In baseball and beyond, Williams was a true American hero
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 07/06/02
Still some left
Williams flew 36 more reconnaissance missions after the narrow escape from his burning aircraft, and his tour was finally cut short after he contracted pneumonia. He returned to the US in time to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1953 All-Star Game in Cincinnati on July 14, and returned to Boston’s starting lineup on Aug. 16, hitting a home run and a double in Fenway Park. Williams hit a startling .462 in his first three weeks back and .407 overall, with 13 home runs in just 91 at-bats. In January 1954, Williams’s wife Doris filed for divorce. On the first day of spring training, Williams broke his collarbone diving for a fly ball, underwent surgery, and wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post titled, "This Is My Last Year in Baseball.’’ He would be turning 36 in August.
But in his first full day back, on May 16 in a doubleheader in Detroit, Williams had eight hits, including two home runs, in nine at-bats. He finished the season batting a league-high .345 but was just short of the number of at-bats needed to qualify for the batting title. Though he did not report to spring training the next year, Williams rejoined the Red Sox on May 13, four days after his divorce settlement was finalized.
Williams bruised his instep in the second game of the 1956 season, which was marred by another spitting incident. On Aug. 7, in front of a sellout crowd at Fenway Park drawn to a game against the Yankees, Williams dropped a fly ball by rival star Mickey Mantle in the 11th inning, during a brief rainstorm. In response to the boos that followed, Williams spat in the direction of the fans sitting behind the dugout, spat toward the press box and, when he came to the plate, spat toward the Yankees. Even though he walked with the bases loaded to force in the winning run, he was not mollifled, flinging his bat in disgust. Yawkey fined him $5,000.
"Ted Williams should do himself a favor,’’ Kaese wrote in the Globe. "He should quit baseball before baseball quits him.’’
The next home game was "Family Night’’ at Fenway Park. Fans gave him a five-minute standing ovation, and Williams later hit a home run. When he reached home plate, he put his hand over his mouth.
"For the rest of his playing career,’’ historian Glenn Stout wrote, "Williams was viewed in a different light. Public opinion sided with him, and he became immune to the withering attacks of the writers, who eventually backed off. Overnight, as if Boston fans realized that Ted Williams was all they had, everything was forgiven, and Williams was greeted and applauded as he had been in his rookie year. A long, uncomfortable estrangement was over.’’
At an age when many players have already retired, Williams made a remarkable run at .400 again in 1957, the year he turned 39. In the last half of the season, he batted .453. After a late-season bout with the chronic flu condition that plagued him for years, he had 12 hits in his final 18 at-bats. In his final 31 plate appearances, he was on base 25 times, including a record-setting 16 times in a row, and finished the season with a league-leading .388 average.
Another batting title followed in 1958, a season in which he was plagued by food poisoning and injuries to his wrist, side, and ankle. He also was mortified when he threw his bat in anger on Sept. 21 and it flew into the stands, striking Gladys Heffernan, the cleaning lady of his former manager, Joe Cronin. Heffernan sustained only a cut on the forehead.
In 1959, bothered badly by a sore neck, Williams hit a career low .254, and needed eight hits in his last 13 at-bats to reach that figure. Ready to retire? Not quite.
"I don’t want to give up something I love,’’ he said.