No. 16: Ted Williams
He had a science all of his own
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"Williams is the most competent man I've ever met in my life. He's the best fisherman I've ever fished with, he was the best jet pilot, he was the best hitter. He wanted to be not only good, but great at it," says broadcaster Curt Gowdy about Ted Williams on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, Oct. 8, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Williams, the last major leaguer to hit .400, was voted No. 16 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
|Ted Williams was baseball's last .400 hitter, but he's also known for his Hall of Fame speech endorsing Negro League players.|
Sept. 28, 1941 -- The idea of his .3996 batting average being rounded up to .400 didn't sit well with Williams. So, on the night before the final day of the season, The Red Sox left-fielder declined manager Joe Cronin's offer to sit out a doubleheader and preserve his ".400" average.
In the opener in Philadelphia, Williams rapped his major league-leading 37th homer and three singles in five at-bats against the Athletics. Though he raised his average to .404, the Splendid Splinter refused to skip the nightcap.
Stroking a double and single in three at-bats in a game called after eight innings because of darkness, Williams finished the season at .406, the first player to hit .400 since Bill Terry in 1930. Williams went
185-for-456 with 120 runs batted in. He also led the majors with 135 runs and 145 walks while striking out just 27 times.
Odds and endsAfter hitting .430 at Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, Williams batted .271 and .291 in his two years with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
At 19, Williams was nicknamed "The Kid" by the clubhouse boy when he arrived in 1938 at his first spring training with the Red Sox.
Williams' first major league game (April 20, 1939) was the only time he played against the Yankees' Lou Gehrig. Williams struck out in his first at-bat, against Red Ruffing; he doubled in four at-bats during the game.
After being criticized for getting a deferment from serving in the military, Williams enlisted in the Navy Air Corps on May 22, 1942. He was able to finish the season before the Navy called him to active duty. He missed the 1943-45 seasons.
Williams' average production in his first eight seasons: .353, 33 homers, 135 runs and 130 RBI. In this span, he won two Triple Crowns, four batting titles, four home-run championships, and led the league in runs scored six times and in RBI four times. He also was voted MVP in 1946 and 1949.
In his ninth season, at the 1950 All-Star Game, Williams suffered a broken left elbow when he crashed into the wall catching Ralph Kiner's drive. Williams said he was never the same hitter after that because his arm didn't completely heal.
In his two Triple Crown seasons, Williams wasn't voted MVP. Unpopular with writers, he finished second to the Yankees' Joe Gordon in 1942 and to Joe DiMaggio (by one vote) in 1947. Williams (.406) also finished second to DiMaggio (56-game hitting streak) in 1941.
Williams won the 1941 All-Star Game for the American League, 7-5, by belting a three-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth off Claude Passeau in Detroit.
In the second game of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946, after Williams hit three homers in the opener, Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau came up with the Williams shift, with the shortstop playing on the second base side of the bag.
In his only World Series (1946), Williams batted .200 (5-for-25) with one RBI as the Red Sox lost in seven games to the Cardinals.
In 1953, as a Marine pilot, Williams crash-landed his burning Panther jet fighter bomber and walked away just before the plane exploded.
On Aug. 7, 1956, Williams was booed in Fenway Park after dropping a fly ball hit by Mickey Mantle. After the inning ended, Williams spit twice in the direction of the fans. He was fined $5,000 by Red Sox general manager Joe Cronin, matching the largest fine ever assessed a player (Babe Ruth).
After a humiliating 1959, in which he hit just .254 (his only sub-.315 season), Williams returned for one more year. At 42, he batted .310 and hit 29 homers in only 310 at-bats.
When Williams retired after that 1960 season, his 521 homers were third all-time, trailing only Ruth's 714 and Jimmie Foxx's 534.
Williams' .483 on-base percentage remains the best in baseball history, with Ruth second at .474. In slugging percentage, Williams (.634) trails only Ruth (.690).
Williams drew 2,019 walks, with only Ruth (2,062) having more. Williams led the American League in walks eight times.
His lifetime batting average of .345 (357-for-1,035) against the Yankees was a point higher than his mark against the other six franchises (2,297-for-6,671). He hit .331 (133-for-703) against DiMaggio's Yankees, from 1939-51, and batted .373 (124-for-332) against New York in his final nine seasons after DiMaggio retired.
In Williams' 19 seasons, the Red Sox finished behind the Yankees 17 times. They won just one pennant and no World Series compared to the Yankees' 14 pennants and 10 Series.
In 1966, in his first year of eligibility, Williams was elected into the Hall of Fame.
In 1969, Williams' first season as manager, the Washington Senators went 86-76, an improvement of 20-1/2 games over the previous year.
Richard Ben Cramer, in an article for Esquire, once shrewdly observed that Williams sought fame but could not deal with its fellow traveler, celebrity.