NEW YORK — Ted Williams wanted to be remembered as the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Perhaps he was.
But when the Splendid Splinter died earlier this summer, he was most commonly defined in obituaries and conversations across the country as the last baseball player to hit over .400, a feat he achieved in 1941.
That benchmark, untouched in more than 60 years, is incontrovertible proof of his greatness. It has held up through expansion of the major leagues, through Astroturf, through today's era of the slugger, and through such prolific batsmen as Pete Rose, Rod Carew, George Brett, and Tony Gwynn.
Along with Joe DiMaggio's streak of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games, also in 1941, it is considered one of the most unattainable records in baseball, a standard by which the postwar era measures short. Home-run records may have fallen to sluggers like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, but the feats of Williams and DiMaggio seem as safe as ever.
"I'm not sure if anyone can hit .400 right now," New York Yankees manager Joe Torre said earlier this season. "It's hard to imagine."
Luis Castillo of the Florida Marlins, who has one of the best averages in the National League, was more emphatic in a recent interview. "It can't be done," he said. "It's impossible."
Indeed, the art of hitting has changed since the days of the slap hitter and the drag bunt. Today, even middle infielders are power hitters capable of hitting over 50 home runs in a season. (Alex Rodriguez, a shortstop for the Texas Rangers, last year hit 52 long balls, the most ever for his position. He's on a similar pace this year.)
As players swing for the fences more, they strike out more. And nothing hurts a batting average more than a failure to put the ball in play.
Look carefully, and it is evident that the baseball swing itself has changed.
Players used to finish a swing with two hands on the bat, which would help them keep their heads down and their stroke level. Cal Ripken Jr.'s bat, for example, was almost perfectly parallel to the ground as it whipped around his back in the follow-through. It was a swing designed to hit line drives to the outfield gaps.
Today it is much more common for hitters to finish with a high follow-through and the bat held in one hand. They are trying to hit the ball with an upward motion, creating the lift necessary to carry the ball over the outfield fence.
"Everyone wants to hit for power," says Castillo, who hit in 35 consecutive games earlier this season. "That's where the money is. There aren't too many small, fast guys like me."
But it is more than the nature of the modern swing that prevents another batsman from matching Williams's .406. According to Jim Gates, the library director of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., "It's an accumulation of the way baseball has changed in the modern era."
Subtle differences can be significant. For example, in 1980 George Brett of the Kansas City Royals hit .390, the closest anyone has come to .400 with a full season of play since Williams. Had Brett gotten only five more hits in the course of that season, he would have reached the magic mark.
The difference between a "seeing-eye" single between the infielders and a routine ground out can be miniscule.
It starts with the size of the defensive players. Whereas the average height used to be about 5-9, almost all of today's players are over 6 feet tall. Shortstops, especially, are taller, which means they have greater range to run down and dive for ground balls. The three best shortstops today, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra, are 6 ft., 3 in.; 6 ft., 3 in.; and 6 ft. respectively. The three all-star shortstops in 1941, Eddie Miller, Arky Vaughan, and Joe Cronin, were 5 ft., 9 in.; 5 ft., 10 in.; and 5 ft. 11-1/2 in.
These bigger fielders also have bigger and better gloves, especially outfielders, whose gloves are several inches longer than they used to be. Is that worth a hit or two a season? Most definitely, Gates says.
"Today's players are bigger, better equipped, and they cover more ground," Gates says. "Also, they have computer- generated charts with hitters' tendencies. They can position themselves better."
Pitching, despite the dilution caused by expansion, also makes life tougher on hitters. With more teams in the league and the increasing use of relief pitchers late in games, today's batters have to face fresher pitchers with whom they are less familiar. It used to be that good hitters did their damage late in games.
If anyone can hit .400, most agree, it is Ichiro, the right fielder from Japan who plays for the Seattle Mariners. A left-handed batter with blazing speed, Ichiro is able to start his run to first base as he is still swinging. He won the AL batting title last year with a .350 average. This year he's doing slightly better.
"He doesn't strike out, he puts the ball in play, he spreads the defense, he runs exceptionally well, and now he's begun to bunt more," Ichiro's manager, Lou Pinella, told reporters in June.
The main knock on Ichiro, however, is that he rarely walks, meaning he usually has an extremely high number of official at-bats (692 last year).
And, as Ichiro has said, .400 is not his goal. "I will not chase the number," he told reporters. "I will not play for numbers."