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Splendid Splinter: Ted Williams

July 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPORTSCASTER: It’s a home run for Ted, his 31st of the season.

RAY SUAREZ: He was one of baseball’s greatest hitters and the last player to bat .400, that accomplishment, a .406 batting average, came in 1941 during Williams’ third season with the Boston Red Sox. Babe Ruth called Williams “a natural.” Born with a great set of wrists, his thin frame, agility, and batting ease led to the nickname “Splendid Splinter.” Joe DiMaggio once called Williams the best hitter he ever saw.

JOE DiMAGGIO: In 1936 to the present day, I can truthfully say I have never seen a better hitter than Ted Williams. ( Applause )

RAY SUAREZ: But Williams was characteristically blunt about his accomplishments.

TED WILLIAMS: In my heart, I can’t honestly say I think I was better than Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Jimmy Fox, Roger Hornsby. I think I belong in the company of some of them, but to say I was the best, I don’t know how you’re ever going to prove that.

RAY SUAREZ: He once said he hated everything about baseball except the hitting.

TED WILLIAMS: I asked Roger Hornsby, as good as anybody at the plate, I said, “what is the single most important thing I have to do?” He said, “get a good ball to hit.” He was right on the money and I preach that every time.

RAY SUAREZ: In 1943, Williams was drafted. Doctors dubbed him a healthy specimen, and Williams served in combat, eventually missing five baseball seasons in his prime during war world ii and the Korean War. In his 19-year career with the Red Sox, Williams hit 521 home runs, and had a lifetime batting average of .344.

SPORTSCASTER: Pinch-hitter Ted Williams at bat.

RAY SUAREZ: He earned two triple crowns leading the league in batting average and homers and twice voted the American League’s most valuable player. In 1960 in his at at-bat before retiring, Williams hit a home run.

SPORTSCASTER: Here’s a pit and there’s a long drive to deep right center. It could be… it is, it’s a home run!

RAY SUAREZ: And showing his trademark single-mindedness to the end, won’t acknowledge the cheering crowd. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.

SPOKESMAN: Please welcome the greatest hitter that ever lived, number nine, Hall-of-Famer baseball legend Ted Williams!

RAY SUAREZ: In 1999, the Hall-of- Famer was honored at the all- star game at Boston’s Fenway Park. This time there was nothing but adulation for the hitter who had had rocky relations with fans and sports writers. Williams had open heart surgery last year and had suffered a series of strokes. He died at a Florida hospital today at age 83.

And to discuss the Splendid Splinter’s legacy, we’re joined by Steve Buckley, a sports reporter for The Boston Herald. Steve, when he was an active player, Ted Williams openly said he wanted to be remembered as the greatest hitter ever. Does he have a claim to at least part of that title?

STEVE BUCKLEY, The Boston Herald: I think he has a claim to the entire title. When Ted was a player, he was a lot brasher than when he was when he was older. When he became an old man, he became mellow and tried to downplay his achievements.

No player, or very few players, could combine the power Ted Williams had, i.e., hitting home runs, along with the batting average. He was a .344 lifetime hitter. This was a guy who was a dead pole hitter who constantly put the ball into play and got on base and hit a lot of home runs. The great power hitters in baseball history, very few have the batting average that Ted have.

RAY SUAREZ: The obituaries are moving in profusion on the wires and TV and radio, and they never fail to mention “last man to hit .400.” Why is it such a big thing and why has nobody done it since?

STEVE BUCKLEY: Well, the big reason that nobody has done it since is baseball has evolved as a game, and on any given night, a team will bring in four or five or six different pitchers to face a batter. In those days, it was one pitcher, maybe a mop-up man. You might have a pitcher who was tired in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning and you could go to bat against a guy like that. That’s not the case anymore.

Ted Williams, to end the 1941 season, he might have been able to sit out the last game and just quit with a .399 average rounded out to .400, but it never occurred to him that day in Philadelphia that he wouldn’t play. He went out there and played, got the hits, hit .406. It is said nobody will do it again. A few people — George Brett has come close. It may never happen again.

RAY SUAREZ: I’ve read more quotes from Ted Williams about the science of hitting than I think from any other hitter. I saw one today. “In order to hit a baseball properly, a man has got to devote every ounce of his concentration to it.” He wasn’t just getting up there and whaling away, was he?

STEVE BUCKLEY: No. You read stories about Ted Williams as a child at Hoover High School in San Diego, he was in front of a mirror, swinging a bat, he was taking a sponge ball in his hand and squeezing it. He used to personally inspect the bats. One story that doesn’t get a lot of play is Ted used to talk to umpires around the American League about what certain pitchers were throwing so he sort of would get his own pre- game scouting report. That’s the kind of work he put into it.

And Ted was a manager with the Washington Senators later on in his career. It was difficult for him to impart this knowledge to a lot of hitters because he, being one of the great hitters of all time, would talk to players whose physical skills weren’t a match to his own, and he would say, “if you get a good three and one pitch inside, do this with it.” I was talking to Dick Billings this afternoon, played with the old Washington Senators. He said, “I could listen to this stuff, but I didn’t have Ted’s pure skills to be able to do that.”

RAY SUAREZ: He once switched positions once so the sun wouldn’t shine in his eyes. He was legendary for his eyesight, wasn’t he?

STEVE BUCKLEY: Yeah. Some of it is a little bit urban legend. There was legend he would read the record going around the turnstile, that he could see the spin on the baseball and count the stitches and all that. I think some of it might have been press box whimsy later on in Ted’s career. He definitely had outstanding vision. He was a fighter pilot in Korea, he was a great fisherman. His hand-eye coordination was unparalleled, and he had tremendous eyesight.

What he could do with a baseball, with a blistering fastball, on the inside and wait for the right moment. To keep in mind you had right field and left field, Ted Williams was pure pull. They would over shift him toward right field knowing he would pull the ball and he would pull the ball rather than going to left field and he still hit .344 lifetime. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, here we have been talking about the amazing accomplishments– over the last few years, he was putting up huge numbers at 38, 39, 40 years old. Yet he seems to have had a difficult relationship with writers, with the fans, with the baseball world in general. Talk a little bit about that.

STEVE BUCKLEY: Well, Ted was a player who was not a pleasant guy with which to deal. He constantly fought with sportswriters. There was an old Boston sportswriter/pundit named Dave Egan. They called him the colonel, and for a good number of years, Dave Egan made Ted the primary target and used to write things to tick Ted off. He had a lot of confrontations with fans. There was a spitting incident once. He threw his bat once and it actually hit Joe Cronin, president of the Red Sox, hit his housekeeper, who was sitting in a box seat behind home plate. And there was a lot of that. Ted was an ornery cuss, and he wasn’t the most pleasant guy to deal with. I think he mellowed in his older age.

My pleasant memories of Ted come later on in his life. I was a young sportswriter dealing with Ted in his 70s. The beauty of Ted Williams is, as he mellowed in age, he came to really love contemporary baseball. There are a lot of players in their 70s and 80s that speak a lot of ill of today’s game, players aren’t as good as they were, they don’t hustle, they don’t do this. To hear Ted Williams talk about the likes of Paul Moliter and Nomar Garciaparra and Wade Boggs, he had a great deal of respect for today’s hitters – definitely mellow in his old age. I don’t think he was as nice a guy to deal with in the ’40s but I wasn’t around to deal with him back then.

RAY SUAREZ: You’re saying now, he lived long enough to, in effect, make it up to the people of Boston and baseball fans. The bad blood didn’t continue into his elder years.

STEVE BUCKLEY: On the contrary, he made it up with lots and lots of interest. If this was a penny stock, he would be a millionaire right now, because there’s a tunnel named after Ted Williams in Boston, Lansdowne Street behind Fenway Park has been renamed Ted Williams way. He became a pop icon to younger fans who weren’t around back then.

To see Ted Williams come into a room, players from both teams would crowd around him to listen to what he had to say. He was wonderfully anecdotal when it came to talking baseball back then and baseball now. He was very contemporary with the game. Fans loved him. During one of his last appearances at Fenway Park, he spoke of the fact that he never tipped his cap during his days with the Red Sox, and he said, “folks, I tip my cap to you.” And he lifted off that big old Red Sox cap and he had a big old smile on his face and got a wonderful standing ovation, and it was and is a great Fenway Park memory.

RAY SUAREZ: Steve Buckley, thanks a lot for joining us.

STEVE BUCKLEY: A pleasure.