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Tuesday, May 29, 2001
Updated: July 8, 1:29 PM ET
'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived'

By Mike Meserole
Special to ESPN.com

Ted Williams, the last major league player to hit .400 for an entire season, who was also Joe DiMaggio's archrival, John Glenn's wing man, and Boston's preeminent athlete of the 20th century, died Friday in Inverness, Fla.

He was 83.

Williams, who suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years, was taken Friday to Citrus County Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:49 a.m., said hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Martin.

He underwent open-heart surgery in January 2001 and had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams is the last major leaguer to hit .400 in a season.

Williams was the second-youngest player to ever lead the majors in runs batted in (only Ty Cobb was younger) and the oldest to win a batting title. He drove in 145 runs as a 21-year-old rookie in 1939 and was 40 in 1958 when he hit .328 for the last of his six American League batting championships.

In a playing career that spanned four decades with the Red Sox and was interrupted by two military tours of duty that cost him nearly five full seasons, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound "Splendid Splinter" hit .344 with 521 home runs, 1,839 RBI, 2,019 walks, a slugging percentage of .634 that remains second to only Babe Ruth's .690, and an on-base percentage of .483 that is second to no one.

"All I want out of life," Williams once told a friend, "is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.'"

In his 1969 autobiography, "My Turn at Bat," he added, "It was the center of my heart, hitting a baseball. (Boston general manager) Eddie Collins used to say I lived for my next at bat, and that's the way it was. If there was ever a man born to be a hitter it was me."

In 1941, The Kid hit .406 in just his third season in the big leagues, but his feat was overshadowed by DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak that captivated the nation through mid-July. During the streak, Williams was able to grab the spotlight away from Joe D for just one afternoon, the All-Star Game in Detroit on July 8. In the bottom of the ninth inning with two on and two out, the American League trailing by two runs, and a full house at Briggs Stadium clamoring for a three-run homer, Williams leaned into a belt-high fastball from Claude Passeau of the Chicago Cubs and drove the ball off the right-field parapet to win the game. He would later call it, "the most thrilling hit of my career" and never was Teddy Ballgame more of a kid as he bounded around the bases, clapping his hands in childish glee.

Twelve weeks later, on Sept. 28, Williams delivered the most telling six hits of his career in a season-ending doubleheader at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Unfazed by a 3-for-15 slump and not interested in going into the record books as a .400 hitter who actually hit .39955, Ted refused manager Joe Cronin's offer to sit out the twin bill. He then took the field and went 4-for-5 in the first game and 2-for-3 in the nightcap to finish the year at a more respectable .406.

DiMaggio won the Most Valuable Player award in a close vote (291 points to 254), but the margin might have been thinner if the Yankees hadn't won the pennant by 17 games over the second place Sox. Nevertheless, the summer of '41 belonged to both players, as evidenced by the fact that in the 60 years since then no one has come within 12 games of Joe D's streak or 12 points of The Kid's average.

Unlike the imperturbable DiMaggio, who was the older of the two Californians by four years, Williams was given to tantrums when things didn't go his way. Joe said little to an adoring New York press and was revered. Ted said plenty to the less doting Boston scribes and was often reviled.

In 1940, after a sensational rookie year that saw him tip his cap regularly to appreciative crowds at Fenway Park, Williams' run production fell off despite the new bullpens in right field that moved the fences 23 feet closer to home plate. When some writers and fans started getting on him, Williams reacted by bad mouthing them right back. He complained about the criticism, groused about his salary, yearned to be traded, refused to tip his cap anymore at home, and after one frustrating game in Cleveland let off steam by whining: "Nuts to this baseball, I'd sooner be a fireman."

If he was looking for sympathy from his teammates, he didn't get it.

"Teddy is a spoiled boy," said Jimmie Foxx. "How long it will take him to grow up remains to be seen. But he'll have to grow up the hard way now."

Led by antagonistic Boston Record columnist Dave Egan, who wrote that "Williams is the prize heel ever to wear a Boston uniform," the press landed on Williams with both feet.

"Between Ted and the Boston baseball writers there existed what was perhaps the most protracted and bitter athlete-writer feud of all time," said Fred Corcoran, the legendary golf promoter and Boston native who was also Williams' business manager. "When Ted came with the Sox there were no less than nine daily newspapers on Boston. The sportswriters, always fishing for an exclusive or scrambling for a fresh angle, would seize on any scrap of gossip or conjecture and blow it up into a headline.

"They fanned the flames of controversy without malice, but without rest, and they had no qualms about investigating an athlete's private life if it sold newspapers. Turn this crew loose on a guy like Williams, who stubbornly insisted on his right to privacy, and you had all the elements of a political battle."

The mutual loathing didn't seem to affect Williams hitting in 1941 or the following year when he won his first Triple Crown by leading the majors in batting, home runs, and RBI. But it probably cost him the 1942 MVP award which the baseball writers gave to Yankee second baseman Joe Gordon by a 21-point margin. Gordon had a career year and New York finished nine games ahead of Boston, but his offensive numbers paled next to those of Williams.

During the '42 season, the first since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, some writers accused Ted of dodging the draft when he refused to give up his exempt III-A status as sole provider for his mother. Hardly any of baseball's front line talent enlisted during that season, but Williams got most of the heat because he got hottest under the collar about it.

Ted Williams was what John Wayne would have liked us to think he was. Williams was so big, and handsome, and laconic, and direct, and unafraid in that uniquely American cowboy way.
Robert Lipsyte
Yet Williams turned out to be baseball's longest-serving military warrior, missing three full seasons (1943-45) during World War II and most of the 1952 and '53 seasons when the Korean War was going on. Trained as a Navy fighter pilot and slated for combat in the South Pacific in '45, Japan surrendered before he could see action. Seven years later, at age 33, his reserve unit was recalled to active duty with the Marines and he flew 39 missions over the Korean mainland.

On Feb. 19, 1953, flying low on a bombing run far above the 38th parallel, Williams' F-9 Panther was hit by small arms fire and started leaking hydraulic fluid. With his plane shaking badly (he didn't know it was also on fire), his control panel lit up with warning lights, and his radio dead, Williams followed a fellow pilot back to base, flying without hydraulics and wrestling his stick all the way.

Approaching the landing field, an on-board explosion blew off one of the wheel doors and Williams was forced to land his crippled jet at 225 miles-an-hour and on one wheel. When the F-9 finally came to a stop at the end of the runway after skidding over 2,000 feet, Williams walked away from the burning wreck as firemen hosed it down with foam. Fortunate but enraged, he reacted to nearly auguring in as if he had just popped out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth -- he yanked off his helmet and slammed it to the ground.

"Ted Williams was what John Wayne would have liked us to think he was," said sportswriter Robert Lipsyte. "Williams was so big, and handsome, and laconic, and direct, and unafraid in that uniquely American cowboy way. To me he epitomized the sense of the athlete as gunslinger."

Ted Williams
Williams flew combat missions for the Marines in the Korean War.
Tom Wolfe, in his book on the early years of the United States space program, called that singular quality "the right stuff." For much of his tour in Korea, Williams flew along side his operations officer, a five-time Distinguished Flying Cross winner named John Glenn, who would later become one of the seven original Mercury astronauts and the first American to orbit the earth.

"We flew together quite a lot and got to know each other very well," said Glenn. "Ted was an excellent pilot, and not shy about getting in there and mixing it up."

"For the last half of their flights together, Williams was Glenn's wingman," said biographer Ed Linn. "You don't pick a wingman because he can hit a baseball. You pick him because he can save your life."

Theodore Samuel Williams was born on Aug. 30, 1918, in San Diego, the oldest of two brothers. His parents were not close, to each other or their sons. His mother was a dedicated soldier in the Salvation Army and her religious calling came first. With his folks away from home a lot, Ted grew up playing baseball at the North Park playground near home and then the diamond at Herbert Hoover High School. He also developed a talent for fishing on frequent trips to Coronado Beach with neighbor Les Cassie, whose sons didn't like to fish.

A star pitcher and outfielder at Hoover High, young Ted might have signed with the New York Yankees in 1936 if his mother hadn't refused to endorse the contract. She did, however, let him play for the new San Diego Padres team in the Pacific Coast League for $150 a month. A year later, after batting .349 in his second season with the Padres and homering in all eight PCL ballparks, the Red Sox signed Williams for $25,000 and sent him to Minneapolis. His one and only year in the American Association in 1938, the intimidating if immature 20-year-old slugger won the Double A Triple crown, batting .366 with 43 home runs and 142 RBI. Boston brought him up in 1939.

Williams began his second stretch at Fenway Park in 1946, baseball's first full season after World War II. The All-Star Game was in Boston that summer and the hometown hero made a 12-0 American League rout into something decidedly more memorable by going 4-for-4 and swatting one of Pittsburgh righty Rip Sewell's high-arching "eephus" pitches into the right field bullpen. Before then no one had ever managed to hit one of Sewell's bloopers for a home run.

Another thing no one had seen before that summer was "the Williams shift," which moved six fielders to the right of second base and was devised by Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau to keep Williams from pulling the ball to right field. Refusing to take the bait and hit to left, Teddy Ballgame opted to swing into the teeth of the shift whenever he saw it. He saw a variation of the shift that fall when the Red Sox made it to the World Series for the first time in 28 years and the St. Louis Cardinals moved five fielders to the right of second and kept Marty Marion at shortstop. Williams ended up with a measly five singles and one RBI in seven games and the favored Sox fell to the Cards.

It was the only World Series Williams would ever participate in and his poor showing was the first of three performances in four years his critics would cite to prove he couldn't hit in big games. The other two came in 1948, when he managed just one hit in Boston's 8-3 loss to Cleveland in a one-game playoff for the pennant; and 1949, when he went hitless against New York in the final two games of the season and the Sox lost a one-game lead and the pennant to the Yankees.

1947 AL MVP Voting
Top Five
Player Team Votes
Joe DiMaggio New York 202
Ted Williams Boston 201
Lou Boudreau Cleveland 168
Joe Page New York 167
George Kell Detroit 132
Complete 1947 AL MVP voting

Williams was the dominant player in baseball in the late '40s,, winning the American League MVP award twice, in 1946 and '49, finishing second to DiMaggio in 1947, and then third behind Boudreau and Joe D in 1948. The '47 vote remains the most controversial ballot ever taken, with DiMaggio edging Williams by a single point. Ted won the Triple Crown for the second time that season, but Joe led the Yankees to the seventh pennant of his career. The controversy lay in one writer filling out his 10-name ballot and leaving Williams off the list. Ted was convinced the offending scribe was Mel Webb of Boston, but it was really a writer from the Midwest. Webb didn't have a vote that year.

Despite the Red Sox' collapse on the last weekend of the 1949 season, Williams closed out the decade with his finest year at the plate, reaching career-highs in home runs (43), RBI (159), hits (194), and runs scored (150), while batting a solid .343. With DiMaggio out most of the season resting an injured right heel, Williams won the MVP vote in a walk over Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto. That winter he replaced DiMaggio as the major league's highest-paid player, signing a 1950 contract worth $125,000 which topped the record-breaking $100,000 Joe D earned in 1949.

Williams was at the height of his powers midway through the 1950 season, taking the field for the July 11 All-Star Game at Chicago's Comiskey Park with 80 runs batted in and the league lead in homers. Then in the top of the first inning he made a running catch of a Ralph Kiner drive that carried him into the left field wall and crunched his left elbow. He didn't know it at the time but the elbow was fractured. Ignoring the increasing pain, Williams stayed in the game for seven more innings and went 1-for-4 with an RBI.

Back in Boston a day later, X-rays revealed the break and he was operated on immediately. Returning to the line-up on Sept. 15 he got four hits, including a home run, but the elbow was still weak and he couldn't keep it up. The Sox finished third, four games out, and would never come as close to another pennant for the remainder of Williams' career.

A year and half later, Ted got his notice to join the Korean War, but not before 25,000 turned out for Ted Williams Day at Fenway on April 30, 1952. The honoree said goodbye with a game-winning homer in his last at bat. The crowd sang "Auld Lang Syne." Many thought it was The Kid's last game.

Not a chance. When he returned to Fenway on Aug. 9, 1953, Williams picked up where he left off, slamming a pinch-hit homer off Cleveland 20-game winner Mike Garcia. The Boston writers welcomed Ted back by asking Garcia if he grooved the pitch. After 15 months away from baseball and without benefit of spring training, he hit .407 over the last 37 games of the season.

The following February, Williams broke his collarbone when he fell chasing a fly ball on the opening day of spring training and had to sit out the first 36 games of the season. Tired and discouraged, he announced in April that the 1954 campaign would be his last. He then went out and hit .345 with 29 homers, 89 RBI, and a major league-leading 136 walks in 117 games. He might have won the batting title, too, but his 386 at bats were 14 short of the required 400 to be official.

His retirement lasted seven and half months. On May 13, 1955, less than a week after his first marriage ended in a costly divorce settlement, Williams signed a $98,000 contract to rejoin the Sox. He came back for the money to be sure, but he also returned to solidify his place in history.

The summer before he had struck up a friendship with a statistics-minded fan in Baltimore named Ed Mifflin, who couldn't believe Ted planned to quit before reaching 2,000 hits, 1,500 RBI, 4,000 total bases and making a run at 500 homers.

"He's telling me things that never dawned on me before," Williams said later. "At the time I had about 320 home runs. I wasn't even thinking of 500. He's telling me I've got a chance to do this, a chance to do that. He's perking me up, getting me thinking, getting me interested. Every time I did something after that, every time I reached a milestone, Ed Mifflin would [write me a letter to] remind me of it."

Over the next four seasons, Williams won his fifth and sixth batting titles, hit a combined .355, drove in 337 runs and added 116 homers for a career total of 482. In 1957, at age 39, he came within five hits of batting .400 again, ending up at .388, the highest average in either league since his .406 in '41. A third Most Valuable Player award eluded him, however, when the writers ranked him second behind another pennant-winning Yankee center fielder. He lost to Mickey Mantle by just 24 points, despite a much higher average and out-homering the powerful 26-year-old, 38-to-34.

