Commemorative issue Major League Baseball All-Stars
Ted Williams. At bat at Fenway Park in Boston, 15 June 1939.
Courtesy of AP Images.
Williams, Ted (30 Apr. 1918-5 July 2002), baseball player, was born Theodore Samuel Williams in San Diego, California, the son of Samuel Williams, proprietor of a photography shop, and May Venzor, a Mexican-American Salvation Army worker.
Uncomfortable with his father's alcoholism and his mother's religious zeal, the confused boy soon discovered his natural athletic ability and escaped into sports. Inspired by an uncle who had played semiprofessional ball, Williams quickly became the best baseball player in the history of San Diego's Hoover High, batting .583 during his junior year. An indifferent student but obsessed with baseball, the skinny left-hander was thrilled when his mother signed a contract on his behalf to play for the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League while he was still in high school.
In 1938 the Boston Red Sox signed the nineteen-year-old to a two-year deal worth $7,500. During spring training in Florida the Red Sox equipment manager Johnny Orlando dubbed Williams--an outfielder six feet three inches tall and 147 pounds--"The Kid," a nickname that stuck for the rest of his career. The callow Williams was not ready for the big leagues that spring and was assigned to Boston's farm team, the Minneapolis Millers. There he was tutored by Rogers Hornsby, who had hit over .400 three times, the highest at .424 in 1924. Hornsby's simple advice to Williams was to "study pitchers and get a good ball to hit," a mantra that became the foundation both of Williams's spectacular success as a hitter and of the endless criticism that haunted him throughout his baseball career.
Following Hornsby's advice, Williams took advantage of his superior batting eye and refused to swing at any pitch outside the strike zone, even those that were easily hittable. The immediate results of this resolve were towering home runs and gaudy batting averages. Almost from the beginning, however, critics accused Williams of being selfish by placing personal statistical success ahead of the success of the team..
In 1938 Williams won the triple crown with Minneapolis--the highest batting average, .366; the most home runs, 46; and the most runs batted in (RBIs), 142--and with great fanfare was called up to the parent club for the 1939 season. The brash young slugger's presence in the lineup quickly drew large crowds to Boston's Fenway Park. In his rookie year Williams batted .327, hit 31 home runs, led the American League with 145 RBIs, and finished fourth in the American League's most valuable player (MVP) balloting. That winter Boston's management shortened the right-field fence to accommodate the budding star's technically perfect home-run swing, and adoring sportswriters named Fenway's right-field stands "Williamsburg."
By the middle of his second year Williams's honeymoon in Boston was over. During the early part of the season he suffered his first batting slump, made glaring errors in left field, publicly squabbled with abusive fans, complained about Boston, and called his $12,500 salary "peanuts." Worst of all he delivered profane rants against hypercritical sportswriters who accused him of being arrogant and self-centered. The writer whom Williams hated most was Dave Egan of the Boston Globe, who gloried in verbally torturing the thin-skinned star with lines like, "Williams has stubbornly and stupidly refused to recognize his responsibility to childhood. The kid has set a sorry example for a generation of kids. He has been a Pied piper, leading them along a bitter, lonely road." Williams often referred to Egan and other writers as "gutless, syphilitic sons of bitches." This and other colorfully defiant reactions to criticism always sold newspapers, and his uneasy relationship with the Boston press lasted for the rest of his career.
In 1941, the last baseball season before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, all the animosity in sports-crazed Boston seemed to melt away. On 15 May the New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio began a consecutive-game hitting streak that surpassed Wee Willie Keeler's all-time mark of 44, reaching 48 by the All-Star break. Williams racked up a 23-game streak of his own, and when his average passed the magical .400 level (.405) by midseason, he began sharing headlines with DiMaggio. At the All-Star game in Detroit's Briggs Stadium, Williams lived out every boy's fantasy: with his team trailing by one run in the bottom of the ninth, he delivered the most dramatic hit of his career, a three-run homer that hit the facade in right field. The American League won, 7-5.
When DiMaggio's streak ended at 56 in July, Williams had baseball's stage to himself. Going into the final doubleheader of the season at Philadelphia's Shibe Park, Williams's average was .3995--officially .400. Boston's manager Joe Cronin gave Williams the option of sitting out both games to protect his average. Williams decided to play. In the first game he had four hits in five at bats, moving his average to .404. In the nightcap he had two hits in three at bats and finished the season at .406, the seventh-best batting average of all time. In a 1988 article for the New York Review of Books, the Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that Williams's .406 was "the greatest achievement in twentieth century hitting . . . a beacon in the history of excellence, a lesson to all who value the best in human possibility."
