Ted Williams (born 1918) was one of baseball's most fearsome hitters. Despite five seasons lost to military service in World War II and the Korean War, the "Splendid Splinter" of the Boston Red Sox hit 521 home runs in his career and batted .344.
Always pursuing perfection in his sport's most difficult task, Ted Williams was nearly unstoppable in hitting major league pitches. He perennially led baseball in the two most important aspects of hitting-getting on base and driving in runners. He was the last player to hit .400, achieving that mark in 1941. For his total absorption in the game he loved, Williams was nicknamed "Teddy Ballgame." Long after his career ended, he continued to symbolize excellence in hitting and dedication to baseball.
Enjoyed Hitting the Ball
"The most fun in baseball is hitting the ball," Ted Williams told Dave Kindred of Sports Illustrated. "That's all I did … for 20 years of my early life." Williams was born on August 30, 1918 in San Diego, California. Growing up during the Great Depression, he played pickup baseball in a neighborhood park year-round. His mother worked tirelessly for the Salvation Army and his father ran a passport photography shop and worked late hours, allowing young Williams the freedom to play ball until dark. He even took his bat to school. He was a tall, thin teenager who pitched and played outfield in junior high school, American Legion and sandlot teams, and at Herbert Hoover High School. In his autobiography, My Turn at Bat, Williams said "there was nobody who had any more opportunities than I had, along with the God-given physical attributes and the intense desire."
As a teenager, Williams learned not to swing at balls that were out of the strike zone. Try as they might, pitchers could never get him to chase bad pitches. "Getting on base is how you score runs," Williams explained. "Runs win ball games. I walked a lot in high school, and in the minors I walked 100 times.… You start swinging at pitches a half-inch outside, the next one's an inch out and pretty soon you're getting nothing but bad balls to swing at."
Williams began his professional career with the San Diego Padres, then a minor league team, in 1936. In December 1937 the Padres sold him to the Boston Red Sox. "The Red Sox didn't mean a thing to me," Williams wrote in his autobiography. "A fifth-, sixth-place club, the fartherest [sic] from San Diego I could go." Yet Williams would become synonymous with Red Sox baseball.
When he first came to spring training with the Red Sox in 1938, he was 19 and extremely cocky. The legend is that someone told him "Wait'll you see Jimmie Foxx hit" and Williams replied "Wait till Foxx sees me hit." In his autobiography Williams debunked the myth: "I never said that, but I suppose it wouldn't have been unlike me."
For all his bombast, Williams was a driven, obsessed young man. "I thought the weight of the damn world was always on my neck, grinding on me," he recalled. "I wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. … Certainly nobody ever worked harder at it. It was the center of my heart, hitting a baseball."
A Smashing Debut
In 1938, at the Red Sox's farm club in Minneapolis, Williams led the league in hitting but almost ended his career when he smashed his fist into a water cooler. "I was impetuous, I was tempestuous," he recalled. "I blew up… I'd get so damned mad, throw bats, kick the columns in the dugout so that sparks flew, tear out the plumbing, knock out the lights, damn near kill myself."
Williams had a smashing rookie season in 1939, hitting 31 home runs and driving in 145 runs. His fielding was indifferent, but his hitting was electrifying. He had only one apparent weakness-an inability to hit to the opposite field. Standing close to the plate but refusing to swing at outside pitches, the left-handed-batting Williams pulled almost all his hits to right field. Many opposing managers eventually defended against him with the "Williams Shift"-moving the shortstop to the right-field side of second base. But even that didn't stop him.
"Hitting is a correction thing," Williams told Kindred. "Every swing you're changing. Every thought you're correcting. Every time up, you're thinking. My whole life was hitting." If he was battling a slump, Williams might have stayed up all night thinking about what to change.
In 1941, only his third season in the majors, Williams captivated the nation by chasing a .400 season batting average. For part of the year, Williams' quest was overshadowed by New York Yankee star Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak. In the All-Star Game in Detroit that year, Williams hit a game-winning home run. On the last day of the season, Williams was hitting exactly .400, and Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered him the chance to sit out a doubleheader. "I told Cronin I didn't want that," Williams recalled. "If I couldn't hit .400 all the way I didn't deserve it." He got six hits and finished at .406, a mark most experts believed would never be equaled. DiMaggio was named the league's Most Valuable Player that season, as the Red Sox finished second to the Yankees.
Hit the Top
The 1941 season was the first of six times that Williams won the American League batting championship. That year, he also won the first of four home run titles. He led the league in walks eight times and in runs scored six times. No batter other than Babe Ruth had so excelled in the three most important aspects of offense-hitting for a high batting average (.344 career mark), hitting for power (521 home runs) and getting on base.
"No hitter ever had more confidence at the plate than Ted Williams, every bit of it fully justified," observed baseball historians Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig in The Image of their Greatness. "No player ever had better eyesight, better judgment of a pitched ball, a purer swing, more power, more intense concentration." Legends grew about Williams' 20/10 vision. He said he could see the rotation of baseballs pitched to him, discerning whether the pitch was a fastball or a curve.
