LOS ANGELES — Nobody ever really knew Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who had a legitimate claim to the title "Baseball's All-Time Best Hitter." From the rebellious to the conservative, contradictions covered the 6-foot-3, 195-pound left-handed slugger (521 lifetime home runs) like a spider web. Williams, who passed away last Friday, was the last major leaguer to bat more than .400 in a season.
Early in his career, Williams's turbulent relationship with baseball and its fans was understandable. When he was a kid, his parents were never home, and he became a loner. He was ashamed of his clothes, often got his own meals, never had a chance to learn life's social graces, and was expected to look after an always-in-trouble younger brother.
When the Red Sox invited the 19-year-old Williams to spring training in 1938, Ted was ridden hard by the team's veterans because of his cockiness. Williams didn't help himself either in his reply to teammate Bobby Doerr, who had said, "Wait until you see Jimmie Foxx hit." Ted responded: "Wait until Foxx sees me hit!" Basically, the Kid (the nickname that preceded Splendid Splinter) popped off because he was scared.
Though Williams hit well in his first spring training camp, Manager Joe Cronin sent him back to the minors as a kind of punishment for his flippant attitude.
By 1939, there was no stopping him. Ted was back to hit .327 in 149 games, including 31 home runs and 145 RBI. The only reason Williams wasn't Rookie of the Year was that there was no such award then.
Of paramount importance to Williams was the strike zone and the way pitchers tried to set him up at the plate. Credit Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby with telling a young Williams to "always be patient at the plate and get a good pitch to hit."
After that, Williams wouldn't swing at a pitch even one inch off the strike zone. He reasoned that if he did, the next pitch would be two inches outside, etc. In his career he walked more than 2,000 times. Williams constantly studied opposing pitchers until he felt he could think right along with them. He also cultivated the respect of umpires by never arguing their decisions.
He was obsessed with the science of swinging a bat. Invariably when Williams got a new set of bats from the factory, and two or three didn't feel right, he'd have them weighed on a postal scale. Often they had a flaw.
He could read the figures on a license plate blocks away before most people could even tell the make of the vehicle.
Williams could be fooled on breaking balls occasionally, especially as a rookie. In fact, in 1939, when the Red Sox opened the season at Yankee Stadium, future Hall of Famer Red Ruffing struck him out in his first two at-bats. Needled by his teammates, Williams got a real dig from pitcher Jack Wilson: "What do you think of this league now, Bush?" Replied Williams: "If he [Ruffing] throws that ball in the same place next time, I'll ride it out of here." Williams was half right, hitting a 400-foot drive off the center-field wall for a stand-up double.
When Williams batted .406 in 1941, almost everything he hit seemed to find a hole in the infield or a gap in the outfield. He struck out only 27 times in 456 at-bats.
Nevertheless, because of a brief slump, Williams was down to an even .400 as the Red Sox prepared for a season-ending doubleheader with the Philadelphia Athletics. Cronin, in a well-meaning gesture, offered Williams the option of sitting out those games to protect his average. What happened next forever casts Williams's integrity in concrete.
"No," Ted told Cronin. "If I'm going to be a .400 hitter, I'm not going to slip in the back door. And I'm not going to do it sitting on the bench."
By the end of the day, Williams had pounded out six hits in eight at-bats to finish at .406. Still, the American League's Most Valuable Player Award went to Joe DiMaggio, who had hit in a record 56 consecutive games.
Williams was always great around kids. And over the years, he became more tolerant of his adult public. In a 1970 "day" at Fenway Park honoring Williams, Ted surprised everyone by tipping his cap to the fans the first time he had done that since 1939.
At the root of his problems with the public was his anger at what he called "front-runners" the people, according to Ted, who were always on your side when you hit a home run, but never gave you a break when you couldn't buy a hit.
To add a little trivia to this story, Williams played the last seven years of his career with two stainless steel pins holding his collarbone in place. He won his final batting championship at age 40; pitched one inning against Detroit in 1940; and had the highest career on-base percentage (.482) in the history of baseball.
In fact, if the military hadn't twice made him a fighter pilot, cutting five years out of the heart of his career, Williams might have become even more of an untouchable.
Phil Elderkin is former sports editor of the Monitor.