A tribute to the Splendid Splinter
By Jim Huber, CNNSI.com
Imagine Ted Williams gone. It's nearly impossible, isn't it? Disappeared perhaps, for he loved to do that. Quietly leaving us for some deserted fishing hole. But gone completely? Why, that's impossible.
He was, after all, Teddy Ballgame. The Splendid Splinter. As close to Superman as anybody from this planet who had ever put on a baseball uniform.
That he could be vulnerable seemed ludicrous, though his decline in recent years had become public knowledge, surgery to reduce blockage in a neck artery beginning his slide. In our minds, he never seemed a day over 30. Tough as nails and surely able to slip right back into a batting box and hit .400 again today.
The Hall of Famer played his entire magnificent career with the Boston Red Sox from 1939 through 1960. A lifetime average over those 19 years of .344, the centerpiece, of course, 1941 when he became the last major leaguer to hit over .400. He finished at .406.
Nineteen-thirty-nine to 1960. Nineteen seasons. There's something missing there, you say. Well, of course -- three years during World War II when he was in the Navy air corps. And if you take into account the Korean conflict, during which he only went to bat 43 times in two years because of a stint as a Marine fighter pilot, war took a significant toll.
But if baseball was a passion, war was a duty -- and he worked just as hard at one as the other.
"I could never resent the three years I spent in World War II," Williams said. "Not that I did anything, but the very fact that everybody was in the service or doing something -- never regretted those years. I was proud of those years. I was happy that it happened that way."
He was the consummate hitter of a baseball. But he never took it for granted, sometimes waking his roommates when he was practicing his swing in the middle of the night.
"When some guy said one day, 'Boy, that kid has got quick wrists!' Well, I even today don't think that quick wrists are that important. I didn't know whether it was good or bad, but it sounded like a compliment to me. And when I heard that I said, 'Just wait 'til the next time he sees me!' I was going to get quicker yet!"
It was a talent of which he was quite proud. And when he had his worst season in 1959, a year he considered retiring after hitting just .254, he refused to leave the game on that note. And so he stayed another season, hit .316 with 29 home runs, including one in his final at-bat.
He spent four seasons managing before finally retiring to the solitude of the fishing hole. From the Florida Keys to New Brunswick, Canada, and finally to the Florida Gulf Coast, he was a lifelong loner.
But he came back to us several times, once to help promote the opening of a Ted Williams Museum in central Florida. And there, midst the statutes and memorabilia, came one single line that best sums up Theodore Samuel Williams. He said, "I want people to say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"
Williams had a gleam in his eye as he told the gathered crowd, "They can never write ever again that I was hardheaded. And never write again that I never tipped my hat to the crowd. Because today," he said with a chuckle as he lifted his baseball cap from his head and listened to the appreciative cheers as his fans anticipated his next move, "I tip my hat to all the people in New England."
And all of the people of the world tip their caps now in the utmost of respect.