The Splinter spouts off
Ted Williams muses on McGwire, Shoeless Joe, Fenway
Posted: Tuesday July 13, 1999 10:38 AM
BOSTON (AP) -- Ted Williams was giving a batting lesson in his hotel suite, oblivious to time, a nervous aide, and actor Kevin Costner, who sat in the corner and waited his turn.
Williams was making the point that players like Mark McGwire, who let go of the bat with one hand as they follow through on their swing, always maintain two-fisted control until bat meets ball.
"I've been studying it," Williams said. McGwire, for example, doesn't let his hand go until he's hit the ball "and the damage has been done."
Sitting in his wheelchair, his voice booming, Williams ignored the aide trying to keep him on schedule through a morning of meetings Monday, the day before he throws out the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star Game at Fenway Park.
Nothing grabs Williams, even at 80, more than talking about batting.
Williams actually was looking forward to meeting Costner, whose film "Field of Dreams" rekindled Williams' longtime fascination with Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Jackson was driven from baseball by the unproven claim that he was part of the Black Sox conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series. Williams finds a kindred spirit in Jackson -- a natural with an unfair share of bad luck, a great hitter taken to task by the press.
But the connection had a more tangible start: Eddie Collins, a teammate of Jackson, signed Williams to his first major league contract and regaled him with stories of Jackson's batting prowess.
"He liked to talk about Babe Ruth, the big monkey, and Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, and other great players, but not with the same dreamlike vision that he spoke of Jackson," Williams said.
"Finally one day, I was sitting in my mother's living room and he was sitting right in front of me, and I said tell me about Joe Jackson. He was looking at me and his head dropped. This wasn't an act. Then he looked at the ceiling, and said, 'Boy, what a player.' He said it with reverence, and he said it with sadness."
Williams kept asking questions. He always wanted to know more about Jackson -- just as he always sought out anything that might make him a better batter.
"If I have to say one word that would exemplify me as a person, as a conversationalist, as an individual, and my mental capabilities, it's my inquisitiveness," Williams said, leaning forward in his wheelchair. "I want to know why. Why do you think that? I've always been that way."
Now, after reading all the books on the Black Sox and seeing all the movies about them, Williams is convinced more than ever that baseball should reinstate Jackson and give him his due in the Hall of Fame.
"I believe in equality, fairness, and compassion, and I saw none of that in this thing," Williams said. "And it always ground on me. Why? I'm not an evangelist. But he was a ballplayer."
Someday, no doubt, there will be a big movie about Williams -- baseball great, fighter pilot, tireless voice for cancer patients. The role would demand someone large and loud, a John Wayne type.
A couple of strokes and a broken hip in recent years haven't diminished the force of Williams' personality. He still spices his stories with salty language, still rails against the writers who took shots at him in print decades ago.
"I've thought of this for 50 years, how wrong those writers were about me," he says, a gleam in his eyes. "And they've eaten more crow with their writing and their beliefs about Ted Williams than any other ballplayer they'll ever know."
Did it feel good to make them eat crow?
"Oh, boy," he says, licking his lips as he smiled.
They rebuked The Kid when he came out of the West to Boston boldly proclaiming, "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.'"
With the angle and distance of time, he probably was what he set out to become. Nobody in 58 years has equaled his .406 batting average in 1941. Nobody, before or since, quite matched his combination of power (521 home runs) and average (.344 lifetime) in a 19-year career broken up by service in two wars and hampered by injuries.
Certainly, there is no one more fitting to throw out the first pitch at an All-Star Game than Williams, who played in 18 of those midsummer classics, hitting .304 with four homers and 12 RBIs.
It was Williams' fate to shine at the All-Star Games while his rival on the New York Yankees, Joe DiMaggio, excelled at the World Series. Fairly or not, critics used that difference to cheapen Williams' achievements, saying he wasn't the team player DiMaggio was. Yet there's no evidence that Williams was any less a team man, and he had, in fact, a reputation for imparting his hitting wisdom to anyone who was within distance of his bellowing voice.
Williams and DiMaggio were the two most luminous stars of their era, players who could reasonably be placed in the baseball pantheon on the same level as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb. With the passing of DiMaggio earlier this year, Williams is now arguably the greatest living player.
Yet Williams never lived in the past, and he still doesn't. He even has an Internet site: Hitter.net.
He remains an astute observer of baseball, watching ballgames as much as possible on television. His legendary vision has a narrower range these days, but he still sees more than most people. Unlike some fellow Hall of Famers, he isn't stuck in a belief that the game and the players were better in the old days.
"I think there's a helluva lot of talent," Williams said. "Guys are bigger and stronger. I'm not saying they're better hitters. They have better bodies, stronger bodies. And they're encouraged and enthused about the monetary advantages. Geezus, with all that money, I'd want to knuckle down, too."
Ballplayers today, he said, also can feed off of what they see on television -- the replays of home runs, the plays of the day -- and compare themselves to the best in the game.
The delicate, eternal balance in the game between hitting and pitching has shifted to the batters in recent years, he said, but he's not one to blame it simply on poor pitching.
"Whenever that balance of hitting and pitching gets lopsided too much, like it's starting to get now, then you have to worry about the game deteriorating," he said.
"But I think there's more imagination about what pitchers can do. I see things that are practiced by pitchers now, more so than the hitters, things different than when I played."
Asking to borrow paper and pen, Williams sketched out the mound and home plate and illustrated how pitchers are getting better angles on batters by starting out from the left or right sides of the mound. It was a technique he first saw used in the late 1950s by Early Wynn.
"They're all doing it now," Williams said. "Nobody's ever written that."
Just as Williams doesn't let nostalgia cloud his views of the game, he doesn't allow sentiment to get in the way of his view of the future for baseball in Boston. It's time, he said, for Fenway to go.
"To be perfectly honest, I hope they don't build it in the same place," Williams said. "I just can't see it with all the buildings, all the history, all the problems parking. Go down the road 25 miles. Buy 500 acres, and build a ballpark with seating, parking, new dimensions.
"I always thought the dimensions at Fenway were unfair. Sometimes unfair to the hitter, and sometimes unfair to the pitcher. No, I'm not sentimental about it. I've heard a lot of fans say, 'Oh, geez, I wouldn't even think about going any place else.' It wasn't that great. The park is just an old park. It has a lot of history behind it, but it's right downtown in the apartment area."
Williams spent his career with his back to the wall -- the Green Monster -- just 290 feet from home plate in left field.
"I'm still seeing it," he said with a laugh.
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