My Favorite Player: Ted Williams
Ted Williams was my hero. I was born in 1945, grew up in Greater Boston and wasn’t the only one who held Ted in such high esteem. For a teenage boy in the 1950s, what wasn’t there to like about Ted Williams? He was one of the greatest hitters ever. He was a war hero. He raised money to help fight cancer in kids. And he was a rebel, refusing to wear a necktie to social events. He was his own man and he excelled at what he chose to take on. I had no interest in fishing, but I knew he was considered one of the best at that, too.
It started when he was young. He’d been born in San Diego on August 30, 1918, to a photographer father and a Mexican mother who was a tireless Salvation Army evangelist. As a kid, he benefited from a climate that permitted baseball year-round and he lived a block and a half from North Park, where he could hit until the city lights went out at 9 p.m. He took advantage. He would hit and hit and hit baseballs.
When he wasn’t actually hitting (and he’d sometimes use his school lunch money to pay kids to shag balls for him), he was visualizing doing so — swinging a bat (or anything else he could find.) A supportive city playground director, Rod Luscomb, encouraged him. Even in the majors, when he got into a brief slump, he’d sometimes be found at the park taking batting practice after everyone else had gone home.
After he retired from a major league career that ran from 1939 through 1960, Williams was asked if there was anything he would have done differently. He said he’d have taken even more batting practice.
He stood out as a pitcher as well as a batter at San Diego’s Hoover High School, and in 1936 he was signed by his hometown Pacific Coast League ballclub, the San Diego Padres. He immediately impressed manager Frank Shellenback, who later told how Ted would ask for a couple of baseballs every night as he left practice. Shellenback thought he was selling them, this being the depths of the Depression, but Ted said, no, he wore them out, hitting. Shellenback drove by the North Park playground and, sure enough, saw Ted swinging a chipped bat with blisters on his hands that had literally bled. He had that dedication and determination from an early age.
In 1937, Ted Williams helped the San Diego Padres win the PCL title with 23 home runs.
After his first year with the Padres, Ted returned to school for his senior year. He graduated, but for his first several years in the majors even his baseball cards claimed his birthday was October 30. He’d fibbed, so he wouldn’t be distracted during the baseball season by someone wishing him a happy birthday. This was focus taken to an extreme.
Hitting a baseball, Williams always said, was the hardest thing to do in sports — to hit a round ball with a round bat when the ball is thrown at you something over 80 mph. And it wasn’t as though the pitcher was trying to help you by laying the ball in there nice and easy. The pitcher and eight other defenders were doing all they could to deceive and defeat the batter. Unlike other professions where failing 70 percent of the time would result in immediate termination, succeeding in baseball only 30 percent of the time (in other words, hitting .300) brought a batter untold riches.
Williams played a second year for the Padres in 1937 and then was signed by the Boston Red Sox. He was given one more year of seasoning with the Minneapolis Millers, a Red Sox farm club. He proved he was ready, winning the Triple Crown in the American Association with a .366 average, 43 homers, and 114 runs batted in.
After signing with the Boston Red Sox in 1938, Williams spent one year playing for the club’s farm team, the Minneapolis Millers.
In his first year in the major leagues, with Boston in 1939, he set a rookie record that has never been equaled — by driving in 145 runs. Perhaps equally extraordinarily, he drew 107 bases on balls. And he earned those walks, because rookies never got any benefit of the doubt from umpires in those days.
Ted knew the strike zone and disciplined himself not to swing at balls outside it. “Get a good pitch to hit” was the mantra taught him by Rogers Hornsby, the batting instructor for Minneapolis. In short order, Ted became legendary for his patience at the plate to the point that numerous catchers told anecdotes of the umpire letting them know, “If Mr. Williams did not swing at it, that pitch was not a strike.”
Even today, in the second decade of the 21st century, Williams still holds the record for the highest percentage of walks drawn during a career: 20.75%. Because he also hit for a .344 career batting average (only five batters since 1900 have a higher one), adding all his bases on balls to his batting average boosts him to a .482 on-base percentage. Williams ranks No. 1 all-time in that highly regarded statistic.
I got to about 15 games a year from the time I was 12, and always thought Ted was going to hit a home run every time up. Or if not that, at least get a hit. The year I turned 12 was, some might say, Ted’s greatest year – 1957. I knew by then that he was the last player to hit above .400 for a full season back in 1941. And I knew he’d bumped his average up from .399 to .406 by going 6-for-8 in a doubleheader on the final day of the season. It has been more than 70 years and counting, and no one with enough qualifying plate appearances has hit .400 since 1941.
In 1957, the year Williams turned 39, he hit .388. His on-base percentage was .526 – more than half the time he came to the plate, he got on base.
It was hard work. From his earliest days, he grilled players to distraction asking what a given pitcher threw, and asking them situationally. What would he throw when he was ahead in the count? What if there were a runner in scoring position?
Williams broke in at a time when no one had ever seen baseball on television. He had no access to videos to study, no access to computers. Everything he could learn, he filed away in his mind. There were no strength and conditioning specialists and no team nutritionists. One wonders how well he might have done with all the tools available today.
He did have an inquiring mind, though, and apparently a good memory for detail. Even a few decades after he retired, he said he could remember every one of his first 400 home runs – and, perhaps equally well, the strikeouts, the times a pitcher had fooled him.
He studied the ball. He met with physics professors at MIT to learn what made a ball curve. He’s said to have looked at some of the wind tunnel studies, and Dr. Harold Edgerton’s stop-action photography that helped him study good form at the plate. He usually carried a tennis ball, doing arm and wrist strengthening exercises before others really did that sort of thing.
Nothing thrilled him more than hitting a home run – and he combined hitting for average and power. He was only the fourth man to hit 500 homers; he finished with 521. He ranks second all-time, trailing only Babe Ruth, in slugging percentage. And he didn’t strike out much at all – less than 10 percent of the time. In three years, he had more homers than strikeouts – 1941, 1950, and 1955.
Williams did all this despite losing most of five seasons to military service – three full years in World War II and a year and a half during the Korean War. In the latter, he flew 39 combat missions, working as a dive bomber. He flew seven of those missions with John Glenn and was shot down once. He came back and, with no spring training and having been out of the game for more than a year, hit .407 in 91 at-bats.
Ted won the Triple Crown twice (1942 and 1947), was named MVP twice (1946 and 1949), and won six batting titles. He let the league in OBP 12 times. He was named to the Hall of Fame in 1966. His 1970 book, The Science of Hitting, remains in print today, a bible of batting.
Ted Williams accomplished his goal in life — to be seen as perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Despite missing nearly five seasons to military service, the “Splendid Splinter” amassed 2,654 career hits and 521 home runs.