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'I've been a very lucky guy'

Ted Williams looks back on 80 memorable years

Originally Posted: Monday August 31, 1998

  Williams says he never realized how important hitting .400 would be in his life CNN/SI
Sports Illustrated senior writer Leigh Montville sat down with Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams, who turned 80 on August 30, to talk about his playing days and the challenge of hitting .400 and to reflect on his career and his life.

Leigh Montville: You want "Shoeless" Joe Jackson in the Hall of Fame tomorrow, right?

Ted Williams: I don't say that, I think that would be the ultimate, but I do think that he should be given more consideration for the treatment that he had in regard to this thing. What he tried to do under the circumstances, and he couldn't do it, he tried to give all the money back that he had on the table. And he didn't go and get it, they pushed it to him. He tried to give all that back and some of the highest officials in baseball, didn't make that possible because it made it look like possibly might've been involved, and certainly didn't do anything to take the heat off Jackson because it might be relayed over to somebody else.

LM: Why are you behind this cause so much? Have you always been this way, or in later years you just kind of decided this was an injustice?

TW: No, I tell you the first year, 1935 or '36, I talked to Eddie Collins about Jackson. He was always mentioning the old players, the great players, and everything, and then I finally asked him about Joe Jackson. I can never forget the reaction he had. He just kinda dropped his head for a second and he looked and says, "Boy, what a player." There's no question about that, he really must've been something. I even felt his old bat, and nobody had a bat like his, and I felt it, you know, picked it up. It was kind of a big bat all right, but I said, "Geez, I could hit with this one." You know it had a good feel to it. Even thought it was big, it had a different handle and I'm thinkin' that at this late date in my life of trying to talk to somebody that can whip out a bat, they got the bat, they got a Joe Jackson model, with a little more modern look, still with the same things that he had on that bat, I'd like to see somebody just try it.

LM: They'd make it aluminum now.

TW: Well they haven't done it yet in the professional leagues, they've done it in college, maybe they oughta try it in college, I don't know. I start reading about him, I start talking to people, only one I ever talked to that played with him was Eddie Collins, Hall of Fame, baseball's Hall of Fame, and one of the most highly regarded players that was ever in the big leagues. Never talked to him about the scandal, I just asked him, "What kind of player was he?" But more has been written about this incident in baseball than probably anything, and it seems after what we are talking about now? Seventy years? Eighty years?

LM: You were two years old when he was convicted.

TW: You know how it all come about in my mind really? I think baseball is the greatest thing any way you look at it. It's the greatest game, it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I was lucky enough to have fitted in, and all my life I've thought baseball was so great, and so wonderful, and all the actions that happened even during my lifetime - and I was born when they convicted him, or they sentenced him I should say - but that didn't mean anything to me then of course, but as I start growing up and thinking about how great this game is, I couldn't conceive any way I looked at it that baseball could do a bad thing. Then I started to see a few things, read a few things, and I said, "Geez." And there was controversy as to whether or not he in fact was as guilty as some people thought he was. Then I start seeing a few things in writing, old newspaper clippings, and all of a sudden I'm thinkin' geez I'd hate to think baseball had done something that bad. I don't know, I don't know. Still out, but there should be a little more consideration. You know you get sentenced and you can never appeal. You can get paroled. No consideration like that was ever given to him.

LM: So on your 80th birthday, what are you gonna do on that? Will there be a celebration or anything?

TW: No, gee whiz, no. I'm lucky to, anybody's lucky to live to be 80. But you've got a lot of trials, tribulations, disappointments, oh the most wonderful things happen to ya.

LM: I remember my mother, when she was 80 years old, she said, "I can't believe I'm 80 years old. I wake up in the morning, and I'm like 25. But then I get out of bed, and I'm 80 years old." Is that kind of how you feel?

TW: No. I never dream, in fact I get nervous when I think about my young life, as a young player, how hard it was. They can say, "Oh, there was nothing to it. No sweat." The hell there wasn't any sweat, and a lot of disappointments and great jubilation at times. I made it too high and too low, instead of trying to keep some kind of high level.

LM: You just attacked things when you were a kid, didn't you?

TW: I don't know. They say that, but hell, I tell you it was hard for me. It wasn't an easy thing. I think I had just enough grit in me that certainly if any pitcher tried to intimidate me, I was a bitter hitter. And I think the same thing about Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth probably, and Willie Mays, Mantle. Any of those guys, the greatest players I ever saw, dreamt, or read about.

LM: Every time you went up there, you thought you were going to win the battle?

TW: I didn't think it was a battle. Isn't that funny? I didn't think of it as "Am I going to win the battle?" I was saying, "Geez, I hope I can do something against this guy." When I went in there with that type of attitude, I was far and away better than if I said "Just get it over, old buddy, and the next thing I knew I would have hit four nice grounders or one that I just missed in the air, not to knock the second baseman down, and I'm a nice comfortable 0-for-4. But if I went in there thinking I just hope I can do it, and a lot of times it happened.

LM: Were you thinking what he was going to pitch to you every pitch? TW I tell you, there are three things in my life that are exceptional. This is the first time I've ever said this to anybody on tape.

LM: I can't believe that.

TW: All right. I can't hardly believe it either. But there's so many things to happened during my career that made me have to sum it up. Number one, I was extremely lucky. Number two, I was even accused of that by my teammates. Number three, I was a terrific guess hitter. Now because I was such a good guess hitter, I formed a lot of deductions that I didn't have to worry about and concentrate on what I thought I was going to get. And they didn't know when I first started to play, whether I was a better high-ball hitter or a better low-ball hitter. A lot of guys said I was a better low-ball hitter, so I got a lot of high fastballs. Then I started making a little history up there, now they're going down again. Now I'm making more history. Then they say, "We don't know how to pitch this guy." And then -- this is the first time I've ever said this -- finally, it came down that there was a new pitch in my career, that was getting everybody out.

LM: What was that? Kind of the slider?

TW: It certainly was the slider. I could hit the slider just as good as I could hit any ball, but I couldn't get it in the air as good. And you know they throw the shift there, and there's nine guys playing on this side and there's nobody over there, and I'm close to the plate and the only way I can get the ball over there is to uppercut it and hit it with the width of the bat, not the length of the bat. So I started looking for sliders and here they came. Boy I was laying for it. I was ready for it and I was crashing it. Now they're a little in doubt, now what are we gonna do? He hits high balls, fastballs, inside, outside, slider is the least dangerous and then they start throwing me a lot of sliders and I was starting to hit them out because I knew that was all I was gonna get. I knew I was gonna get it. If they're getting all of the good hitters out in the league, you knew damn well they were gonna throw it to Williams. So all those things fell in place.

LM: Where should they have pitched to you?

TW: Well, I wrote a book on hitting, I wrote a book on hitting, I laid out my strike zone.

LM: Right, in different colors.

TW: I murdered 'em here, I didn't hit quite so well here, it was a smaller area too, and I laid it out. More people come up to me and say that's the greatest thing I've ever seen.

LM: How long ago was that? I remember it.

TW: How long ago was it? It was 1960, '58, '59. And now they have another thing to consider, another thing to consider today, size of the parks, a live ball, might be a lot of fastballers but I don't see quite the control because they're all big guys and they're gonna throw it as hard as they can and that takes a little bit away from their control. And then they're thinking in terms of too many home runs. You don't see .360, .370, .380 hitters. You don't see many .350 hitters. And that ball is like a rabbit, there is no question about it, it's fast. That's the reason you're seeing more double plays today than you ever saw. I mean hell, the ball is there at third base and they've got a lot of time to make a double play, or even at short and second and all around.

LM: Tony Gwynn's a great hitter.

TW: Oh, he's a hell of a hitter that kid, and he can get the bat on the ball now. You know he is in on the worst slump he has ever had in his life, and I wanna talk to him if I can, just to talk to him to find out what he's got to say. Hell of a kid, he's done a lot of things in San Diego that, people just love him out there.

LM: What do you think brings a slump to a guy like that?

TW: Well, tell me what a slump is like, I've been in them.

LM: What would bring a slump to you - a little change in your mechanics?

