Over 250,000 circulation
His desire made wish come true
By BOB RYAN
OW. TED WILLIAMS
really did say, "A man has to
have goals – for a day, for a
lifetime – and that was mine,
to have people say, 'There goes
Ted Williams, the greatest hitter
who ever lived.' "
It might be a toss-up as to who was the better pure hitter, Williams (left) or Babe Ruth. (Globe Staff File Photo / Bill Brett)
It just shows how some people
really are larger than life,
because a) if any man in the second half of the
20th century was framed in terms of his ability
to hit a baseball, it was Ted Williams; and b) he
never was shy about expressing his opinions.
He was, of course, more than just a masher of
baseballs. He was a certified war hero, a member of
the Fishing Hall of Fame, and the man most associated
with the Jimmy Fund. In and out of uniform,
he was a true larger-than-life figure. But his ultimate
fame is rooted in his extraordinary ability to
hit baseballs where fielders could not catch them.
We can cut right through the clutter and get
right to a reasonably solid premise. The two
greatest all-around hitters of all-time were Babe
Ruth and Ted Williams.
Ty Cobb may have hit .366 lifetime, but he
was almost disdainful of the power game. You'd
love to have Cobb batting in front of either The
Babe or The Thumper. He was a different type of
batter, surely the best of all the singles hitters.
For power and average combined, however, he
does not enter into the discussion. At the exalted
Ruth-Williams level, very few do.
For all their staggering numbers, each man's
career carried a significant "What-If?" What if
Ruth had been an outfielder from the beginning
of his career? He never had 400 plate appearances
until 1919, his fifth full season in the majors.
Granted, he would have been swinging at a
dead ball, but he surely would have had more
home runs and more runs batted in than anyone
else. He led the league in home runs 12 times
and slugging percentage 13 times as it was. It is
quite reasonable to assume he would have won
at least two more titles in each category.
What if Williams had not lost all of 1943, 1944,
and 1945 to service in World War II? What if
Williams had not been restricted to 43 games and
101 at-bats in 1952 and 1953, when he was called
up to fly dangerous combat missions in Korea? He
had won the batting title in 1941 and 1942. He
would win it in 1947 and 1948. He was in the
midst of winning six slugging percentage titles in
six available seasons from 1941-49. Is it not fair to
assume he would have added to that count?
He averaged 32 home runs a year during his
first 10 seasons. Give him just his average of 32
for those three WW II seasons and his average of
26 for the years 1954-1960 (an undercount,
since he hit 13 home runs in a mere 91 at-bats
after his discharge in '53). This would boost his
career home run total from 521 to 637, give or
take a mortar shot.
It doesn't end there. What if Williams had
not broken his left elbow in Comiskey Park while
making a nice over-the-shoulder running catch
of a Ralph Kiner drive in the first inning of the
1950 All-Star Game? Williams always maintained
he was never the same hitter after sustaining
In his 1993 biography, "Hitter," Williams is
quoted by Ed Linn on the subject. "If you really
want to get technical about it," said Williams,
"my arm bent about 15 to 20 degrees after the
operation, and I never had quite the extension
on an outside pitch I had before." Williams estimated
that no more than 90 percent of his original
extension ever returned.
"And I lost a little power," Williams continued.
"I lost a little of the whoooossh. My arm always
hurt me a little bit after that; there was always
a kind of stiffness. I really was surprised
that I hit as well as I did for five years."
Post elbow, the impaired Williams slugged
.901 in those 91 at-bats in '53; hit .345 with a
.635 slugging pct. in '54; hit .356 with a .703
slugging pct. in '55; hit .345 with a .605 slugging
pct. in '56; hit a transcendent .388 with a perhaps
even more dazzling .731 slugging pct. in
'57, the year he turned 39; and, finally, hit .316
with a .645 slugging pct. and 29 homers in 310
at-bats at age 42 in his farewell season of 1960.
We'd have to say the biography by Mr. Linn
was aptly named.
Ruth and Williams hardly could have been
more different in their approach to the game.
Ruth was the ultimate Natural. He was on his
way to a Hall of Fame pitching career when he
was switched to primary status as an outfielder
in 1919. As he evolved into the most feared slugger
the game ever had known, he did not give
treatises on hitting. It was all pretty simple:
They threw it and he hit it.
Williams studied hitting as if he had been assigned
to the Manhattan Project. It is frightening
to think what he could have been in the era
of videotape, because he was so far ahead of
everyone in his day simply by using his five senses.
Nothing about either hitting or pitching escaped
him, and nothing was deemed too trivial.
He studied pitchers. He studied umpires. He
studied wind patterns. He was even credited
with pioneering the use of rosin, mixing the
powder with olive oil to make a sticky substance
that pre-dated pine tar by about 10 years.
One thing each man recognized was the value
of a base on balls. The Babe led the league in
walks 11 times. The Thumper led the league in
that category eight times (add a minimum of
three if given a full career).
But Williams clearly was the most patient and
precise man who ever played the game. Take the
day in 1957 when, in his first three at-bats against
Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, he took three strikes,
walked on four pitches, ran a count to 3-2 and
then, on his .rst swing of the day on pitch No. 13,
hit a home run that gave the Red Sox a 1-0 victory.
Ted's explanation? Shortstop Harvey Kuenn
had been positioned on pitches 1 through 12 in
such a way that Bunning's delivery appeared to
be coming out of his uniform. Kuenn had re-positioned
himself before the 3-2 pitch.
Over and above the statistics, he was a majestic
hitter. There was such a thing as a Ted
Williams Home Run. Observed John Updike in
his memorable 1960 New Yorker essay, "Hub
Fans Bid Kid Adieu": "I remember watching one
of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe
Park; it went over the first baseman's head and
rose methodically along a straight line and was
still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory
seemed qualitatively different than anything
anyone else might hit."
Quantitatively on a par with The Babe, and
qualitatively on a par with no one, Ted Williams
should have gone to his grave happily secure in
the knowledge that knowledgeable people had
granted him his great wish.
• • •
You can e-mail Bob Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.