- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

"All I want out of life," the 20-year-old Red Sox outfielder remarked after arriving in Boston in 1939 for his rookie season, "is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " Ted Williams, who died Friday at age 83, restated that goal throughout his Hall of Fame career. By the time he retired in 1960 after hitting his 521st home run in his final time at bat a feat that put him in third place behind Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx on the career home-run list at the time nobody could be accused of being crazy if he insisted that "The Splendid Splinter" had achieved his goal. During the four decades that have transpired since "Teddy Ballgame" called it a career, nine players have surpassed him on the career home-run chart, but the argument on behalf of "The Thumper" has become stronger over time.

Despite the fact that "The Kid" sacrificed nearly five full seasons at two different peaks in his baseball career to serve as a U.S. fighter pilot during World War II and the Korean War, his baseball accomplishments are stunning to behold. In 1941, Williams became what history has recorded to be the last player to hit .400 for a season. Refusing to sit out the season's final-day doubleheader to protect a .39955 average that would have officially entered the record books as .400, Williams instead played both games, collecting six hits in eight times at bat and finishing the season at .406. It was one of six batting titles he won.

Williams led the American League in home runs four times, runs-batted-in (RBIs) four times and runs scored six times. How much did his war service cost him in the record books? Consider this fact: In each of the two years before his World War II (1943-1945) service and each of the four years following his return, he led the league in slugging average a cumulative power statistic that measures a hitter's total bases (home runs [4], triples [3], doubles [2] and singles) relative to his times at bat. Williams's career slugging average is second to Ruth's. But Ruth never won the Triple Crown (leading the league in home runs, RBIs and batting average), a feat that only Williams and Rogers Hornsby accomplished twice and that Williams would have achieved a third time if sacrifice flies were recorded as they are today. Having led the league in walks eight times, Williams holds the record of .482 for career on-base percentage.

Williams, who flew 39 Korean War combat missions (another major-league record) piloting the F-9 Panther fighter as future astronaut and Sen. John Glenn's wingman, is also the only baseball player to crash-land a burning, bullet-ridden, flame-belching, wheel-less jet, which exploded on the tarmac moments after he escaped with his life.

Greatest hitter of all time? "Nobody was more loyal, generous, courageous, more respected than Ted," Yogi Berra said the other day. "He sacrificed his career for his country. But he became what he always wanted to be, the greatest hitter ever." That's is the best analysis yet of Teddy Ballgame's career on and off the field.


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