On this day 70 years ago, Ted Williams said, “[insert 1940s expletive here] it. I’m playing in the doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s, even if it costs me a .400 season.” None of that sitting-out stuff for the Red Sox legend. He got paid to play ball, and he was going to play ball.
And because he was one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, he went 6 for 8 in that 1941 twinbill to finish at .406. No one has batted .400 since in the major leagues, which suggests that – barring a rule change such as the outlawing of the breaking ball – no one may ever do it again.
I wrote about Williams in Tuesday’s paper. But I wanted to blog about him a little more today because he was such a fascinating guy – in every sense. Besides, I had some material left over that might interest you.
After my Teddy Ballgame piece was posted on The Washington Times website, John Underwood, his Boswell, emailed me a story he’d forgotten to tell when we’d talked a few days before. Here it is:
The season before Ted retired, he hit under .300 for the only time in his career [.254]. He had played with an injury, which was reason enough, but he was now 42 years old, and the end was at hand. When he went in to discuss his options (and contract renewal) with Red Sox G.M. Dick O’Connell, he had made up his mind that if given one more season (and the chance to atone), it would be his last. But O’Connell wouldn’t consider Ted retiring and had his contract ready for signature.
“Here it is, Ted,” he said. “Same as last year.” Meaning a salary of $125,000, the highest in baseball at the time, if you can imagine.
But Ted said no, that he “hadn’t deserved” that much the previous season, and that he would play one more for $90,000 – a $35,000 pay cut, or about 30 percent. O’Connell obliged and Ted played that last season. But it was a fine example of his unique fidelity to his craft, and can you imagine that happening today, with any professional player, in any sport?”
But then, Williams was a single-minded sort. And, of course, few pursuits are more single-minded than trying to hit .400. He once told Underwood (in an interview that’s part of John’s 2005 book, “It’s Only Me: The Ted Williams We Hardly Knew”): “I’ve always been a great admirer of [Charles] Lindbergh. His great obsession to want to be alone. He wanted his own life. He didn’t want to be glamorized. He didn’t want to be affected by all the limelight. I’d put him in the five men that I admire the most that I’ve ever known.”
That pretty well sums up Williams, too. He wanted his own life – apart from the madding crowd. That explains, at least partially, his affection for such solitary activities as hunting and fishing.
“His hero, if you want to call it that, was [author] Zane Grey,” Underwood told me, “because Zane Grey had that three-masted schooner. He wrote on it, as I recall, but he traveled the world on it. And Ted thought that was an idyllic life.”
One more Teddy Ballgame story before we roll the credits. Much has been written about Williams’ heroism as a pilot in the Korean War, about how he landed a burning plane on its belly and easily could have died. Well, near the end of Ted’s life, Underwood and his family visited him in Hernando, Fla. Included in the contingent was John’s son Josh, who’s in the military now and is going to Afghanistan next month.
Underwood: “Ted invited us into this room where he kept all his memorabilia, and there was there a soft, cushy carpet underneath us in the middle of the room. Josh looked down and said, ‘Mr. Williams, that’s the Marine insignia.’ And Ted looked at him and kinda said out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Yeah, kid. It’s the best team I ever played for.’ And I truly believe that he felt that way. He had a sensitivity for things like that that was, I think, very endearing.”
Time to get this blog posted. After all, they’re getting ready to throw the first pitch at Shibe Park on Sept. 28, 1941. Here, courtesy of baseball-reference.com, are the box scores of Game 1 and Game 2 that day. And here’s Williams’ game log for that remarkable season, in case you’re curious to see how somebody could hit .400 – which as Ted once put it, is the equivalent of “going 2 for 5 every day.”
Ted Williams. There’ll never be another like him.
It would be nice to think Williams’ spirit is alive and well in baseball, but …
Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field, exactly 70 years after Ted risked his .400 season by playing a doubleheader on the final day, the Mets’ Jose Reyes, vying for the National League batting title, was removed by manager Terry Collins after bunting for a hit in his first at bat.
This left him with a .3371 average – and is going to make it awfully tough for the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, now at .3345, to top him. According to Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com, “To pass him, Braun must record at least three hits in no more than four at-bats Wednesday night against Pittsburgh. A 3-for-3 evening will put him at .3381; a 3-for-4 evening will give Braun a .3375 average. Anything less would leave Reyes with his first batting title.”
All this so Reyes could be the leader in the clubhouse at a lofty .337 – a mere 69 points lower than Williams hit in 1941. As Teddy Ballgame might say: Harrumph.