It took several conversations before the most cerebral hitter of his generation, Tony Gwynn, finally asked the most cerebral hitter of any generation, Ted Williams, about his famous 1941 season. "Ted looked at me and said, 'If I knew that hitting .400 would have been so damn important, I would have done it more often,''' Gwynn said. "I just laughed. But the more I thought about that, he probably could have hit .400 again if he had wanted.''
He probably could have, but he didn't, and no one else has hit .400 since Williams batted .406 in 1941. Since then, only four players have hit as high as .380 -- Williams .388 in 1957, Rod Carew .388 in 1977, George Brett .390 in 1980 and Gwynn .394 in 1994, a year in which he played 110 games when the season was canceled due to a player's strike. It seems highly unlikely, if not impossible, that anyone will hit .400 anytime soon for a variety of reasons, the first one being this: There is nobody in baseball history like Ted Williams.
"Best hitter I ever faced,'' Bob Feller said. "And I never saw anyone hit like he did in 1941.''
Williams had batted .344 in 1940 at age 21, but he suffered a wrist injury in spring training of 1941, missed some games and didn't really hit like Ted Williams in April. But in May, he went 44-for-101, with 22 walks and only three strikeouts. He got to .404 on May 25, never dropped below .393 the rest of the season and peaked at .436 on June 6. After July 25, his average never dropped below .400. When he got to the final day of the season, a doubleheader at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Williams was hitting .3996, which rounded off to .400. Red Sox manager Joe Cronin gave Williams the option to play that day. Williams said if he couldn't hit .400 from the beginning to the end of a season, he didn't deserve it.
"I asked him about that final day,'' Gwynn said, "and he said, 'Hell yeah was I going to play.'''
Williams went 4-for-5 in the first game, the Red Sox overcame an 11-3 deficit to beat the A's, 12-11, and Williams raised his average to .404. He insisted on playing the second game, and he went 2-for-3 to finish the season at .406. In the doubleheader, with all the pressure of .400, he went 6-for-8. He was the first player to hit .400 since Bill Terry in 1930, and the first American Leaguer since Harry Heilmann in 1923. Williams hit 37 home runs that year, drove in 120 runs, drew 147 walks and struck out 27 times. His .553 on-base percentage was a major league record until Barry Bonds broke it in 2002 (.582). Williams' OPS was also an incredible 1.287.
"He told me that he didn't think it was that big a deal hitting .400,'' Gwynn said. "It had been done a few years earlier. He figured that someone else would do it. He wasn't that impressed by it.''
Seventy years later, it is more impressive since no one has really come close to hitting .400, and Williams hit .406 with great power and production. The wait has enhanced his legacy.
"He is one of a kind,'' Gwynn said. "His memory was unbelievable. He could dig in to his memory bank, and pull out all sorts of stuff. All good hitters have that, but he had it to a higher level than anyone I've ever met. It was uncanny the stuff he could pull out. He knew the pitcher, the weather, the way the ball was carrying that day, the thickness of the grass.''
In 2003, comedian Billy Crystal was asked, on the field at Yankee Stadium before one of the league championship series games, for his first recollection of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. "I was sitting right up there [first-base side, upper deck],'' Crystal said. "In the second game of a doubleheader, Ted Williams strikes out against Bobby Shantz. Thirty years later, I meet Mr. Williams. I said, 'I have home movies of you striking out against Bobby Shantz in the second game of a doubleheader at the Stadium.' He looked at me and I swear, Tim, he says, 'Curveball, low and away.' He said, 'Ellie [Yankees catcher Elston Howard] dropped the ball and tagged me, right?' I said, 'Yes, that's it!'"
Williams remembered details about random at-bats because hitting a baseball was far more than a skill to him, it was a science. Tom Grieve is a television game analyst for the Texas Rangers. He played for Williams in 1970 with the Washington Senators and in 1972 for the Rangers. Grieve said he never met anyone who knew more about hitting, and explained it better, than Williams.
"Ted was debating whether to play in the Jimmy Fund Game in Boston [in 1972], and he wasn't sure until Mr. [Tom] Yawkey [Red Sox owner at the time] asked him personally to play,'' Grieve said. "So he did. He came into the dugout looking for a bat. He was in a zone now, not like the rest of us. I used a W183 bat, I had no idea what it stood for, but he picked out that bat, and I later found out the W stood for Williams! He grabbed the bat and said, 'Now this is a damn good bat.' Then he went looking for pine tar and screamed out, 'There's too much oil in this pine tar, no wonder you guys can't hit.' So he walked to the plate, and Lee Stange was throwing. Ted screamed at him, 'Now throw the ball hard, don't be throwing any s--- up here.' He took the first pitch, he always took the first pitch. He was a sarcastic guy, I looked at a teammate and said, 'I hope he swings and misses 20 times.' He took 15 swings, and hit every one on the sweet spot. He hit every one hard.''
"I looked at Nellie Fox after the round and said, 'Nellie, that was pretty impressive. The guy hasn't picked up a bat in five years and he hit every ball hard,''' Grieve said. "Nellie looked at me and said, 'He has been hitting in the cage for six weeks just in case he decided to play today. You didn't really think he would go out there and embarrass himself?'''
He is one of a kind. His memory was unbelievable. He could dig in to his memory bank, and pull out all sorts of stuff. All good hitters have that, but he had it to a higher level than anyone I've ever met.
”-- Tony Gwynn on Williams
Fear of failure drove Williams. That's why he never stopped hitting, never stopped striving for perfection. "I was told by the Red Sox clubhouse guy that Ted didn't like to hit before games, he hit after games,'' Grieve said. "He [was] the only guy out there, hitting line drives everywhere and screaming, 'I'm Ted Williams, the greatest f------ hitter ever!'''
Gwynn agreed with that assessment, but says he thinks someone will hit .400 again. It will be extremely difficult, given how many hard throwers there are in today's game, how many pitchers a hitter might see per game and the vast repertoire that pitchers use today. Every pitcher has a good secondary pitch to go along with a 90-mph fastball, be it a changeup, slider or cutter.
"It's got to be the right person, with the right temperament, with the right talent,'' Gwynn said. "It will be really hard. It's hard for me to talk about hitting .400 because I never got to September hitting .400. Can you imagine the media pressure on a guy hitting .400 in September today? Whoever does it is going to have to be able to run a little, and the key factor is he's going to have to walk. He is going to have to be patient. I mean, look at Ichiro [Suzuki]. He set the hits record [with 262 in 2004] and he didn't come close to .400 [he hit .372].''
In 1941, Williams' 145 walks left him with only 456 official at-bats. In 1957, when Williams batted .388, he walked 119 times and had 420 official at-bats. Williams refused to expand his strike zone, but unlike hitters today, when he swung at a pitch in the zone, he didn't miss it. And he could hit with two strikes. His walk-to-strikeout ratio was nearly 3-to-1.
"We talked a lot about pulling the ball,'' Gwynn said. "Ted was stubborn. When teams put the shift on him [and dared him to hit it through the right side], he told me, 'I'm not going to let those SOBs beat me.' He knew he could hit the ball to left field if he wanted, but he was not going to let the fielders get inside his head. The year he hit .388, he probably could have hit .400 by going to left field, and not being so stubborn. But that was Ted.''
That obstinate nature is what made him such a great hitter. He also had great hands, a great batting eye, an analytical mind and that uncommon commitment to being the best. What Williams did in 1941 was beyond spectacular, it has stood for 70 years. And 70 years from now, we might still be saying that the last player to hit .400 was Ted Williams.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN