- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

The way it was

During a generation as possibly baseball's best hitter ever, Ted Williams rapped 2,659 hits in regular-season and World Series play. But the Boston Red Sox slugger always said the best of all was one that didn't count in the official records.
Briggs Stadium, Detroit, July 8, 1941: With two out in the bottom of the ninth inning, Williams slugged a mammoth three-run homer off Claude Passeau of the Chicago Cubs to give the American League a 7-5 victory in baseball's ninth All-Star Game.
Said Williams afterward: "It was the kind of thing a kid dreams about and imagines himself doing when he's on the playground. I've never been so happy."
Sixty years later, grown old and feeble, Williams was making similar comments. Most students of baseball history have anointed Ted's dramatic home run in his final at-bat in 1960 as the Kid's greatest moment. But Ted apparently never changed his mind.
Today the All-Star Game, like so much else in sports, has the unsweet smell of excess a glittering prime-time spectacle whose appeal ends, for many TV fans, after the players are introduced. And even sometimes before then, if your favorite jock has skipped the game because of a hangnail or some similar "injury."
In the simpler world of 1941, though, baseball's "Midsummer Classic" was the real deal. Arguments still raged over which major league was better, but American League adherents seemed to have the stronger argument when the Junior Loop that's what it was called back then, honest captured five of the first eight games. And when the National League (aka the Senior Circuit) took a 5-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth of the 1941 game, it appeared poised to win back-to-back games for the first time.
Passeau, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander pitching his third inning, retired the first batter, then yielded a pair of singles. Up came Joe DiMaggio, who had hit safely in a record 48 consecutive regular-season games, and the Yankee Clipper rapped an apparent game-ending double play ball to short. But Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators slid hard into second baseman Billy Herman, causing an errant relay to first as a run scored.
That made it 5-4 and, worse for the Nationals, brought Williams to the plate. At 22, Ted was tearing up the pea patch, as famed Brooklyn broadcaster Red Barber might have said, with a .405 batting average after hitting .327 and .344 his first two seasons. And now, appropriately enough in the Motor City, the wheels started turning as 54,674 spectators held their breath.
One inning earlier, Passeau had gotten Williams on a called third strike that Ted thought was low. So as the Nationals gathered at the mound to discuss how to pitch to Williams as though there were any effective way he asked umpire Babe Pinelli where that pitch had been. "Right at the knees," Pinelli insisted, referring to the bottom of the strike zone in those days.
"Then I sort of gave myself a fight talk," Williams told publisher J.G. Taylor Spink of the Sporting News after the game. "I said, 'Listen, you lug. He outguessed you last time, and you got caught. Let's swing a little earlier this time and see if we can connect.'
"Passeau pitched to me pretty careful. I had him in the hole [with a 2-1 count], and the next one would be in there. And there it was a fast one, chest high. I got my bat on it, and away it sailed. I wasn't sure it would clear the roof until I saw it hit the front of that third deck up there in the sky."
In other words, boom!
Final score: American League 7, National League 5.
Clapping his hands excitedly as he trotted around the bases, Williams was a picture of pure exuberance. Then and after the game, his smile was broad enough to light up all of baseball. And his fellow American Leaguers shared his joy. Wrote Gerry Moore in the Boston Globe: "Hardened veterans and more publicized stars like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Joe Cronin and Jimmie Foxx were suddenly transformed into boyish hero worshippers."
Feller, the Cleveland Indians' ace who had pitched the first three innings, ran onto the field in street clothes and leaped to congratulate Williams. Coach Del Baker went further, planting a huge kiss on Ted's face.
Said Passeau: "The instant the pitch left my hand, I knew I was a dead duck. The American League ball seems to travel farther."
It certainly did, at least when Williams hit it.
The Red Sox remained in Detroit when the regular season resumed. Three days after the All-Star Game, Williams reinjured a tender ankle hustling like a rookie after Boston manager Cronin reprimanded him for some lax play in left field. But nothing could spoil this greatest of seasons for Teddy Ballgame. He missed a few games, then resumed banging away at a clip unparalleled since Bill Terry had batted .401 for the New York Giants in 1930.
On the final day of the season, facing a double header against Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, Williams was batting .3995, technically, a .400 average. Cronin offered to let him sit out the games. Williams scoffed and then had six hits in eight at-bats to finish at .406.
That stratospheric batting average is what most fans recall about Williams' 1941 season, but at the time it was a distant second to the All-Star Game home run. After all, Ted was still the Kid surely he would hit .400 again.
His career interrupted by two wars in which he served as a Marine fighter pilot, Williams never did (though he came startlingly close in 1957 with a .388 average at the age of 38). But neither has anyone else, of course.
Over the past 60 years, many historic homers have streaked through the skies, launched by men named Thomson, Mazeroski, Maris, Aaron, Fisk, Jackson, Dent, Carter, McGwire and Bonds. The world is very different now, both within and without baseball, but the drama and excitement of the Big Blow remain with us. How fitting that Teddy Ballgame provided two of them 19 years apart in a career for the ages.

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