In baseball and beyond, Williams was a true American hero
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 07/06/02
Sparring and slugging
Before the 1940 season, Yawkey had the right-field fences in Fenway Park brought in, making them more accessible to Williams’s powerful lefthanded swing. But he actually hit fewer home runs that season (23 overall, only 9 in Fenway) and did not respond well to criticism from the fans and press. He ripped Boston, his contract, and reportedly expressed a wish to be traded in an inflammatory interview. Dave Egan, a Harvard-educated lawyer and columnist for the Record who would be one of Williams’s harshest critics, wrote: "Williams is the prize heel ever to wear a Boston uniform.’’
It would be merely one of the opening salvos in a decades-long conflict Williams had with Boston writers, whom he derisively called "the knights of the keyboard.’’
"His dealing with the writers is his business,’’ Yawkey said. "Bad language and not hustling on the field is ours. I feel sorry for him. He had the writers and the fans, practically the whole world, at his feet. Now he is tossing it all away, and he is the only loser.’’
But Williams, in a pattern that was repeated throughout his career, seemed to play best when the controversy was thickest. He hit four home runs in the next few days and finished the season with six hits in eight at-bats in a doubleheader.
"Hitting for Williams,’’ wrote biographer Michael Seidel, "was a favored stepchild of incitement.’’
Williams, in a Globe feature, said, "I hit better when I’m mad. I’m sharper. My reactions are quicker. My sensibilities keener.’’
Williams chipped a bone in his right ankle in spring training in 1941, and was limited to pinch hitting when the season opened April 15. It was a slow start to what would become an epic campaign, one in which Joe DiMaggio claimed most of the newspaper headlines for his record 56-game hitting streak but one in which Williams made a lasting claim on the history books by hitting .406.
Williams, who didn’t begin playing full time until April 29, had a 30-day span, from May 17 to June 17, in which he batted .477, with 52 hits and 10 home runs. According to biographer Seidel, it was the best 30-day span of his career. He also outhit DiMaggio during the latter’s streak, batting .412 to DiMaggio’s .408 (Williams went hitless in eight games while DiMaggio’s streak was alive).
On July 8, 1941, Williams hit perhaps the most dramatic home run in the history of the All-Star Game, connecting for a three-run blast off Claude Passeau of the Chicago Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving the American League a 7-5 come-from-behind victory over the National League. The ball hit the third deck in Briggs Stadium.
It was, Kyle Crichton of Colliers magazine would later write, "a wallop which for altitude, violence and timeliness has never been bettered by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Shoeless Joe Jackson, or anybody else in the history of the world.’’
On Sept. 1, Williams hit three home runs in a doubleheader at Fenway Park, and he entered the last day of the season in Philadelphia batting .3995. If he chose not to play in that day’s doubleheader against the Athletics, his average would have been rounded up to .400. Williams elected to play.
He later wrote: "As I came up to bat for the first time that day, the Philadelphia catcher, Frankie Hayes, said, ‘Ted, Mr. Mack told us if we let up on you he’ll run us out of baseball. I wish you all the luck in the world, but we’re not giving you a damn thing.’’’
What Connie Mack’s Athletics would not give, Williams took. He went 6 for 8 in the doubleheader -- 4 for 5 including a home run in Game 1, 2 for 3 in the second game -- to finish at .406.