In every at-bat, he was gathering new data. "A trip to the plate was an adventure for me, one that I could reflect on and store up information," Williams said in his autobiography. "I honestly believe I can recall everything there was to know about my first 300 home runs-who the pitcher was, the count, the pitch itself, where the ball landed. I didn't have to keep a written book on pitchers-I lived a book on pitchers."
After the 1942 season, Williams joined the Marines as a fighter pilot and flight instructor. He missed three seasons because of World War II, and the Red Sox faltered without him. In 1946, with Williams back in the lineup, Boston won the American League pennant and Williams won the Most Valuable Player award. Williams appeared in the World Series for the only time in his career, but hit a disappointing .200 with only one RBI, and the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Red Sox just missed a pennant in 1948 by losing a one-game playoff to Cleveland. In 1949, they again came close, losing on the last day of the season to the Yankees. That year, Williams hit .343 with 43 homers and 159 runs batted in and was again Most Valuable Player. But in 1950, he crashed into an outfield fence chasing a fly ball during the All-Star Game, and suffered bone chips in his elbow which bothered him the rest of his career.
Pursuit of Perfection
At a peak salary of $125,000, Williams was the highest-paid player of his era. He became known as the "Splendid Splinter," "The Thumper," and later in his career, "Teddy Ballgame," because of his intense concentration on the game. Sports Illustrated reporter S.L. Price observed that Williams "bent his life into a furious pursuit of perfection."
Gruff and prickly, Williams had an explosive temper. Price characterized his speech as a "uniquely cadenced blend of jock, fishing and military lingo, marked by constant profanity" and described him as "alternately cold and warm, bitter and sentimental, obnoxious and funny, tough and generous-but always savagely independent."
In Boston, he was loved and loathed, with critics picking on his defensive lapses and me-against-the-world attitude. Fans sometimes called him "Terrible Ted." After being booed in one game for dropping a fly ball, he spat toward the stands. He never tipped his hat to the crowd or acknowledged their cheers. After hitting a home run in his last at-bat in Boston in 1960, he refused to take a curtain call.
"I should have had more fun in baseball than any player who ever lived," Williams said. "My twenty-two years in baseball were enjoyable, but many times they were unhappy too. … I felt a lot of people didn't like me. I did things I was ashamed of. … I was not treated fairly by the press." Critics said he wasn't a clutch hitter or a team player, walked too often, and didn't hustle. "They didn't think I was tryin'," he told Price. "God almighty, I was tryin'. But I was a long, skinny guy, couldn't run."
What he could do, like almost no one else who ever lived, was hit. "He lived to swing a bat, this tall, brash, fidgety youngster with the Hollywood good looks," wrote Ritter and Honig. "He seemed to be never without a bat in his hands, be it on the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, and even in his hotel room, where one day an errant practice swing accidentally smashed a dresser mirror to pieces."
Criticizing "gutless" politicians and "unfair" draft laws, Williams went back into the service during the Korean War. He missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons. Battling injuries, he announced he was retiring after the 1954 season, but changed his mind. In 1957, nearly 40 years old, Williams had an incredible season, hitting .388 and becoming the oldest player ever to win a batting championship. But he was miserable. "I spent the season being mad at the world for one reason or another," he said. "I don't think I said two words to the Boston writers all year." After the 1960 season, Williams, 42, retired, even though he had hit .316 that year. Historians would forever debate how high his career totals might have soared if he hadn't missed those seasons in the prime of his career.
Lived with Memories
In 1966, Williams was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. From 1969 through 1971, he managed the Washington Senators and stayed on as manager when they moved and became the Texas Rangers in 1972. They were a lackluster team and Williams had little success as a manager. With his baseball career over, he poured much of his energies into his love of fishing.
Williams remained active and outspoken after retiring to Florida. Despite three strokes in his 70s that left him partially blind, he led a petition campaign to get Shoeless Joe Jackson into the Hall of Fame. Williams was bilked by a scam-artist partner in the sports memorabilia craze of the late 1980s and lost nearly $2 million. His clean, readable signature was easily forged. His son, John-Henry, cruised stores nationwide to uncover forgeries, then opened a family-run memorabilia business. In 1994, Williams established the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Florida, and established his own annual Greatest Hitters Award. In 1995, Boston named a tunnel under Boston Harbor after him.
Fishing and fending off frequent interview seekers, Williams watched Red Sox games on television. He told one reporter: "No one pulls harder for them than I do … I'll always be a die-hard Red Sox fan." And he added: "… look at what a great game it is.… It's strong, and I'm like a kid sitting in front on my TV watching. … Baseball will always survive."
Further Reading on Ted Williams
The Baseball Encyclopedia, Macmillan, 1990.
Ritter, Lawrence and Honig, Donald, The Image of their Greatness, Crown, 1979.
Williams, Ted, as told to Tom Underwood, My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life, Simon & Schuster, 1969.
Sport, November 1998.
Sporting News, November 14, 1994.
Sports Illustrated, December 25, 1995; November 25, 1996; February 2, 1998.