TW: I might run into a little period where I'm really ripping the ball and pulling it good and hitting them 420, now I'm gonna hit one 450 and all of a sudden I'm uggh too much and all of a sudden I'm getting pitched tough to. I'd lay in bed and I'd think, "Oh boy, why am I not hitting? I remember a couple weeks ago I was hitting real good and I remember a couple pitches I hit that boy I was really quick on that." Then things would start coming back to me and I'd say, "I'm getting too big, I'm not keeping my head on the ball." And all of a sudden I might get out f it but you can't do it sometimes for a long period, just like Gwynn today. He's been in this thing he's in for three weeks.

LM: You would never swing at a ball out of the strike zone.

TW: I tried not to. I got criticized. One of the biggest writers in the country, and one of the smarties I think, George Will, politically I'm with him all the way, but baseballically he don't know too much about hitting or playing.

LM: Baseballically?

TW: Yeah, baseballically he's, two more years. He criticized me because he'd heard I was a good hitter, I don't know if he'd ever saw me play or not. He said any guy that would take a ball an inch outside and let the guy behind him do it, if you add an inch, an inch high and an inch outside, an inch inside, I think you're enlarging the strike zone not 10 or 15, but 20, 25 percent. Now you're starting to run into a more difficult thing than trying to hit 17 inches of plate and from your knees to your letters. And all of a sudden if you're going to swing at that one, why not an inch and a half. I didn't wanna get into that habit. I felt well, geez, there's nine guys on the team and that guy behind me is a good hitter and he can hit better hitting strikes than I can hitting balls. So that just carried on from there.

LM: Was the strike zone the same when you were playing, do you think?

TW: Everybody would tell ya, oh they called higher strikes. They would tell ya that. But I think maybe, I can't say that for sure. I don't think the strike zone is that much different. I think on the outside or the inside, sometimes it looks like to me, on television, I don't know about that one, you know. They've got a red lie shows where the ball was and where the plate was. Player don't like it, looks back at the umpire, and there's the red line, and you question it once in a while. So, I don't know whether the strike zone is that much different. I think everybody will say that, but I'm not sure.

LM: Would you have been do you think a better player today than when you played?

TW: No, I don't. I would have tried to do things a little better than I did. But I absolutely wouldn't want to go through my life again as a baseball player. It was too hard for me. It was too disappointing. It was too grindy! Oh! And still I'd be so happy when I'd had a good day, or our club was on a winning streak or something. No, I don't think I'd do any better today. I might hit a few more home runs, I might, I don't know because maybe I'd be swinging for them a little more.

LM: You'd be lifting weights or something?

TW: If I had to do it over again, they ask me the first thing I'd ever do if I had to do it over again, and I said "I would have tried to get stronger." I was quick enough and I'm strong enough, but I'd try to be even stronger.

LM: Nobody did that then, did they?

TW: Not that many. The only thing I did, I did a lot of pushups on my fingers and this kind of stuff, that's the only thing I ever did.

LM: And run a little bit.

TW: Not in the winter time I didn't. No, not in the winter time. I was in Minnesota. It was cold and I'd hunt and I'd be walking, and fishing through the ice and stuff that I was active.

LM: The idea then was just to try to play naturally.

TW: But I'd hate to do it again. I'd hate it, I couldn't do it.

LM: you come and there was a thing - your fourth day and the Boston Globe is comparing you to Babe Ruth. I mean, that's a load to kind of throw ion you. You're what, 20 years old?

TW: I was 19.

LM: That's a load to handle.

TW: I wouldn't even recognize the heaviness or the importance of something like that if I read it in the paper. Sure, now I'd realize what it meant. Every great player I met in baseball, I never met Lou Gehrig, but I met Babe Ruth and I met a lot of Greenberg, Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, every one of those guys are so high in my estimation as men. Sure, one guy frogs around a little bit, some guy he has too much to drink. But all of 'em were great guys, at least in my book they were. I think the same thing happens today, I see just a touch and I hate to say this, but at time I see just a little bit more arrogance in the last 15 to 20 years, of some of the players.

LM: You think it's a function of money? Or celebrity?

TW: I don't know what it is. Whether or not they handle everything that's going their way in an intelligent fashion. It might be that socially they don't feel they are in the mix as much as they should be as a professional athlete. So, I don't know. But I think they're an awfully lucky bunch. Just imagine, some of these guys making, I can't even think of a million dollars a year and some of them are making more. And we've got guys holding out for more than a million dollars a year, so I don't know what the answer to that is.

