A special section published by the Globe July 6, 2002.
His .406 season
The greatest hitter
Writers spelled trouble
Ted's All-Star games
The longest home run
The later years
The San Diego years
The last game
Talk of the town
A special section published by the Globe July 22, 2002.
Why we remember
The science of hitting
Red Sox' tales
John Updike, David Halberstam and Peter Gammons capture small parts of a life that in many ways was beyond words
'Hub fans bid Kid Adieu'
Day with a great one
Williams was a big hit
The life of Ted Williams
Ted Williams memorabilia
Compare his signatures
Tributes to Ted
The remains debate
A Shaughnessy tribute
from August, 1994
Tunnel of love
Dedication of the
Ted Williams Tunnel
in December, 1995
It went far away
of longest home run
in Fenway history
Ted's the star attraction
at the 1999 All-Star
game at Fenway
By Dan Shaughnessy, Globe Columnist, 08/05/1994
Too bad. Because Theodore Samuel Williams was, is and forever will be larger than life.
Williams said he wanted to walk down the street and have people say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." And now, all these years later, this is exactly what people say when Williams walks into a room -- even if he's walking with the aid of a cane. Babe Ruth was baseball's premier power hitter, and Ty Cobb owns the highest lifetime average, but Williams can claim to be the best combination of power and average in hardball history, and there are legions of his contemporaries who will swear that there was never anybody better. Teddy Ballgame hit 521 home runs with a lifetime batting average of .344. He's the last man to hit .400 (.406 in 1941). He hit .388 at the age of 39 and won a batting title at 40. He homered in his final at-bat, inspiring John Updike to write the classic sports tale, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
Of course, there was much more. In defense of our country, without a word of complaint, Ted Williams vaulted from the on-deck circle to the cockpit, giving up 4 1/2 years of the prime of his career. The best hitter was the best pilot. He flew 39 missions over Korea, once landing with his plane in flames. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but nothing touched The Kid.
The best hitter also was the best fly fisherman, and the best fund-raiser in the ongoing battle against cancer in children.
He was no angel; that we know. He could be rude and crude. He spit at the fans and caused a furor when he was "gone fishin' " the day his daughter was born. He tossed his bat into the seats, accidentally conking general manager Joe Cronin's housekeeper. He shot pigeons with a rifle in empty Fenway Park. He said Boston baseball writers were the worst ever to come down the pike. He wouldn't tip his cap.
But there was no one else like him. There still is no one else like him. No matter how old he gets, in the minds of those who saw him hit, Ted Williams is frozen in time, standing in the batter's box, cocking his hips and cracking a line drive up the middle. Visually impaired and walking with the aid of a cane after a February stroke, Ted at 75 still is The Kid. He probably always will be the most important Boston sports figure of all time.
Think of the best of our best. Bobby Orr, Lefty Grove, Bob Cousy, Rocky Marciano. Clarence H. DeMar, Carl Yastrzemski, Milt Schmidt, Jimmie Foxx, Bill Russell, Roger Clemens, John Havlicek, John Hannah, Eddie Shore, Bill Rodgers, Dave Cowens, Marvin Hagler. Cy Young, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Harry Agganis, Doug Flutie and Larry Bird. These great competitors did most of their best work in Boston . . . but Williams is bigger than any of them.
In 1980, Detroit columnist Joe Falls took a poll of 100 people on the street in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and asked each one if he or she knew who Ted Williams was; all 100 knew Williams. And like every other living Baseball Hall of Famer, Williams in the 1990s gets bigger by the year.
Earlier this summer, when George Bush was inducted into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame, the former president said, "If you think you're a big shot in politics and you want a lesson in humility, campaign with Ted Williams at a fishing show in Manchester, N.H."
"I really don't think that you become less famous," says Williams. "The older you are, the more your record is compared. It ain't the personalities anymore. It's not up to the writers, or who likes you. It's just the record."
The memorabilia boom of the '80s and '90s has enabled yesterday's superstars to cash in on their records. Steered by his son, John Henry, Williams has carved out a niche in the sports signature industry. He has his own museum in Hernando, Fla. There's a Ted Williams Store at the Atrium in Chestnut Hill.
John Henry Williams runs Grand Slam Marketing. Ted Williams is Grand Slam Marketing.
"It just shows you the great interest baseball has in the country," says Williams. "I watched a home shoppers' thing the other night after a baseball game. They were trying to sell soccer stars and people I never even heard of. Hockey and soccer. It went on and on. But it wasn't baseball and I turned it off.
"I think I've been lucky that way. I've made a little money with it, and it's been a damn nice thing because I've had a chance to meet a lot of people, and they know where they can get to see me. It brings up old memories. I got to say I'm glad it's worked out that way."
Do legends have heroes? Did Ted Williams ever ask for an autograph?
