His desire made wish come true
By Bob Ryan, Globe Columnist, 07/05/02
It just shows how some people really are larger than life, because a) if any man in the second half of the 20th century was framed in terms of his ability to hit a baseball, it was Ted Williams; and b) he never was shy about expressing his opinions.
He was, of course, more than just a masher of baseballs. He was a certified war hero, a member of the Fishing Hall of Fame, and the man most associated with the Jimmy Fund. In and out of uniform, he was a true larger-than-life figure. But his ultimate fame is rooted in his extraordinary ability to hit baseballs where fielders could not catch them.
We can cut right through the clutter and get right to a reasonably solid premise. The two greatest all-around hitters of all-time were Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.
Ty Cobb may have hit .366 lifetime, but he was almost disdainful of the power game. You’d love to have Cobb batting in front of either The Babe or The Thumper. He was a different type of batter, surely the best of all the singles hitters. For power and average combined, however, he does not enter into the discussion. At the exalted Ruth-Williams level, very few do.
For all their staggering numbers, each man’s career carried a significant ‘‘What-If?’’ What if Ruth had been an outfielder from the beginning of his career? He never had 400 plate appearances until 1919, his fifth full season in the majors. Granted, he would have been swinging at a dead ball, but he surely would have had more home runs and more runs batted in than anyone else. He led the league in home runs 12 times and slugging percentage 13 times as it was. It is quite reasonable to assume he would have won at least two more titles in each category.
What if Williams had not lost all of 1943, 1944, and 1945 to service in World War II? What if Williams had not been restricted to 43 games and 101 at-bats in 1952 and 1953, when he was called up to fly dangerous combat missions in Korea? He had won the batting title in 1941 and 1942. He would win it in 1947 and 1948. He was in the midst of winning six slugging percentage titles in six available seasons from 1941-49. Is it not fair to assume he would have added to that count?
He averaged 32 home runs a year during his first 10 seasons. Give him just his average of 32 for those three WW II seasons and his average of 26 for the years 1954-1960 (an undercount, since he hit 13 home runs in a mere 91 at-bats after his discharge in ’53). This would boost his career home run total from 521 to 637, give or take a mortar shot.
It doesn’t end there. What if Williams had not broken his left elbow in Comiskey Park while making a nice over-the-shoulder running catch of a Ralph Kiner drive in the first inning of the 1950 All-Star Game? Williams always maintained he was never the same hitter after sustaining this injury.
In his 1993 biography, ‘‘Hitter,’’ Williams is quoted by Ed Linn on the subject. ‘‘If you really want to get technical about it,’’ said Williams, ‘‘my arm bent about 15 to 20 degrees after the operation, and I never had quite the extension on an outside pitch I had before.’’ Williams estimated that no more than 90 percent of his original extension ever returned.
‘‘And I lost a little power,’’ Williams continued. ‘‘I lost a little of the whoooossh. My arm always hurt me a little bit after that; there was always a kind of stiffness. I really was surprised that I hit as well as I did for five years.’’
Post elbow, the impaired Williams slugged .901 in those 91 at-bats in ’53; hit .345 with a .635 slugging pct. in ’54; hit .356 with a .703 slugging pct. in ’55; hit .345 with a .605 slugging pct. in ’56; hit a transcendent .388 with a perhaps even more dazzling .731 slugging pct. in ’57, the year he turned 39; and, finally, hit .316 with a .645 slugging pct. and 29 homers in 310 at-bats at age 42 in his farewell season of 1960.
We’d have to say the biography by Mr. Linn was aptly named.
Ruth and Williams hardly could have been more different in their approach to the game. Ruth was the ultimate Natural. He was on his way to a Hall of Fame pitching career when he was switched to primary status as an outfielder in 1919. As he evolved into the most feared slugger the game ever had known, he did not give treatises on hitting. It was all pretty simple: They threw it and he hit it.
Williams studied hitting as if he had been assigned to the Manhattan Project. It is frightening to think what he could have been in the era of videotape, because he was so far ahead of everyone in his day simply by using his five senses. Nothing about either hitting or pitching escaped him, and nothing was deemed too trivial. He studied pitchers. He studied umpires. He studied wind patterns. He was even credited with pioneering the use of rosin, mixing the powder with olive oil to make a sticky substance that pre-dated pine tar by about 10 years.
One thing each man recognized was the value of a base on balls. The Babe led the league in walks 11 times. The Thumper led the league in that category eight times (add a minimum of three if given a full career).
But Williams clearly was the most patient and precise man who ever played the game. Take the day in 1957 when, in his first three at-bats against Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, he took three strikes, walked on four pitches, ran a count to 3-2 and then, on his .rst swing of the day on pitch No. 13, hit a home run that gave the Red Sox a 1-0 victory.
Ted’s explanation? Shortstop Harvey Kuenn had been positioned on pitches 1 through 12 in such a way that Bunning’s delivery appeared to be coming out of his uniform. Kuenn had re-positioned himself before the 3-2 pitch.
Over and above the statistics, he was a majestic hitter. There was such a thing as a Ted Williams Home Run. Observed John Updike in his memorable 1960 New Yorker essay, ‘‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’’: ‘‘I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman’s head and rose methodically along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different than anything anyone else might hit.’’
Quantitatively on a par with The Babe, and qualitatively on a par with no one, Ted Williams should have gone to his grave happily secure in the knowledge that knowledgeable people had granted him his great wish.Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.