- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 6, 2002

There are few people who can be called the best ever at a particular craft. Such opinions are by nature subjective, but for what it's worth I consider Frank Sinatra the best popular singer, Bill ("Calvin and Hobbes") Watterson the best comic strip artist and Mel Brooks the funniest person.

When it comes to the best I've ever seen at hitting a baseball, that's no contest either. In the 127-year history of major league baseball, only a few guys could match Theodore Samuel Williams. Guys named Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, which is very fast company.

The obituaries for Williams, who died of congestive heart failure yesterday at 83, will tell of his .344 lifetime batting average and 521 home runs numbers achieved even though he was the only big-time star forced to do Marine hitches in both World War II and Korea.

What they won't tell you is how dominating a personality he was. When Teddy Ballgame his pet name for himself was in a room, everybody else shrunk by comparison. And not just because of his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame.

Well remembered is a night in 1969 when Williams, then rookie manager of the Washington Senators, found his usual postgame monologue being interrupted by Washington Star columnist Morris Siegel, a renowned gagster who was trying to get somebody to laugh at his one-liners.

Williams, whose hearing had been impaired in wartime, tended to be very loud and very profane. "I'll tell you something, Mo," he thundered. "You don't know [a expletive] thing about baseball, and you ain't [expletive] funny either, so shut up or get out of my [expletive] office."

Siegel, a man who had confronted kings and statesmen, sat down and shut up. He might even have squeaked.

Excessive modesty was never a problem for Williams. When he was a spring training rookie with the Red Sox in 1938. a teammate told him, "Wait until you see [famous slugger] Jimmie Foxx hit."

Williams, then a skinny 175-pounder of 20, jumped on that one like a fastball over the middle: "Wait until Foxx sees me hit."

The Red Sox sent Williams down to Class AAA Minneapolis, where he batted .366 and failed to find humility. The following season, he returned to the Red Sox and hit .327 with a .609 slugging percentage, 31 home runs and 145 RBI. (Foxx didn't do badly himself that season: .360 batting average, .694 slugging, 35 homers and 105 RBI while playing 25 fewer games than Williams because of a balky appendix.)

Even when Williams was in his 40s, in the late 1950s, his confidence never wavered. One day in the clubhouse, a Boston outfielder named Carroll Hardy asked the great man what he did to get out of a slump.

That one was easy. "Teddy Ballgame don't have no [expletive] slumps, Bush," Teddy Ballgame roared, employing his favorite moniker for young players.

When Williams batted .406 in 1941, it was no big deal because everybody thought he would top .400 several more times. But the way he did it would have been deemed too theatrical even for Hollywood's hokiest scriptwriter.

Going into the final day of the season, Ted was batting .3996 technically a .400 average when rounded off. Manager Joe Cronin, himself a good enough ballplayer to have managed and shortstopped the Senators to a pennant in 1933, offered Williams a chance to preserve his average by sitting out a meaningless doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics.

Williams declined loudly and profanely, we may assume. Then he went out and got six hits in eight at-bats against the A's.

Ted's left-handed swing was a thing of perfection. He had a devastating short stroke, as well as the best eyes in baseball. If a pitch was an inch off the plate, Williams wouldn't swing; each year he led the American League in walks if Washington third baseman Eddie Yost, another persnickety batter, didn't. When an umpire called a strike on a pitch Ted had passed up, the man in blue had reason to schedule a trip to his optometrist.

Nearly all of Williams' hits were pulled to right field, and so it was in 1946 that Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau invented the Boudreau Shift in which the shortstop played to the right of second base, leaving only one defender on the left side of the infield. Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich described this strategy memorably: "At first the crowd was silent, not sure what it was seeing. But then the shift hit the fans."

Stubborn as always, Williams refused most of the time to poke the ball to the opposite field for sure hits. When he unexpectedly laid one down during the Red Sox's pennant-winning 1946 season, a Boston headline screamed, "WILLIAMS BUNTS!"

But nothing else in Williams' career matched for drama the home run in his final time at bat on Sept.28, 1960. Ted was 42, and everyone knew he was packing it in after a season in which his .316 average redeemed a startling .254 figure in an injury-plagued 1959 season.

On a dark and dank day at Fenway Park, Williams came up empty on his first three trips. But in the bottom of the eighth, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher tried to throw a fastball past Ted. Outward and onward it sailed into the right-center field bleachers for Williams' 521st home run as the intimate gathering of 10,454 roared and roared.

As Williams rounded the bases, observers wondered whether he might tip his cap to the fans something he had steadfastly refused to do for years. Remaining totally in character, Ted didn't do it this time either. Nor did he emerge from the dugout for a curtain call despite the pleas of the multitude.

Explained author John Updike in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," his prize-winning New Yorker magazine account of that afternoon, "Gods do not answer letters."

Then Teddy Ballgame was gone, spending his days fishing for the big ones in Florida and elsewhere until owner Bob Short unexpectedly and inexplicably coaxed him into managing the Senators in '69. With Ted showing 'em how, most Washington players raised their batting averages sharply that season as the usually deplorable Senators finished 86-76 and Williams was named American League Manager of the Year. As Dizzy Dean might have put it, who would ever have thunk it?

Ted's subsequent three seasons managing the Senators/Texas Rangers were much less successful, but it didn't matter. For baseball fans everywhere, the only true image of Williams showed him swinging a bat on behalf of the Red Sox. Nobody since Ruth had done it as consistently well, and perhaps no one ever will again.

Williams often was criticized for not being a team man, for not paying attention to fielding, for leading the Red Sox to only one pennant in his long career, for throwing occasional temper tantrums. These things don't matter either. In comparison with contemporary superstars like Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, he indeed was a one-dimensional guy. But what a dimension.

At Williams' death, sadly, the sport he loved so much appears headed the same way. Journeymen players now earn $2 million or $3 million a season (Ted's top salary was $125,000), competitive balance is virtually nonexistent, owners and jocks don't even pretend to be negotiating in good faith and the specter of another, possibly fatal work stoppage looms in September. The grand old game is a grand old mess, but there always will be moments and memories to cherish and Teddy Ballgame provided more than his share.

As a young player, Ted Williams told a writer, "When I walk down the street, I want people to say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" Truth be told, he came very close.

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