LM: It doesn't make you any better, the million dollars a year, does it?

TW: Well, it'd make me feel better. (Laughs)

LM: What was in the water in 1941, all those good things happened? You hit .406, and DiMaggio...

TW: Well, I think that in baseball you get periods of great hitters and then the swing goes down, a period of great pitchers, and then it goes up again and you're at your great hitters.

LM: Sort of like this year with all the home runs?

TW: Well there's another angle too in that some of these new parks are home run parks. Then you've got the live ball which nobody is denying. Then you've got some big, strong, athletic, talented athletes and every time I see these guys swinging - never heard of them, but I have to say, boy, he's got a good swing. And I don't even know his name. But he's big and he's strong and he's got a rip to it, and a good rip.

LM: The shortstops are unbelievable.

TW: Shortstop seems to be the happy area right now. There's some pretty good hitting outfielders out there too. And a couple of catchers out there that could catch with anybody. And a couple pitchers, boy I'm glad I didn't have to look at 'em. I mean, there's some pitcher out there, one the other night was credited with 99 miles per hour. I don't know if I've ever seen a 99 mile-an-hour pitch. I know there was a couple that I hit against that could rip it. Faster than anybody else that I was hitting against. And, still they're striking out more guys. In fact, I see too much help from some of the hitters to the pitchers. Swinging at bad balls, not making the pitcher pitch, trying to hit him when they shouldn't be hitting him that way. [Joe] Cronin had a great, simple answer. We'd be hitting against a certain type pitcher, and he'd say, "Make him come down," if he was a high, riding fastball pitcher. And we hit some sinker ballers, make him come up. And then if he had an outside pitch to him all the time, don't try to pull him, see. And if they wanna talk about the inside pitch, lot of thins you can do to that. You can take three inches further away, or you can choke up an inch and say I've gotta be quick with my bat.

LM: So 1941, the final day, the whole thing of hitting and playing ... there was never any thought in your mind about not playing?

TW: Oh, honest to God, there was never a bit.

LM: Did friends tell you, "Hey, sit..."?

TW: No, hell, no. They never even thought about it. Cronin asked me. He said, "If you don't wanna play today, it's all right." I thought, "What the hell is he talking about?" I'd never even given it a thought. But, I gotta say this. I didn't realize how much .400 would mean to my life.

LM: You didn't know it would be like the last time anyone would do it.

TW: Oh, that's right, yeah. But it will be done again, I always said it will be, and it will be. It will be.

LM: So the slider made you hit to the left?

TW: No, I didn't say that. You're putting words, you're trying to put words…

LM: I'm sorry

TW: No, I said for me to hit the slider, I had to look for it. I didn't care where a pitch was, if I was looking for it. But the slider was a pitch you kinda had to look for 'cause it was quick at the end. If I couldn't get under it, that's a little lag there, I had to hit it occasionally get one in the air, but it was a ground ball pitch. I didn't want any of those. But when they said go to left field, get a little further away from the plate, then that registered.

LM: And that opened it up for the .388

TW: Well, didn't open it up. Why did it open it up?

LM: Because you were getting hits… because you were hitting to the left field and they couldn't do the shift.

TW: That's right. They couldn't all go one way, they had to open up. Now I had more holes than I ever had in my life. Just hit a ball, a base hit.

LM: Did you say to yourself, why didn't I do this before?

TW: No I didn't, no I didn't. They hadn't changed the shift yet. That year I started hitting to left field a bit more and now they're opening up. I went to Chicago and I think I got 3 or 4 hits at least in the first game and then 3 or 4 hits the next day, and boy that shift was going out the window. Because I'd hit them all to left-center, through the box, shortstop, nobody there. So now they start opening up. Now the weather's getting hotter, June, July, and August. Now, I'm really starting to hit my own way and I had all kinds of room. That's what happened. Mantle had that tremendous year, and I happened to have a year that fell right in place.

LM: Were you mad in '41 that weren't the MVP?

