- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

It’s the end of a long day of hunting in Africa. Ted Williams and John Underwood, his friend and writing collaborator, are in their tent trying to get to sleep, the faint light of a lantern casting everything in shadows.

Underwood, bone tired, is talking to Williams with his eyes closed when the famed ballplayer, who has just finished his first year as the Washington Senators’ manager, starts talking about one of his players - specifically his batting stroke and the modifications that might be made to it.

“So I’m listening to him,” Underwood recalls, “and all of a sudden I can hear him grunting. And I open my eyes, and he’s up in the tent, and he’s swinging an imaginary bat at an imaginary ball. I don’t know how many swings he made, probably six or seven, but he’s just expounding on his science of hitting. … I can’t remember which player it was. I know he tried to get [Frank] Howard to get his hips into the ball.”

Williams never stopped thinking about hitting, about the elusive geometry of applying bat to ball — even when he was in the other side of the Atlantic, in the heart of the Zambian wilderness. And baseball folks never have stopped thinking about him, about the wondrous things he could do with a tapered slab of white ash.

Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams stands July 1, 1941, on the steps of the dugout at Yankee Stadium before the game. (Associated Press)
Boston Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams stands July 1, 1941, on the ... more >

In his 19 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, “Teddy Ballgame” won six batting titles, hit 521 home runs, drew 2,021 deferential walks — and would have added to those totals considerably if he hadn’t spent five years in the military (three during World War II and two in Korea, where he nearly lost his life when the plane he was piloting was hit by enemy fire).

None of his exploits inspires quite as much awe, though, as his .406 average in 1941. No major leaguer, of course, has hit .400 since. The closest anyone has come in a full season is George Brett’s .390 mark for Kansas City in 1980 (though San Diego’s Tony Gwynn was at .394 in August 1994 when the players went on strike, not to return until the following spring).

Indeed, it was 70 years ago Wednesday that Williams, in storybook fashion, capped his season for the ages by refusing to sit out a doubleheader on the final day and going 6-for-8 against the Philadelphia A’s. This raised his average from a precarious .39955 to .406 … and may very well make him the last .400 hitter.

It never ceased to surprise Williams that he occupied this particular place in history. After all, in 1941, there was no reason to think the feat would never be accomplished again. The .400 mark, though lofty, had been reached by several hitters in the previous few decades, including Bill Terry (.401 in 1930), Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb. Williams himself told Underwood, “I always thought I would do it again. I didn’t think this was going to be a milestone like it’s certainly become.”

.406 stands test of time

Besides, he was just 23 at the end of that season. He had his whole magnificent career ahead of him. But only once after that did he flirt with .400 — when, at the improbable age of 38 in 1957, he wound up at .388, five hits short.

No, his .406 is looking more and more like it might be eternal. It even survived the steroid era - and the early years of baseball in Colorado, where Andres Galarraga went from being a .243 hitter with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992 to being a .370 colossus with the Rockies in ‘93. Granted, Williams played in the years before integration - not to mention closers - but he also played when there were 16 teams, not the watered-down 30 we have today. (It also bears mentioning that there was a primacy to baseball back then that doesn’t exist today. Simply put, it was the No. 1 sport, the cool sport, and attracted most of the best athletes.)

Underwood, a former Sports Illustrated writer, is hoping there’s still enough nostalgia for Williams to get a movie made about him - for which he’ll supply the screenplay. His timing would seem to be advantageous. A play about Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach, recently ran on Broadway, and the baseball film “Moneyball” just had a big first weekend in theaters. Sports aren’t easily dramatized, especially if the story is familiar; but if you can pull it off, the result can be powerful — not to mention profitable.

A movie in the making?

So Underwood has written a treatment, and erstwhile Washington publicist Fred Sternburg, who now has his own firm outside Denver, is shopping it around. Sternburg got to know Underwood a couple of years ago while promoting HBO’s documentary on Williams and talked him into becoming involved in a film project. Sternburg has much admiration for the Red Sox great. It was passed down to him by his father, who grew up in the Boston area and gifted him with a copy of “My Turn at Bat,” the bestselling autobiography Williams did with Underwood.

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