Out of Left
A Measured Look at
Ted Williams, Mortal Slugger
He could hit
like a deity,
but was otherwise human
By STAN ISAACS
In the wake of the deluge of tributes in the coverage
following the death of Ted Williams, I think of a comment by
Red Smith, the legendary columnist. He said, he tried not
to exaggerate the glory of athletes. Id rather, if I could,
preserve a sense of proportion. To write about them as excellent
ball players, first-rate players. But I am sure I have contributed
to false values.
He recalled the advice from the great sports editor Stanley Woodward
when Woodward brought him up from Philadelphia to write for the
New York Herald Tribune.
Dont God up those ball players, Woodward said.
Upon Williams' death, several of the obituaries in the newspapers
and on the air quoted the passage by eminent writer John Updike
describing the memorable moment when Ted Williams ran out his
home run on his final at bat before retiring from baseball at
the age of 42 in 1960.
Updike wrote: "Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams
ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching,
screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs--hurriedly,
unsmiling, head down, as if our praise was a storm of rain to
get out of. He didnt tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept
and chanted, We want Ted for minutes after he hid
in the dugout, he did not come back. 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 untransferable.
The papers said the other players, and 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.
First off, because of his eminence as a man of letters well
forgive Updike for ignoring the fact that Williams didnt
always run out his homers that way. In his early days Williams
gamboled around the bases after home runs, embarassed later by
the clips of him whooping it up, clapping his hands as he circled
the bases after his All Star-game winning three-run homer in
Ted Williams was a great hitter. He was a charismatic man, a
commanding personality. He was not a God, despite the Niagara
of coverage--three pages in the New York Times, items about him
throughout the nightly Sports Center report on ESPN, continued
coverage in papers and on the air with tributes onto the All
Star Game and, in the Boston papers, verbiage probably second
only to the assassination of President Kennedy.
Aside from his wealth of hitting statistics quoted extensively,
he was particularly admirable for serving in the air force twice,
three years during World War II and then serving two more years
during the Korean war in 1952 when he was called back at the
age of 34. He narrowly escaped death when his plane was shot
and caught fire.
As Ira Berkow wrote in the New York Times, It was said
his voice sounded like John Wayne. No, John Wayne sounded like
Ted Williams. John Wayne was a hero in celluloid, Williams was
flesh and blood."
And he is legendary for the way he batted over .400 in 1941,
the last man to bat .400. He went into the final day batting
.39955 which rounded out to .400. When his manager, Joe Cronin,
told him he could sit down to insure a .400 average, Williams
said no. He played the doubleheader, had six hits in eight at
bat and finished with a glorious .406 average.
The tributes almost repeated like a mantra the line that he was
the greatest hitter that ever lived, as if underscoring
his celebrated comment that, "when I walk down the street
I want people to say, there goes the greatest hitter that
As they say, he has the numbers, and he would have greater numbers
if he didnt miss five seasons because of service duty.
But there are other numbers.
The Red Sox won only one pennant in the 19 seasons he played
for them, the undisputed leader who set the tone. And the tone
he set was for individual records over team glory.
In 1946 Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau put on a Williams shift,
placing three infielders on the right side of the infield to
defend against Williams power to the right side. Williams,
proud man that he was, tried to beat the shift by hitting through
it. He did not for a long time try to hit to the open spaces
on the left side of the infield for a sure single. He could have
gotten on base to help produce runs, but he chose to challenge
the shift and later regretted all the hits that overshifted infielders
took from him.
In the only World Series he ever played in, against the St. Louis
Cardinals in 1946, he tried to beat the shift and had only five
singles in 25 at bats for a .200 average and the Red Sox lost
the Series to the Cardinals in seven games.
He is regarded as the greatest authority ever on hitting, an
Einstein of hitting several called him, but when his team
needed him to change his stance and hit a ball through the opposite
side of the field, he would not do it. Eventually, he gave in
and rapped some hits to left field. It left him with an all-time
batting average of .354 before the shift and .327 after the shift.
He is renowned for having a great eye. He refused to swing at
pitches out of the strike zone. Critics noted that if there were
a man on second and a hit needed, the great Williams would rather
take a walk than try for a hit on a pitch off the plate that
would drive in a run. Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson,
and the notoriously-bad-ball hitting Yogi Berra would be logical
choices over Williams to hit in such a clutch situation.
There is the story about the young pitcher complaining about
a pitch to Williams that the umpire called a ball. The umpire
allegedly says, Son, when the pitch is a strike, Mr. Williams
will let you know. He had an imposing personality that
undoubtedly bullied umpires; many a pitcher was left wailing
about the strikes to Williams that were never called.
I recall watching Williams during batting practice at Fenway
Park. He took his swings, watched by many, then stood around
the batting cage pontificating about hitting, while other players
went out to take fielding practice when their hitting was done.
He was not a good fielder and did not work at it. And he later
regretted not concentrating more on his fielding.
I recall sitting in the dugout when he managed without great
distinction the Washington Senators, then Texas Rangers, for
four years. He talked about what he wanted to talk about. He
went on and on about hitting, and to be frank, because hitting
was not my passion, I was soon bored.
His No. 1 hero was Herbert Hoover; he spoke out at his Hall of
Fame induction ceremonies to put Negro stars Satchel Paige and
Josh Gibson in the Hall; he encouraged cancer victims and worked
nobly for the Jimmy Cancer Fund; and he was known as the Splendid
Splinter, the Thumper, The Kid and Teddy Ballgame.
He was not a God.
© 2002 by Stan Isaacs.
The Stan Isaacs caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel. The
Ted Williams photo is from the official Ted Williams website.
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