WYSU Commentary, #158, February 2014
Who is the greatest hitter in the history of professional baseball? My nominee is Ted Williams. Let’s take a look at his career and his life.
Although the career of Ted Williams spanned the period from 1939 to 1960, he lost five seasons during his prime to military service (1) and parts of two others to injuries. Despite the lost years, his career statistics are staggering. His lifetime batting average was .344. He hit 541 home runs, placing him tenth on the all-time list. (2) He hit twenty or more home runs in sixteen seasons, an American League record that he holds with Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson. He is the last batter to hit .400 for a season. (3) He won the American League batting championship six times, including 1957 when he was thirty-eight and 1958 when he was thirty-nine. He won the Triple Crown twice and he was named American League MVP twice. (4) He led the American League in both homes runs and RBIs four times and he led the majors in runs scored four times. Further, Williams made seventeen All-Star Game appearances and he set a dozen All-Star Game records. (5) To no one’s surprise, he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1966 in his first year of eligibility. (6)
As for his personal life, Williams grew up in San Diego, the son of a Mexican-American mother and an American father. (7) Though he lived in a poor neighborhood, it had one important asset, a lighted playground, where he practiced hitting daily late into the night. (8) He struggled in school but, as he aged, he developed a love for histories and biographies. After high school, he played one year in the minor leagues, (9) then moved on to Boston where he formed a love/hate relationship with the media and fans. He married three times and fathered two daughters and a son. His marriages suffered from his foul mouth and extended absences for road trips or fishing. He had an arm’s length relationship to his children until late in his life. (10) After his third marriage collapsed, he lived happily with Louise Kaufman, a divorced woman.
When it came to money, Ted Williams was an enigma. On the one hand, he would boycott expensive restaurants and pay his tab at many others with a check in the hope that the proprietor would display it rather than cash it. On the other hand, when he found out that a former major leaguer was destitute, he quietly deposited $10,000 into his bank account. And he did this many times! (11) What’s more, he raised millions of dollars over the years for the Boston-based Jimmy Fund, which serves children with cancer and their families, and he helped players with drug and alcohol problems, such as Daryl Strawberry, who lived with Ted and Louise during his recovery. Further, he went out of his way to welcome and encourage the first black players, Larry Doby among them. (12)
We have to take Ted Williams warts and all. Despite the failure of his marriages and his personality quirks, he was as gifted an athlete and as generous a person as we’re likely to find.
1. Initially Williams applied for a military deferment. When it was denied, he enlisted. He turned down opportunities to play on military baseball teams and, after training, served as a pilot and instructor in two wars. In Korea Williams flew in a unit with John Glenn who described Williams as one of the best pilots he knew. Williams flew as Glenn’s wingman for roughly the last half of his missions in Korea.
2. Most sports historians are confident that Williams would have broken Babe Ruth’s home run record had he not spent five years in the military.
3. This was in 1941.
4. The fact that he was league MVP only two times is due almost certainly to his sour relationship with a number of baseball writers.
5. Williams’s nineteen All-Star Game appearances tie him for the American League lead with Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken. He leads the American League in career All –Star Game hits, runs scored, extra-base hits, total bases, home runs, RBIs, and walks. Also, he holds single game All-Star Game records for both leagues in hits, runs scored, home runs, and RBIs. .
6. Williams was also named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team and All-Time Team. He and Babe Ruth are the only two players honored with a statue in Cooperstown.
7. Fearful that his Mexican heritage could harm his career, he kept it a secret as much as he could.
8. Williams reportedly bragged to his friends at this playground that he would become “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” See Richard Ben Cramer, What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now? A Remembrance, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 85.
9. During his one year in the minors, Williams led the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs.
10. Sadly, his son, John Henry Williams, exploited his father’s change of heart to promote John Henry’s company which sold various items with Ted’s autograph. Even after Ted had a stroke, he would sign autographs many hours a day at his son’s insistence. John Henry and one of Ted’s daughters also arranged for Ted’s head to be cryogenically preserved despite the fact that Ted’s will provided for cremation.
11. Richard Ben Cramer, What Do You Think…, p. 9. According to Cramer, to get the bank account number, Williams phoned the person on the pretext of soliciting a contribution to the Jimmy Fund, and after hearing his story about falling on hard times, Williams said, “OK, so send me a check for $10. Don’t tell me you can’t afford that!” Once he got the check, Williams contacted the bank and made a $10,000 deposit.
12. Doby, the first black player in the American League, reported that on his first visit to Fenway Park, Williams congratulated him and wished him good luck. See Richard Ben Cramer, What do You Think…, p. 96. Also, at his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1966, Williams made special mention in his talk that Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other great black players should be voted into the Hall.