"I asked for Babe Ruth's autograph when I was a young player," Williams says. "He signed it in New York and -- it was the only ball that will ever be like this -- he signed, 'To Ted Williams, your pal, Babe Ruth.' And I had that in my house for a long time, and somebody stole it. Put this in the paper -- if that ball ever shows up anyplace, I'll give a $5,000 reward. It was stolen about 15 years ago from my house in Florida. Nobody's ever come up with it. But he did sign the ball, and it's the only time I've ever asked for an autograph. And because of that ball, I sign a ton of balls, 'Your pal, Ted Williams.' "
Because of the stroke, Williams is not able to sign as quickly as he did before. Most of his motor skills have returned, but his vision is severly impaired.
"I can sign," he says. "But I need more time now. I used to whip 'em out pretty good. I need more time and I've got to make sure I get it in the right place."
The grand obsession
He's been a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a pilot, a fisherman, a manager, a curmudgeon, a businessman, an author, a fund-raiser, a Sears spokesman, a land developer, a legend-in-residence and a friend to every Republican president from Nixon to Bush. But most of all, Williams is a hitter. Today at 75, unable to pick up a bat, unable to see anything that is not directly in front of his eyes, Williams rises in his chair when the subject turns to hitting. He wrote the book on hitting. He weighed his bats at the post office. The last of many biographies about him was called "Hitter" (by Ed Linn).
Hitting. It always was more important than eating, breathing or interacting with other human beings. Hitting is what made Williams light up inside. Still does. Ever seen teen-age boys mimic Chuck Berry or Eddie Van Halen, playing the imaginary air guitar? Williams -- when he isn't able to torture real pitchers with a real bat -- always has been one of the great air hitters.
Wofford Caldwell, 88, Williams' high school baseball coach, says, "That's all he wanted to do. Of course, the teachers would get upset every once in a while. He'd sit there in his seat in the classroom and practice his swing rather than listen to what they were talking about."
We ask Ted if he liked the ball high or low. It's like asking Ralph Nader about GM, Ford and Chrysler.
Got a minute? Got an hour? Got all week?
Sitting in a chair, Williams holds an imaginary bat and takes his rips at an imaginary fastball. He's air-hitting again.
"You hurt people up more than you do down," he says. "Baseball history is made in the air. A pitcher's best friend is a ground-ball double play. You hit all ground balls and you'll be there two years trying to get eight runs. You hit the ball in the air and you get a double, a triple, a walk, a bases- clearing hit, you can strike out a guy high, because the ball looks good. As I look back and I see all the hitters, I think three out of four hurt you more from belt up. Me, I wrote a book about it. I liked the ball about belt high, on the inner half of the plate."
"What about your head?" we ask. "Where should we tell a young hitter to keep his head?"
"You never think in terms of trying to pull the ball, or to hit home runs," says Williams. "The only way you do that is when you've got the count on the pitcher. You can't keep your head in it all the way. You decide where you're going to swing at that ball when it's over by the wall over there he points to a spot about 20 feet away. At that point, I've seen it and I've started to swing. But you can't focus from infinity to there. Your eyes won't do it that fast. You can't keep your head in all the way. You can't do it. If I really hit it, my left shoulder goes to shortstop. When your head flies off and they tell you that's the reason you missed it, that's expletive. Your head flies off because you missed the ball. The ball was already by you."
Some will say (and Henry Aaron no doubt is one) that hitting is all in the wrists. With Williams, it was the eyes and the hips. The Kid's vision was so superior, it became mythological. In opthalmology pop culture, Ted Williams is right up there with Elizabeth Taylor (violet eyes) Frank Sinatra (old blue eyes) and Bette Davis (eyes). It was said that he could read the label on a record while it spun on a turntable. And this was in an age of 78 r.p.m. Flattered, Williams denies the story.
"I had real good eyes," he says. "But that wasn't the thing that made me do well. I think I was a lot smarter at the plate. In the first place, you know they're scared of you. In the second place, they know you can hit a fastball. They get me out with a couple of curves, then I look for the curve . . . But I instinctively had a good eye at the plate. I could see a ball."
And when he saw the ball he wanted -- the ball belt high on the inside half of the plate, he opened his hips and went into his swing. Whammo.
He opened his hips. In his ballplaying days, Williams never was was a big, strong man. He didn't have Ted Kluszewski biceps. In his first year of professional baseball (1938), Williams was 6 feet 3 inches and weighed 168 pounds (hence: the Splendid Splinter). But he always had power. And the power came from his hips. Not enough hitters get their hips into the ball. The ones who utilize the hips have power that belies their physiques.
"Ken Griffey and Barry Bonds," Ted says. "Those two guys. They get hips into it. Matt Williams in 'Frisco, he opens his hips, just like Harmon Killebrew. That's a hard thing to teach, but it's always indirectly referred to when you're trying to get quickness or power. Otherwise, you do it all with your arms, and your arms are not as strong as your momentum and hips. The big thing about Joe DiMaggio and me, too -- my hands were here and it wasn't a swing. It's really just a hard push. That's the way DiMaggio hit, and now this kid Paul Molitor. Stan Musial, he opened his hips. All the great hitters open their hips."