TW: I wanna tell ya, of all the times I wasn't MVP, I accepted that as the right decision, without question. DiMaggio hit 56 straight games. DiMaggio was, there's only one other player in my life that I saw. I'll say that, I don't think anybody's ever gonna match 'em. That's Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. They were supreme in every department, and they were great hitters. He's a .325 lifetime hitter and the other guy is just at .299. Whose to say that's bad, when a guy hits 600 homeruns for Christ's sake. So, I mean those two guys, put one of 'em up in the left field, one in right, and one in center. Any place you want.

LM: What's your relationship with DiMaggio been over the years?

TW: Not a great relationship, except that I genuinely like him and I genuinely respect what he could do. I knew what he could do. And I played against him more than any other great player. Never, never talked, no.

LM: Do you think you would have played your whole career in Boston the way things are now, if you could've been a free agent?

TW: I would've stayed right there. You get accustomed to a place and you don't wanna change. You got your friends, you got your restaurants you like to go to, you understand everything about what's going on, you got the fans are on your side, everything. I wouldn't have wanted to move. But I'd hit one good into right field and a slight wind coming in, or I'd hit it 390 feet and it would get caught and you'd say "Ah to hell with this place. Yow, yow, yow". But then you'd get days where the ball was carrying or the wind was blowing out and you'd change all hell. Baseball is such a unique game that, oh boy, you gotta figure all the facets of it. It ain't just hitting the fastballs or hitting the curve or pulling the ball or hitting it right field, or being able to run a hundred miles an hour. You gotta start by hitting the ball. The whole game is wrapped around, as far as I'm concerned, the pitching and the hitting, the pitching and the hitting. Everybody has to hit and he has to pitch at all the hitters. So, that little game is forever going on. What a game.

LM: It's a great subtle game. Did you ever have an Agent, did you have an agent doing all that stuff.?

TW: I had an agent, so called agent, Freddy Cochran, was the big guy in golf for a long time. So distinctly do I remember. As we were getting together and he was gonna represent me in a few things, I said the baseball contract I'll take care of. Everybody thought that [Tom] Yawkey was the greatest son-of -a-bitch in the world, and everybody in the world knew that he would pay his players if they deserved it. That's been the history of the Red Sox too pretty much. So, no there was never any question about that.

LM: So you would just go in and say…

TW: I'd go in and they'd send me a contract and say "well what do you think of your contract?" and I never would argue with him but I'd say "well that's okay but I had a hell of a year." "Well we know you had a hell of a year," you know "we know this and we know that." The only exception was when I wasn't gonna sign because I had been hearing so much shit in Boston that they didn't want me anymore. I said if you guys don't want me, I said, I'll forget about it. I'd already seen the contract, not this time I didn't see the contract yet, they said "that's a lot of newspaper talk, forget about it" and I didn't have a particularly good year of some kind, I can't remember what year it was but it wasn't one of my banner years, so I decided … I said, "if you guys don't want me, that's okay." The general manager said "Jesus, don't listen to that crap, you've got a contract here for the same amount you had last year." So, I signed that one. The other contract that I had any debate about was the one year I really did have a bad year, I was hurt all year and I went below .300 and aw shit, I was hurt. The only year in 23 years of hitting I ever went below .300.

LM: And you gave money back right?

TW: I told 'em I wouldn't sign for, they wanted to sign me for the same thing, they had it at 130 I think, or whatever it was, and I said you just take 30 thousand dollars off and I'll sign it. That's the way that worked.

LM: And that was your final year.

TW: Okay, that's my final year. Then after that the Yankees wanted to sign me up for the Yankees.

LM: After your final year with the Red Sox?

TW: Yep, they wanted me to pinch hit. That's all.

LM: Did you think about it?

TW: No, I told Fred then. Fred was having dinner with Topping and some of those guys, they said Ted you can go to the Yankees and get the exact-

LM: I never heard that.

TW: Oh sure it's all recorded. You don't read too much. Well anyway, alright, you've got everything you need. See you later, OK.

LM: What about a little bit about Korea, going over there in the middle of you career…

TW: Well, I have experience that I absolutely wouldn't take away. If I had to do it over again, I'd do it. And hope I would be as lucky. I've been a very lucky guy. Even I know how lucky I've been. Especially in my baseball career and in my short-lived military career. Anybody that thinks he hasn't, that's had great success, or outstanding success, he's a lucky guy. You damn right.

