Boy, I just saw
fire. I said to myself, "I don't give a damn who they boo or what they do.
I've heard plenty of boos. I'm going to play ball if I can." Then Mr.
Yawkey got into the act. He said he didn't think it would be smart for me to
come to spring training. That was the first mistake the Red Sox made with me. I
made up my mind then that I was going to go anyway. All I could think about was
that big contract and the very fact that I was entitled to be III-A and that
now for the first time in my life I would be able to get my mother out of hock
a little bit and fix up that house.
Well, it turned
out a lot better than I thought it would. I heard a few remarks in the spring,
but by the time the season started it was mostly over, and near the end of the
season I signed up for naval aviation, which took the heat off" completely.
In December I got called, and five of us, Johnny Pesky, John Sain, Joe Coleman
and Buddy Gremp, went to Amherst College for basic pilot training—navigation,
aerodynamics, math, aeronautics, all basic stuff—and after that to the
University of North Carolina for advanced training.
I never was
sorry. From there to Kokomo, Ind. to Pensacola, Fla. for more training, and all
of it absolutely different from anything I had ever been through. At
operational training in Jacksonville I set the student gunnery record. I was in
great shape. I weighed 178 pounds. I felt I could run like a deer. I know I ran
the half mile better than 60 other cadets one day. And flying came easy for me.
But poor Pesky. He was a great little athlete. An excellent boxer, a basketball
player. He could run like hell and he was a tiger on the obstacle courses. But
he flew an airplane as though he had stone arms. One time at Amherst, on a real
windy day, we were flying Cubs. If you hold a Cub too tightly, the wind blows
you off the runway. You have to crab, or you have to slip. Poor John lines up
the runway, comes in and whoosh, the wind blows him away, and around he goes.
He tries again, and the wind takes him again. He made eight approaches that
day. It looked like they were going to have to shoot him down.
At Pensacola I
was made an instructor, flying Navy SNJs, and in my off hours I was discovering
for the first time the pleasures of Florida's fishing. At about the same time I
got married. Eventually we got our orders to report to the West Coast for
combat duty, and I was on my way to Honolulu when the war ended.
I remember I met
Dick Wakefield in Honolulu. He had set the league on fire for Detroit in 1943
and 1944, and he'd finally been called up for service in 1945. If you ever met
Dick Wakefield, you met a wonderful guy. One night at dinner we got to needling
each other about what we were going to do in the 1946 season, and I was getting
to him pretty good. I said, "Gee, Dick, they tell me you're a banjo hitter.
They say you hit a lot of cheap home runs." One word led to another, and
before the night was over we had made five separate bets for 1946, each one a
thousand bucks: who will lead in home runs, RBIs, salary and so forth. You know
that's going to make the papers, the first word from Teddy Ballgame since 1942,
and sure enough Happy Chandler, a great commissioner, sends us each a personal
telegram, canceling the bets.
If you know
anything about me, you know that 1946 was the only year I played in a World
Series, and that it ended in a frustration that grew, like the importance of
the .400 season, to a terrible dimension as the years passed. Who was to know
at that time I would not get another chance? The first World Series Ty Cobb
played in he batted .200, but he got two more chances. The first World Series
Stan Musial played in he batted .222, but he got three more chances. This was
it for me.
We had a
wonderful team in '46. The pitching was great—Tex Hughson, Boo Ferriss, Mickey
Harris, Joe Dobson—and we got off to such a fantastic start that after only two
months we practically had the pennant clinched. I remember I was wearing out
Cleveland pitchers that year, and in the first game of a doubleheader with the
Indians in June I hit three home runs, the first with the bases loaded, the
second with two on and the last in the ninth inning to win the game 11-10.
In the second
game Lou Boudreau, managing Cleveland then, came up with his shift. I won't
outline it here except to say that only the leftfielder remained left of second
base, and he was in fairly close. Boudreau had figured, "I can't stop this
guy from hitting home runs, but practically all his base hits are to the right
of the diamond. I can sure cut into his doubles and singles."
Gee, I had to
laugh when I saw it. What the hell's going on? This was on my second time up in
the second game. I'd doubled to clear the bases in the first inning, giving me
eight runs batted in for the day. (You can't pull a shift like that with men on
base.) Against the shift that day I grounded to second base and walked twice,
so you can't say it hurt me right off. They were still feeling me out, and in
all I hit 11 home runs and batted .400 against Cleveland that year. But there
is no doubt that the shift hurt me later on. By the next year everybody had one
kind of shift or another, and in June I was batting around .280. Al Simmons,
still predicting doom for me, came out and said, "Well, that's the end of
Williams—he can't hit to left field." Others were saying, " Williams
can't beat the shift."
If you got down
to tight mathematics, knowing I was a pull hitter, knowing that I averaged 85%
of my hits to the right of center field, knowing I was counted on in Boston for
the big hit, the home run and often couldn't afford to settle for the easy
punch single to left, you have to think it took points off my lifetime average
of .344. But how much? I won the league batting championship four times against
the shift after that, and I missed it by two-tenths of a percentage point
another time, and once I lost the title for not being up enough times
officially. Under present rules, with bases on balls, I would have had that