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Ted Williams
June 17, 1968
In the heyday of his career, Boston's splendid slugger hit .406 and won numerous other titles. But all was not serene. The explosive Williams battled fans and the press, and, eventually, went off to World War II
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June 17, 1968

Smooth And Stormy Seasons

In the heyday of his career, Boston's splendid slugger hit .406 and won numerous other titles. But all was not serene. The explosive Williams battled fans and the press, and, eventually, went off to World War II

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Circumstances make a career—a man being at the right place at the right time with the right material. Circumstances can make a .400 hitter. Some years, for example, might be a little better than others for pitchers, almost imperceptibly better. Then the pitching might go down and the hitting creep up. In 1941 I hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox. No one had hit .400 in the major leagues for 11 years before that, not since Bill Terry. No one has hit .400 since, and I suppose you can find students of the game who say it will never happen again. But there were times when it could have happened. I could have done it myself in 1957. I came within six hits of .400 that year. What's six hits? I was 39 years old, aging and aching. There had to be among a season's collection of ground balls at least five leg hits for a younger Ted Williams. Certainly 1957 appeared to be a year for the batter. Stan Musial hit .351, and he was 36 years old. Mickey Mantle hit .365 that year, the best year of his life, and maybe that was his .400 season. Nobody has hit .365 in either league since then. A couple of years ago Frank Robinson won the batting championship with an average of .316.

In 1941 there were a lot of big-name pitchers in the American League—Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Dutch Leonard, Bob Feller, Ted Lyons, Johnny Allen, Tommy Bridges, Bobo Newsom—and they might have been at their best, but who is to say? Certainly there was some great batting done that year. Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games. A guy you probably never heard of, Cecil Travis, had a hell of a year—.359—and never had another like it after that. It was one of those years. I think, surely, to hit .400 you have to be an outstanding batter and everything has to go just right. And in my case the hitter was a guy who lived to hit, who worked at it so hard he matured at the bat at a time when he was near his peak physically. The peaks met.

It was a simple formula. Choose any of the noted hitters, and none of them hit any more balls, swung a bat in practice any more times than Theodore Samuel Williams. Now, you can be a great athlete, and you can go to sleep on the bench when you should be watching the pitcher. Pick your nose, scratch your behind, and it all goes by, and you won't know enough about hitting until you're 28 or 29 years old, and then it'll probably be too late.

Nobody has it all. A guy's got good looks, he might weigh only 120 pounds. Or he's got a brilliant mind and bad breath. I don't know what limitations there have been that have made it impossible for the other guys to hit .400. Certainly the pitching today is not that good, not since expansion and the depreciation of the minor leagues, for the simple reason there are fewer pitchers pitching and more pitchers in the big leagues, 20 or so starting pitchers who would be in the minor leagues were it not for the expansion teams. So, overall, pitching can't be as good. The development of the slider hurt the hitter, of course. Joe DiMaggio always said he had trouble with the slider in his last years. But Willie Mays could hit .400, with his speed. Or Hank Aaron. Certainly Roberto Clemente, because he has so much sense with the bat. He has good bat control, he protects the plate with two strikes. I used to think Al Kaline could hit .400, or Mantle. But Mantle missed the ball too much. Too many strikeouts. Not quite enough finesse. And it is probably too late for Mays now.

What I see lacking today is the devotion necessary to produce a .400 hitter, and even with all the circumstances in the world going for you, in order to do the toughest thing there is to do in sport—hit a baseball properly-a man has got to devote every ounce of his concentration to it. Certainly from boyhood I was prepared to do that, often to the exclusion of all else, and often to the point that the sheer agony of the concentration had side effects that hurt me, even during that .400 season.

I signed to play in 1940 for $10,000, more than double what I had made my first year. My salary was to begin a climb that would reach $100,000 by 1950. But I sure didn't know that in 1940. I was a 21-year-old kid, worried about money, worried about everything. I remember driving Doc Cramer, our centerfielder, down to Kenmore Square one day that year, and Doc said, "You know who the best hitter in the league is right now?" We had been comparing the hitters around. "You are, you're the best." But 1940 was a tough year for me. I was maturing, to be sure, but I was suffering some, too. Certainly I was not getting the balls to hit I got in 1939. Jimmy Foxx and Joe Cronin were at an age when they were beginning to fade, and pitchers were starting to pitch around me a little. I wasn't hitting as many home runs in Fenway Park. I had hit 14 there the year before, a record, and they had moved in the right-field fence to a more accommodating distance in anticipation of a lot more. The crowds were getting bigger, coming out to see what this fresh kid could do. I had been moved to left field because it was easier to play—right field in Boston is a bitch, the sun field, and few play it well. Jackie Jensen was the best I saw at it. But in left field I was also a little closer to the fans, and they were beginning to get to me that year. I started reacting, mostly out of my own frustration, and then the writers started in on me.

In 1940 my uncle was a fireman in Westchester, outside of New York City. Uncle John Smith. A great guy. I used to go down to see him regularly at the Mount Vernon fire department. By then I was already going my own way. I have never cultivated "important" people, perhaps because I do not feel comfortable in a necktie crowd. My friends were the guy who delivered the magazines, the highway cop, the guy who took care of my car and wanted a ticket now and then, the clubhouse boy, the guy who ran the theater. I was a movie hound. I used to go down to an old theater in the old part of Boston to see cowboy movies, and I'd get in those wooden seats, kind of leaning back with my feet over the front seat like kids will do, and one day I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Where the hell you think you are, home?" I looked up, and this guy says, "Take your feet down." He was the manager. Later, when I was coming out, he stopped me. "Aren't you Ted Williams?" We wound up going for a milk shake. His name was Johnny Buckley, and he has been one of my dearest friends ever since.

It wasn't really a matter of being a lone wolf. But I didn't smoke. I couldn't stand the smell of tobacco. I never drank. I liked to hunt and fish. I liked to walk. I liked a certain type of movie. I didn't want to see Gone with the Wind; I wanted to see John Wayne. And I wanted to do it now, bang, get it over with, and be home early. I've always criticized myself for the times I've let other guys dictate what happened to me. Like going someplace I didn't want to go or eating late. Eating is a real sore spot with me. I don't want to hear, "Let's wait awhile," because all of a sudden it's 9 o'clock, and when I eat late I can't sleep well and I don't feel well the next day. I don't believe there was ever a ballplayer who ate in his room as often as Ted Williams did.

So I didn't have a great deal in common with most of my teammates. I mean I liked them all. I can't think of one I didn't like. But the only one I was real close to then and for a long time was Bobby Doerr. Bobby liked the same things I did. He liked the movies, he liked milk shakes. We talked hunting and fishing by the hour. And we'd walk—we'd walk and he'd talk about Oregon and I'd talk about shooting ducks and we'd talk hitting. I got to know his mother and father. His little father was one of the dearest guys. I always envied Bobby the father he had, a father who was close to him, telling him what to do, encouraging him, helping him with his finances.

So now it's 1940, and I'm having my troubles at the park and visiting my uncle at the fire station, seeing the firemen hang around with their shirts off, getting sunburned, some of them playing cards. My uncle's telling me about this $150-a-month pension he's going to get, and I'm thinking, boy, here I am, hitting .340 and having to take all this crap from the fans and writers. Then one day in Cleveland I'd had a bad day at bat and Harry Grayson, the writer from NEA, was at my locker and I told him about my uncle, and then I said, "Nuts to this baseball I'd sooner be a fireman."

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