We could say, "Enough about hitting," but not in the presence of Ted Williams. When the Kid is in the room, you can never say enough about hitting.
Covering the bases
"Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel."
This is what Williams said from the podium at Cooperstown when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966.
Theodore Samuel Williams was born to May and Sam Williams on Aug. 30, 1918, two weeks before Babe Ruth led the Red Sox to their last World Series victory. It's been written hundreds of times that Ted Williams was named after Teddy Roosevelt.
"Not that I know of," Williams says with a smile. "I think I was named after a friend of my father's. He had a friend, Ted Staid, somebody like that."
Williams' mother was a Salvation Army worker and the family didn't have a lot of money. His only sibling, brother Danny, was sickly. Danny never had much luck and died of leukemia when Ted was in his final season with the Red Sox in 1960.
"He had cancer of the bone marrow or some damn thing," Williams says. "He threw a ball or an orange at somebody and broke his damn arm."
Sixty years later, the memory still hurts. Williams turns in his chair and starts to say something about Danny, then stops himself and softly says, "Ah, expletive. It could have been me, you know."
Perhaps this is the root of Williams' life's work for the Jimmy Fund charity. He always has been insistent that he get no publicity for his deeds, but those on the inside know that Williams would go anywhere and do anything for children with cancer.
Baseball was Ted's ticket out of San Diego. He went from Herbert Hoover High School to the Pacific Coast League and arrived at the Back Bay train station in April 1939, ready to rip. He hit .327 as a rookie, .344 in his second season and .406 in his third. In 1941, Williams was the 13th player to crack .400 in the 20th century. It had last been done 11 years earlier by Bill Terry. Everybody figured it probably would happen again soon. Fifty-three years later, baseball waits.
In Williams' fourth big league season, he won the Triple Crown. He already was walking with the gods of the game.
Only the best of the best know the unique makeup of a baseball superstar. Among the living baseball elite, DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Aaron and Musial share the locker room with Williams.
Williams on Mantle: "He doesn't even know what the word 'famous' means or what the word 'accomplishment' means. He is the most unpretentious, down- to-earth guy. He doesn't realize what he did in baseball history. He is one of the nicest guys I ever met. I've got to say that about DiMaggio, too, but I'll tell you, Mantle is a real simple human being. I just think the world of him, I really do. I just think he's a hell of a guy. Of course, I think Mantle's got the one record that I say will last longer than any of 'em. Eighteen home runs he hit in the World Series. I don't think that will ever be matched."
Williams on Mays: "Willie Mays was quick. Willie Mays was so sensational. I was in 15 All-Star Games with him, and every time we had a close game and he got on, the s.o.b. would score. Somebody'd hurry a pitch and he'd steal second and then there'd be an error and he'd score a run. What a hell of a player he was."
Unlike a lot of ex-greats (Bob Feller comes to mind), Williams does not live in the past. He is not bitter about today's big money (Williams demanded that his pay be cut from $125,000 to $90,000 when he hit only .254 in 1959). And despite an abundance of evidence and sentiment to support him, he will not lecture you about how much better the game was in his day.
"I've been out of baseball, what, 23 years," he starts. "No! Thirty- three, 34 years I've been out of baseball. Nineteen sixty! I can't believe it! But I really feel like now there's as much ability as I ever saw in baseball, maybe more. But a funny thing . . . they don't know how to play the game. They don't know how to take advantage of the count, they don't know how to take advantage of a certain type of pitcher, how to take advantage of the wind.
"Everybody always tried to make it sound like I hated pitchers. That's not true. I never talked to 'em much because I didn't want them to think I was buttering up to them, but some of my best friends are pitchers. Early Wynn. Billy Pierce."
Williams doesn't like the way today's hitters charge the mound every time a pitcher comes inside. In Williams' day, you just got even. Herb Score came closest to hurting Williams with a pitch. Score, a flamethrowing lefty, threw a high, hard one that Williams still sometimes sees in his nightmares.
"I still don't know how I got out of the way of it," he says. "It was during the last part of the season. I was really mad at the time. In spring training the next year in Tucson, I faced him and he threw a low fastball and I hit it real good over the fence in center. I didn't say hello or anything, I just ran around the bases. So after the game, I shower up and on my way out, Score is coming in and I said, 'Hi, Herb,' and he said, 'You know, I want to tell you something. I never threw at you that day.' "
He comes alive as he tells the story.
Since the stroke, Williams' field of vision is narrowed, and his quality of life is not what it was. He can't do many of the things he loves to do. But he can still watch baseball on his 46-inch television screen. And he can still think about hitting.
arger than life.
Like so many of today's handy expressions, this one has lost its meaning. Lazy writers, broadcasters and talk-radio nitwits have diluted it beyond recognition. We hear it so many times, we hear it no more. Everybody from
Casey Kasem to Kato Kaelin has been described as "larger than life," and now when it finally fits, it's somehow not enough.