If a Hollywood screenwriter invented a character with the biography of Ted Williams, an incredulous producer would slash an emphatic
“Get real!” on the rejected script, ranting at such a blatant rip-off, such a preposterous amalgam of The Natural and The Right Stuff….
Yeah right, this guy plays from 1939 to 1960, wins the Triple Crown twice, becomes the last man to bat .400, and hits a home
run–his 521st!–in his last at-bat. Oh sure, he goes off to World War II and Korea, flies 39 combat missions as a fighter pilot, and–get this–was John Glenn’s wingman. And he’s movie star-handsome just for good measure!
By dint of his extraordinary talents, as well as his exemplary deeds and words, Ted Williams’ life reads like some kind of outsized
American parable, a noble saga so impossibly perfect in its details that it seems to border on legend.
But it’s no myth. Ted Williams was a true American hero.
Teddy Samuel Williams was born in San Diego on August 30, 1918. Named for Teddy Roosevelt, Williams later changed it to Theodore, no doubt
as he intended to make a name of his own. He went on to garner many sobriquets, including The Kid, The Splendid Splinter, and, later, the ironic though well-intentioned Teddy
While his father’s people hailed from Ireland and Wales, his mother, May Venzor, was Mexican-American. In his autobiography, My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life,
Williams flatly states: “If I had my mother’s name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, [given] the prejudices people had in Southern
Undoubtedly, his keen, lifelong sense of racial equality and fair play began as a child.
Though he received offers to play professional ball while still in high school, Williams waited until he had graduated in 1937 before
signing with the San Diego Padres, at that time a minor league club in the Pacific Coast League. In December 1937, Boston Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins secured the
phenom his astute eye had spotted a year earlier (even among Hall of Famers, Collins gets the general nod for greatest second baseman.)
Collins sent his rough diamond to the Minneapolis Millers, Boston’s Double-A affiliate. In a portent of things to come, the kid from
San Diego won the Triple Crown, batting .366, smacking 46 home runs, and driving in 142 runs . . . for a sixth-place team in an eight-team league–perfect preparation for a
career in Boston.
Now simply “The Kid,” Williams had an equally auspicious Major League debut in 1939, hitting .327, belting 31 homers, and
amassing 145 runs batted in, the last still a record for a rookie.
It was the start of a dazzling career, a premeditated campaign of laser-focused willpower and studious application. As Williams stated many
times, almost like a vow: “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say ‘there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”
Ego, huh? Bigger than Fenway Park. And yet, there’s no hubris in his lofty ambition. It’s even measured in a way: he
didn’t aspire to having people regard him as the greatest ballplayer. He knew that no one could equal Babe Ruth since Ruth, freakishly, was really two Hall of Fame players
in one: a magnificent pitcher as well as a legendary slugger who revolutionized the game. No, Williams specified “hitter.”
And he would’ve bristled at being called a “natural”; no one ever devoted more time to the practice and scientific study
of hitting a baseball. I still regard Ruth as the better hitter; aside from 714 dingers, the Sultan of Swat’s batting average over a 22-year career was .342, a mere two
points lower than the Splendid Splinter’s.
But to be fair, The Babe didn’t lose five of his best seasons to fighting in two wars. And therein lies part of the Williams
mystique–reality’s caveat: his military service burnishes his legacy as much as it casts over it a semi-tragic pall. Along with playing for the Red Sox in an era
dominated by the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals, those five prime summers lost hang an eternal “what if” over The Kid’s career.
The “what was” boggles. Here’s the résumé he assembled in 17 years over a 22-year span:
Most RBIs by a rookie
521 home runs
Batted .406 in 1941, the last player to bat .400 or better
Lifetime .482 on-base percentage,
still the highest in MLB history
One of only four players to steal a base in four different decades
Won the Triple Crown in 1942 & 1947
American League MVP in 1946 & 1949
All-Star 17 times
First ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame, 1966.
Of course, the numbers, while staggering, don’t do justice to the poetry of his swing. Nor can they convey the moments of
Hollywood-scripted Americana, such as his refusal to sit out the last two games of the 1941 season–a doubleheader in Philadelphia versus the Athletics–in order to
protect his .400 average. Going into the day, he was batting .39955, which rounds up to .400. But attaining the grail on a technicality would never sit with Williams. He played
both games, going 6 for 8, firmly stamping his mark at .406. As he said, “If I’m going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line.”
And then there’s his final at-bat in his final game, at home in Fenway Park. It’s a game lastingly evoked by John Updike, who
attended, in his wonderful essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which appeared in The New Yorker on October 22, 1960. It’s a must-read for baseball and literature fans alike. One of the pleasures of his essay is how he theorizes about Williams’ career numbers had he played those five years, assigning The Kid “average” seasons–average for Ted Williams, that is.
True to his calling, though, Updike concerns himself more with the poetry. Here’s his eyewitness account of that last at-bat with
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher on the mound:
Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The
crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The
ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a
towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the
outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.
Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always
ran out home runs–hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted
“We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish,
a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and
acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
There were two letters that Williams had to answer–from his Uncle Sam. In both cases, he didn’t hesitate. And while he did play
some morale-boosting exhibition baseball as he went through preliminary pilot training during World War II, he was soon setting records in aerial gunnery as a second lieutenant
in the Marine Corps.
With his uncanny eyesight, reflexes, and motor skills, along with his intelligence, he was, by all accounts, a superb Naval Aviator. He
wasn’t in Hawaii long, however, before the war ended. He was discharged January 28, 1946.
Six years later he was recalled to active duty; another war, now being fought with jets–and this time he’d see combat. The 34
year-old Williams, a veteran in every regard, mastered the Grumman F9F fighter plane and joined Marine Fighter Squadron 311 in Korea. As his wingman, future astronaut and U.S.
senator, and fellow American hero Major John H. Glenn Jr. recalls:
By luck of the draw, we went to Korea at the same time. We were in the same squadron there. What they did at that time, they teamed up a
reservist with a regular to fly together most of the time just because the regular Marine pilots normally had more instrument flying experience and things like that. So Ted and
I were scheduled together. Ted flew as my wingman on about half the missions he flew in Korea.
Once, he was on fire and had to belly-land the plane back in. He slid it on the belly. It came up the runway about 1,500 feet before he was
able to jump out and run off the wingtip. Another time he was hit in the wingtip tank when I was flying with him. So he was a very active combat pilot, and he was an excellent
pilot and I give him a lot of credit.
According to Glenn, Williams picked up another nickname during his stint as a fighter pilot with Squadron 311: “Bush,” as in
“bush league.” His fellow aviators wanted to get a rise out of the notoriously proud Williams and they succeeded. Eventually, though, Williams came to regard the
moniker as the expression of camaraderie that it was.
“Bush” also picked up three Air Medals for his bravery and flying prowess.
In many ways, Updike’s lyrical essay serves as the most satisfyingly poetic valedictory for this great man. But Williams uttered some
eloquent words as well, especially when it mattered. At his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, he took a moment to deflect the spotlight from himself and train it
on an injustice, to use his voice on behalf of those who didn’t have one:
The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty second home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him:
“Go get ’em, Willie.” Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man
and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only
because they weren’t given the chance.
Williams had shamed the Baseball establishment. It would take five more years, but Cooperstown would begin retroactively admitting the
greatest players of the Negro Leagues, beginning with Satchel Paige in 1971 and Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard