By Dennis Gaffney
If there was a baseball player who rivaled DiMaggio in his day, it was undoubtedly Ted Williams, the spectacular hitter who played for the Boston Red Sox, then the Yankees fiercest rival. His .406 batting average in 1941 made him the last .400 hitter. It was the highest single season batting average since Rogers Hornsby’s record of .424 in 1924. The tall, thin Williams was not only a physical splendor, but a student of the game as few others have ever been.
He won the American League batting championship six times, winning that honor the final time with a .328 average at the age of 40, grandfatherly by baseball’s standards. He batted .316 as a 42-year-old in 1960 and his lifetime average of .344 is only topped by Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Tris Speak. Williams was also a power hitter, slugging out 521 homers in his career.
He lost nearly five prime years by serving in the United States Navy and Marine Corps in WW II and again in the Korean War. He was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1946 and 1949. He failed to win that award more often because sports writers, who selected the MVP, generally disliked him.
DiMaggio and Williams were very different kinds of ballplayers. DiMaggio cared about and cultivated his image; Williams thumbed his nose at fans and sports writers. Williams, for example, would never tip his cap to fans after a home run, considered a player’s gesture of thanks to those who cheer him. DiMaggio perfected the nod of recognition, and made the gesture every time he crossed the plate after a home run.
Williams, despite his abilities as a hitter, was usually compared unfavorably to DiMaggio. Some of it had to do with Williams often-ornery personality. Also DiMaggio’s team was a winner; the Red Sox often finished with the second-best record.
Williams, well-aware of the assessment, wrote about DiMaggio in his memoir, "My Turn at Bat." "It is probably my misfortune that I have been and will inevitably be compared with Joe DiMaggio," he wrote. "We were the two top players of our league. In my heart I have always felt that I was a better hitter than Joe, which was always my first consideration, but I have to say that he was the greatest player of our time." Even in his own eyes, it seemed, Williams was always second best to his New York rival.
Williams said that the major difference between them was DiMaggio’s apparent ease and elegance in the way he played and moved on the field. "DiMaggio even looks good striking out," Williams once said.
DiMaggio was not quite as generous of his assessment of Williams. As writer David Halberstam tells the story in his book, "Summer of ’49," a Boston sports writer, Clif Keane, and a friend of his once visited DiMaggio. It was the late 1940s, and DiMaggio was living at the Edison Hotel. Immediately after they entered DiMaggio’s room, Keane’s friend asked DiMaggio what he thought of Ted Williams.
"Greatest left-handed hitter I’ve ever seen," DiMaggio replied. "I know that," said the friend, "but what do you think of him as a ballplayer?" "Greatest left-handed hitter I’ve ever seen," DiMaggio said again.