LM: Were you pissed when they called you back?

TW: I wasn't pissed I was kinda startled. I was kind of startled like, Jesus. I know it, and I wasn't in active reserve. The marine corps had been back for 8 or 10 years and they were at low ebb. They wanted to get their aviation built again.

LM: And you were up to date on all the planes…

TW: No, I wasn't up to date on all the planes, no. The Commandant of the Marine corp, when he's in front of Congress says "we've got the pilots to do it with." Well, he was considering guys like me who hadn't flown for 3 or 4 years, he was considering I don't know up to-I don't know what age. But it was an opportunity to get the Marine corp back up to its proportioned strength of the navy. So that's what happened there.

LM: Would you like to be going with John Glen into Outer space?

TW: I always said no but if he was on the trip I'd go. Oh what a man he is too. Christ, what a man, great guy.

LM: What a bunch of stuff he's done, the same way you have.

TW: He's a one and only, John Glenn. He's such a great man, look he's a great senator. As highly respected as any man on earth. Great guy.

LM: You went through a lot in life with him, huh?

TW: No, but enough to know what a great guy he is. Got a wonderful family. Gung ho. What a marine. That's about as good as you can say. Yeah, alright, now you never give any renumeration of any kind, to some of these hot series?

LM: We could send you a hat.

TW: Oh beautiful. You know what you can do with the hat. That company ought say "Christ yes."

LM: Do you have any regrets about anything?

TW: The biggest regret I've got is that I wasn't successful in the World Series. My playing performance was terrible. I hit .220. That was the biggest disappointment..

LM: But as a life, it's been sort of a terrific life, hasn't it?

TW: Oh, boy… What has been important, my happiness and my hours of complete pleasure, and I was lucky I got the most out of it in every way, got to fish all the fish. Got to fish places in the world. I tied my own flies. I rigged my own tackle. Preparation for the trip was as exciting and as memorable to me a s the trip itself.

LM: You went to Russia with Bobby Knight

TW: Oh did you ever see him? Oh what a son of a bitch he is. I love him. And you know what, we mad this trip to Russia, and he was a good fisherman, but he ended up a hell of a fisherman. He was a pretty good fisherman, but he ended up a hell of a fisherman. He was a pretty good fisherman, but he was so damn eager. We worked together, but was starting to use my equipment and I was rigged up right. So on the way back from Russia, we first went over there in LaGuardia field, not LaGuardia, what's the other big field in NY? JFK and a little old lady come up to me and says "Are you Ted Williams? I said "Yes, I am." Well she says "I am a real baseball fan. I'm so glad to see you and meet you." She says "Where are you going?" I said "Well I'm going to Russia, I'm going fishing." "Going fishing?" I said "yeah." Well she said "Who you going with?" I said "I'm going with Bobby Knight." "Bobby Knight!" She says "Well you tell him that when he threw that chair down the court, I was with him all the way." So I talked Bobby and I told him that and he got a hell of a kick out of that. So anyway, he could not have been a greater guy. I love Bobby Knight, I really do. He's been here a couple, three times.

LM: Did they know who you were in Russia, when you went over to Russia?

TW: Not really, not really. They knew I was a good fisherman, they could see right away, but they thought we were all good fisherman. But anyway, we're getting through, we've had a wonderful trip. Christ, Knight caught a lot of fish. I couldn't walk that good nor wade that good, and he got in some good places and he caught a lot of fish. So anyway, we're coming back and we're on the plane and I'm sitting right like this and the guy next to me, it was a 3 seater, no two seats, and I'm just sitting there in the front part of the plane and the guy sitting next to me said "Where are we fishing?" and I told him a couple of rivers and he said "You're fishing with Bobby Knight?" Yeah. He said "What kinda guy do you think Bobby Knight is?" I said "He is the best son of a bitch I ever met in my life." I don't know Bobby Knight's right here, so when he heard that, knowing that I didn't know he was there he said, "Well, Williams must like me." But I truly think he is one guy. Boy. He is great that guy.