Williams' battles with the press and the fans continued. With the National League Braves leaving Boston for Milwaukee in 1953 the Red Sox became the only game in town and the media watch on Ted intensified. On August 7, 1956, in a home game against the Yankees, Ted muffed a wind-blown fly by Mantle in the top of the 11th and was roundly booed.

After ending the half inning with a nice catch in left, a seething Williams ran to the Sox dugout, spit twice at the crowd from the top step, took a seat, then reappeared moments later for a third emphatic expectoration. He then spat his regards at the New York bench on his way to the plate, and flipped his bat in disgust after his bases-loaded walk forced in the winning run.

General manager Joe Cronin fined him $5,000 (tying a major league record set by Babe Ruth), but the money was never collected. The next night was Family Night at Fenway and another packed house greeted Williams' first at bat against Baltimore with a standing ovation. Ted reciprocated with a home run in the sixth to give the Red Sox the lead and made a big show of covering his mouth with his right hand as he crossed the plate. The crowd loved it, but some writers were not so amused and demanded that Terrible Ted quit disgracing the game and retire.

Late in the 1958 season, Williams lost his temper at Fenway again after taking a called third strike in a game against Washington and accidentally threw his bat into the stands where it bloodied the head of Cronin's 60-year-old housekeeper, Gladys Heffernan. Horrified, Williams hurried to her seat as the crowd booed the hell out him.

"When I got to the first aid room," said Williams later, "the blood was running down her head and I about died. She smiled and said, "Don't worry Ted, I know you didn't mean to do it.' That Christmas I sent her a $500 diamond watch."

Ted Williams failed to hit .300 for the only time in his career in 1959 when he played most the season with a pinched nerve in his neck and finished at .254. Refusing to believe he was washed up at age 41, he decided to play one more season but insisted on taking a 30 percent pay cut from $125,000 to $90,000.

Williams redeemed himself in 1960, batting .316 and hitting 29 home runs to become only the fourth player to hit 500 or more. He also singled in his final All-Star Game at bat at Yankee Stadium, bowing out after 18 appearances with a .306 average, four home runs and a record of 12 RBI that still stands.

Two months later, on a chilly and overcast Wednesday afternoon in late September, Williams played his last major league game at Fenway Park. His final at bat came in the bottom of the eighth and his final swing sent a one-ball, one-strike fast ball by Baltimore relief pitcher Jack Fisher into the Boston bullpen for a home run. As Williams rounded the bases and disappeared into the dugout without tipping his cap, the meager audience of 10,453 sent up a roar worthy of a full house with DiMaggio and the Yankees in town.

A 28-year-old John Updike immortalized the moment in his famous New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: "Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

Said Williams in "My Turn at Bat:" "You can't imagine the warm feeling I had, for the very fact that I had done what every ballplayer would want to do on his last time up, having wanted to do it so badly, and knowing how the fans really felt, how happy they were for me. Maybe I should have let them know I knew, but I couldn't. It just wouldn't have been me."

One way Williams did show his true feelings for Boston and New England was by quietly devoting himself to the Jimmy Fund for children with cancer. His brother Danny had died of leukemia and for over 50 years Ted was willing to go anywhere and do anything the Jimmy Fund asked him to do as long as there were no cameras around to record him doing it.

Easily elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, Williams was inducted in 1966 along with Casey Stengel and, true to his lifelong aversion to wearing a tie, showed up without one.

Retiring to the Florida Keys, he concentrated on his second favorite sport, fishing, and in 2000 was inducted to the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, too. He also served as a spring training hitting instructor for the Red Sox, and agreed to manage the Washington Senators in 1969. He lasted four seasons with the woeful Senators, leading them to a surprising 86-76 record in his first season and winning Manager of the Year honors for the astonishing feat. He was unable to keep the team from falling back under .500, however, and resigned in 1972 after the club's first year in Texas.

In the 1980s and '90s Williams struck it rich in the autograph and memorabilia game, started his own Hitters Hall of Fame, and received America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from George Bush. In the summer of 1991, he made peace with the fans and media in Boston by tipping his cap on Ted Williams Day at Fenway. And on New Year's Eve of 1999, he was named New England's top sports figure of the century by The Boston Globe, ahead of such champions as Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Larry Bird, and Rocky Marciano.

But the most emotional tribute Williams ever got came a few months before at the '99 All-Star Game at Fenway when he returned to throw out the first pitch on the 60th anniversary of his rookie year in Boston. As the ailing, 80-year-old legend circled his old playground in a golf cart, an awestruck capacity crowd, both All-Star teams, 40 other invited all-time greats, baseball writers from around the country, and a national television audience all said the same thing:

"There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."