- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

Ted Williams stepped out of the batter’s box and stared. Then he shook his head and laughed — exuberantly, like he did everything else.

The Cleveland Indians, following the lead of shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau, had shifted into the strangest defense Williams had ever seen. Third baseman Ken Keltner was slightly to the right of second base, meaning there were no infielders on the left side of the diamond.

Where was everybody else? Boudreau had moved between second and first. Second baseman Dutch Meyer was in shallow right field. First baseman Jimmy Wasdell stationed himself behind the bag on the right-field foul line. Beyond them, the Indians had, in effect, one center fielder and two right fielders.

Thus, the “Williams Shift” was born in the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946, at Boston’s Fenway Park.

The reason was obvious. At 27, the left-handed Williams was the best hitter in baseball, and an estimated 85 percent of his swats went to the right side. In the first game that day, he had slammed three homers and driven in eight runs. In his first-at bat in the nightcap, he ripped a bases-clearing double. Frustrated, Boudreau thought he might improve the Indians’ chances of stopping Teddy Ballgame with an unorthodox defensive strategy.

Shirley Povich, the superb Washington sports columnist, described the moment most pungently: “At first the crowd was silent, not realizing what was happening. But then it was that the shift hit the fans.”

As it turned out, the shift was not a factor in the ballgame that day; Williams walked twice and grounded out to Boudreau — who else? — in his subsequent trips. But soon other teams followed suit. In the World Series that fall, Ted’s only career postseason appearance, the St. Louis Cardinals held him to a .200 batting average using manager Eddie Dyer’s version of the shift — though a badly bruised right elbow probably was more responsible for Williams’ abysmal showing.

During much of his career with the Red Sox, the outspoken and often immature Williams had a lively feud going with the Boston press — “knights of the keyboard,” he called them sarcastically. Now the anti-Williams faction had a new issue: Why didn’t Ted, with his superb bat control, simply slap a few run-scoring hits to left field and stop teams from overshifting?

For the most part, Williams continued to hit in his usual manner, shift or no shift — although in another game against the Indians that September he did go the other way, deliberately slicing a drive to left field for an inside-the-park homer that resulted in a pennant-clinching 1-0 victory. Take that, Lou Boudreau! (Coincidentally, fellow Hall of Famer Boudreau became Williams’ manager with the Red Sox from 1952 through 1954.) But the dramatic hit was something of an aberration.

“I’m not going to tamper with my style just to hit a few extra singles to left,” Ted said. “I’ve spent too many years learning to pull the ball to right to take chances. If I change my style now, I might lose my power to right. I’ll keep swinging away even if they put the catcher in right field. If I smack the ball over the fence, they’ll have a hard time fielding it.”

Stubborn — and admirable.

Obviously, Williams felt that settling for singles through unprotected territory would amount to being defeated by the shift. As always when faced with a challenge, Ted was at his best. This was, after all, a guy who had refused to protect his .400 average by sitting out a final-day doubleheader in 1941 — and then got six hits in eight at-bats to finish, epically, at .406.

In devising his shift, Boudreau was not quite a pioneer. The Boston Braves had tried such a maneuver against Ted’s slugging namesake, Cy Williams of the Philadelphia Phillies, in 1926. And the Indians, then managed by Roger Peckinpaugh, had used something similar against Ted in September 1941.

For a while, it didn’t bother Williams when other teams began using a modified version of Boudreau’s shift. For the next 11 games of the homestand at Fenway, he batted .526 and even hit for the cycle for the first time in his career. Gradually, though, it seemed to affect him. His batting average for the second half of the 1946 season was .329, mediocre for a man who ended his career with a .344 average, and he hit just 12 home runs compared to 26 in the first half of that non-steroidal era.

During this period, writer John Lardner asked a man named George Herman Ruth of New York City what he thought of suggestions that Williams should go the opposite way.

The Babe’s immediate reply was brief, earthy and unprintable.

“They tried something like that on me one day on me in Cleveland [apparently the shift capital of the United States],” Ruth added. “I hit five singles to left, and the fans booed me. I could have batted .800 against that kind of thing, but people didn’t pay to see me hit singles.”

Nobody had more respect for Williams than his fellow players. During that 1946 season, he waged a season-long battle with Washington Senators first baseman Mickey Vernon for the American League batting championship — a duel Vernon ultimately won with a .353 average to Ted’s .342. Yet Vernon, a good but not great line-drive hitter and one of baseball’s all-time nice guys, didn’t exactly brag about the company he was keeping.

“It embarrasses me to think I’m ahead of him,” Mickey said late in the season. “I’m not really in the same class with him.”

But then again, neither was anybody else.

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