Williams, along with hundreds of other major league ballplayers, was drafted into military service in 1942. He appealed, claiming his mother as a dependent, and was reclassified 3-A. He began the season with the Red Sox but was shaken by the wrath of Boston sportswriters who accused him of being "yellow" and unpatriotic. When the overwhelmingly bad publicity began to cost him lucrative endorsements, Williams relented and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, concentrating on naval aviation. He took pilot training at nearby Amherst College while continuing to play major league baseball. Williams won the 1942 triple crown with a batting average of .356, 36 home runs, and 137 RBIs, but for the second straight year he finished second in the American League MVP race--the Yankees players Joe DiMaggio and Joe Gordon won in 1941 and 1942, respectively. On 2 May 1944 Williams received his wings as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps; that same day he married Doris Soule, with whom he had a daughter.
The war ended before Williams could be transferred to a combat zone, and he was discharged from the service in January 1946, in time for the first postwar baseball season. The 1946 Red Sox won the American League pennant for the first time since 1918, and Williams finally won the MVP. His first and only World Series, however, was a nightmare. Earlier in the year the Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau had slowed Williams by shifting all the infielders to the right of second base, daring the southpaw to take a sure single to the left side. Williams refused to violate his personal batting code. During the World Series the St. Louis Cardinals adopted the so-called Boudreau shift, holding Williams to five singles and an embarrassing .200 average. St. Louis defeated the Red Sox, and Williams was again subjected to a firestorm of criticism for stubbornly trying to pull the ball to right field rather than punching it for an almost certain hit to the empty left side. Even more ego damaging was the accusation that Williams could not hit in the clutch.
Criticism notwithstanding, Williams's star continued to rise. In 1947 he won his second triple crown, with a batting average of .343, 32 home runs, and 114 RBIs. In 1948 he led Boston to a regular-season tie with the Indians for the pennant, but the Red Sox lost the one-game playoff 8-3. Williams had only one single in four at bats. In 1949 he won his second MVP and became the highest-paid player in baseball, with a salary of $100,000. His reputation for vulgar defiance was reinforced in 1950 when after being booed heavily, he made repeated obscene hand gestures to the Fenway crowd. The next day the Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey forced Williams to apologize publicly. Williams missed much of the rest of that season with a broken arm, and by 1951 the Boston franchise began to decline. Although Williams was the centerpiece of the Red Sox lineup for nine more years, he never again played in a meaningful late-season game.
In 1952 during the Korean War the thirty-four-year-old Williams was called to active duty as a fighter pilot. During a combat mission over North Korea in early 1953, his F-9 Panther jet took enemy fire. Williams barely managed to maneuver his burning plane back to base and was forced to crash-land. The famous ballplayer's heroism made front-page news all over America. His reputation partially restored, Williams was given a hero's welcome in Boston in 1954 and again began to produce All-Star statistics--and also angry headlines. His most infamous act of defiance came in 1956 after his four hundredth home run when he spit at the press box. Enraged writers had a field day. Austin Lake of the American wrote: "Truth is that Williams, systematically, has gone far out of his way to smear the writers with every obscenity he can dredge from his cranial frogpond." Boston management fined Williams $5,000; only Babe Ruth had been fined as much.
The 1957 season was a late-career masterpiece for Williams. Defying all odds, the thirty-nine-year-old "Kid" won the American League batting title with an astonishing .388 average. The next year he won another title, batting .328. Williams's remaining two injury-plagued years were disappointing, but in the last game of his career, on 28 September 1960, he expanded his legend with one more moment of high drama. In his final at bat at Fenway, Williams struck a towering home run that drew a game-stopping four-minute ovation from the fickle Boston crowd. His jubilant teammates urged him to rise from the dugout and tip his cap. Williams refused. In his famous New Yorker article on Williams's stoicism in that climactic game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (22 Oct. 1960), the novelist John Updike wrote, "Gods do not answer letters."
In 1961 Boston management announced that Williams's number 9 would be the first to be retired in Red Sox history. Williams's financial future was secured when he signed a lucrative contract to promote Sears sporting goods. Williams and his first wife Doris had divorced in 1955, and in 1961 he married Lee Howard; they had no children. Then after divorcing Howard, in 1968 Williams married Dolores Wettach. She bore him his only son, John Henry, as well as a second daughter.
In 1969 Williams agreed to manage the Washington Senators, and he traveled with the franchise when it moved to Texas and became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Unable to translate his baseball greatness to his players, Williams left the major leagues for good in 1973 and retired to Hernando, Florida. Williams thoroughly enjoyed his mature persona as one of baseball's most respected public figures, and he loved being referred to as "The Splendid Splinter" and "Teddy Ballgame."
