home run off me before the war, but he just didn't do it; though he hit 10 home runs off me in my last 10 years. ... He was difficult to strike out. I'd throw him a changeup around his ankles and he'd pull it foul, and then I'd throw a slider around his fists -- right around his belly button, around the belt buckle -- and that was a good pitch for him.

Jack Harshman was a left-handed pitcher with the Giants, White Sox, Orioles and Indians (and briefly Williams' teammate in 1959). Williams hit just 5-for-35 off him without a home run.
As far as my being lucky against him, that's what it is. I mean nobody actually outpitched [Ted]; he was just that good a hitter. You have the statistics here -- which I did not know until I read this -- that he only hit .156 against me. I did remember, though, that he never hit a home run and he had one double. ... Something else about Ted that was outstanding was that I honestly [cannot] recall him ever taking an awkward swing. When he made his mind to swing, it was a fluid, good, solid, balanced swing. So many of the other hitters that were considered good very often would be totally fooled and looked awkward, but he never did.

Anyway, that's just a small sample. One of my favorite moments from the book was an obscure infielder named Chuck Stevens talking about watching Williams take batting practice. But Stevens asks: "I often wondered if Joe [DiMaggio] stopped what he was doing. Did you ever stop to think that? One of the greats looking at another great."

It was a fun project by Heller, something different than the standard biography. Wade Boggs also has an interesting foreword in the book. Makes you wonder: Who in today's game will we still be talking about 60 years from now?