Williams spent most of his remaining years saltwater fishing off Islamorada in the Florida Keys and raising money for the Boston-based childhood cancer charity the Jimmy Fund. He wrote several influential books on angling, including Ted Williams Fishing the "Big Three": Tarpon, Bonefish, Atlantic Salmon (with John Underwood, 1982). In 1994 the first museum in America dedicated to a living athlete, the Ted Williams Museum, opened near his home in Florida. By 1995 a series of strokes had damaged Williams's superior eyesight, and a 1997 broken hip confined him to a wheelchair. As Williams's health deteriorated, his son John Henry took control of his father's business affairs, creating a cottage industry of Ted Williams memorabilia marketed online through Hitter.net.
Williams's bittersweet last public moment came at the 1999 All-Star game in Boston. Wearing a shirt and cap with Hitter.net logos, the half-blind living legend was driven to the pitcher's mound in a golf cart, where he was surrounded by the players of both teams. The All-Star and fellow San Diegan Tony Gwynn oriented baseball's most revered player toward home plate so that he could throw out the first pitch. It was a strike to the catcher Carlton Fisk.
After Williams's death in Florida, controversy swirled around the disposition of his corpse. In one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of sports, John Henry arranged to have his father's body placed in cryonic suspension at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona. In what sounds like a science-fiction scenario, Williams's body was drained of fluids, filled with a kind of antifreeze, placed in a cylinder of liquid nitrogen, and stored with the hope that medical science could someday reanimate the dead man. Because the cost of storing the entire body was double that of storing just the decapitated head, John Henry chose the latter. The public outcry over the entire situation was enormous. Williams's friends insisted that he had wanted to be cremated, cynics speculated that John Henry planned to sell his father's DNA, and late-night comics made cruel jokes about "Tedsicles."
In his definitive Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero (2004), Leigh Montville offered this lament: "The legacy of Ted Williams was the loser in all of this postmortem news. The flash card of name recognition now brought up 'Ted's Head' or 'Frozen' instead of pictures of a perfect baseball swing, a perfect fly cast, a Panther jet streaking across the sky. . . . The man who once inhabited the frozen detached body when it was whippy and new or middle-aged and thick, back when it was loud and opinionated and drop-dead handsome, almost was forgotten."
In spite of the ugliness that marred his passing, Williams was one of baseball's all-time greats. He was one of the few major leaguers to play in four decades. He won six batting championships, two MVP awards, and two triple crowns. He led the league in home runs and RBI four times each. When he retired, his .483 on-base percentage was the highest of all time, and his .634 slugging percentage was second only to that of Babe Ruth. By the end of his career Williams's .344 lifetime average was the fourth best of all time, and he had accumulated more walks (2,019) than anyone except Ruth. Although he missed five prime seasons because of military service, Williams posted 2,654 hits, scored 1,798 runs, drove in 1,839 runs, and hit 521 home runs. He played in eighteen All-Star games, was named Player of the Decade for the 1950s, and was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1966, the first time that his name was on the ballot.
Williams often declared that hitting a round ball with a round bat was the most difficult thing to do in sports. Downplaying the value of his 20/10 eyesight and stories that he could read the label on a fastball, in his treatise on batting technique, The Science of Hitting (with John Underwood, 1986), Williams argued that natural talent was not enough. Great hitting came mainly from intelligence, hard work, and discipline. His own discipline at the plate was so refined that he struck out only 709 times in 7,706 at-bats.
For much of his colorful life Williams was a walking contradiction. He can be considered the first Hispanic baseball star in a sport with increasing numbers of Latinos. He was called a draft dodger but became a celebrated war hero. He courted celebrities but befriended misfits and loners. He liked children but missed the births his own because he was fishing. Unlike many great athletes who compile impressive statistics but have little to say, Williams was outspoken and uncompromising, behavior that often engendered acrimonious relationships with the public and the press. However, as far back as 1949 the sportswriter Harold Kaese wrote, half tongue in cheek, that "in Boston, a man does not qualify as a baseball writer until he has psychoanalyzed Ted Williams."
As he mellowed, baseball's onetime bad boy evolved into its patron saint, the personification of all that was good about America's national pastime. In retrospect the eccentricity and hubris of Williams's youth seemed to add to his charm as baseball's premier elder statesman, and honors followed him everywhere. In 1991 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1992 a section of state highway in San Diego was renamed the Ted Williams Parkway. In 1995 Massachusetts dedicated a tunnel under Boston Harbor in his name. From his earliest days as a ballplayer Williams dared to dream that one day he might be thought of as "the greatest hitter who ever lived." In the end his dream may have come true.