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Ted Williams
July 18, 1977
Giving the salmon some peace, the erstwhile Splendid Splinter, now a self-confessed "old frog," hooks up with the young man who is trying to bring back 1941
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July 18, 1977

'i Hope Rod Carew Hits .400'

Giving the salmon some peace, the erstwhile Splendid Splinter, now a self-confessed "old frog," hooks up with the young man who is trying to bring back 1941

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I would love to see Rod Carew hit .400. I'd love it for a number of reasons, No. 1 being I won't have to answer any more questions about whether it can be done or not and I can salmon away the baseball seasons in peace, stay right up there in New Brunswick on the Miramichi River and not fly around getting my picture taken with any more potential .400 hitters. For another, I've been saying for 36 years that it could be done again, and I'd like to be proved right for a change. And for still another, I think Carew's a damn good hitter and a deserving one, and if he does it, it has to be a great stimulus for baseball. I have a feeling he might. It's just a feeling at this point. Maybe it'll pass. We'll see.

For sure, you don't fluke into a .400 season. A lot of guys have lucked into .300, but there are no flash-in-the-pan .400s. Hitting a baseball—I've always said it—is the single most difficult thing to do in sport, and a .400 season is a magnificent achievement. You have to have the talent, the opportunity and the circumstances to make it happen. When I first saw Carew in the late '60s, I didn't think he had the talent. He was a little too lackadaisical to suit me. He swung at bad balls, and he didn't make contact that much. He still looks lackadaisical. It's his style. He's so smooth he seems to be doing it without trying. Some guys—Pete Rose is one, and I put myself in this category—have to snort and fume to get everything going. Carew doesn't.

When I saw him again in Milwaukee the other day, I had to marvel what a specimen he is. A picture-book athlete. Handsome and smooth-skinned (I was surprised he was 31) and built like an Olympic track star. Not great size—6 feet, 170 pounds—but a lithe, powerful, molded-looking body with long, strong fingers and good forearms and big veins, which make you think he has great circulation, and sprinter's legs. I remember how I always envied the way he could run, how he seemed to fly without lifting his legs, how he shook everybody up when he got on base.

I asked him if he had lost anything over the years. He said, "Yeah, Ted, about a half a step."

I thought, oh, baby, I'd still take it. If I'd had his speed, I think I'd have averaged .370 [ Williams hit .344 lifetime]. As a young player with the Red Sox I remember hearing Joe Cronin say he wished he could run faster. I'd hear Joe and I'd think to hell with that, I'll just hit the ball and that'll be enough. At 23 it was enough. I hit .406. No one had hit .400 in the major leagues for 11 years. I didn't consider it that big a thing then because I thought it would be done again, that I might even do it myself. In 1957 I came within five hits. I hit .388, the highest in the big leagues since the .406. What's five hits? I was 39 years old, aging and aching. There had to be at least five leg hits for a younger Ted Williams. But even a younger Ted Williams was no Rod Carew going down the line. Counting bunts, Carew will get 40 infield hits a year. The most I could hope for was 10 or 12. It's a big factor.

Nobody has it all. A guy's got good looks, he may weigh 120 pounds. Or he's got a brilliant mind and bad breath. I think the only reason Carew hasn't received the credit he deserves—I suppose I doubted his ability myself for this reason—is that he's a singles hitter. I don't downgrade him when I say that. It's simply the case. He's had years when he only had two or three home runs and one when he didn't hit any, and of the hits he gets, less than 25% go for extra bases. [ Williams' extra-base average was 42%.] But—you'll be surprised when I say this—it's an advantage to him now, the kind of advantage Ty Cobb had. I'll explain as we go along.

The point is, Carew is the best hitter-for-average in the big leagues today, but because of his lack of power he has never seemed that impressive. I didn't even know he was hitting .400 until somebody called me. News moves slowly on the Miramichi. But Carew is like that—his ability kind of sneaks up on you. I remember when I was managing, and we'd go into Minnesota and Carew would dribble one, and bunt one, then drill one through the middle, and you didn't realize until you read the boxes the next day that he had three hits.

Well, you don't have to hit boomers to hit .400. There are more important factors. I mentioned circumstances. Good hitting always runs in cycles, rising or falling with the quality of the pitching. In 1941 there were a lot of name pitchers in the American League, but most of them were over the crest. There was some great hitting that year. DiMaggio hit safely in 56 straight games. A guy you never heard of, Cecil Travis, hit .359. It was one of those years.

Now here's Rod Carew, in the midst of another one of those big hitters' seasons, and it doesn't take a Boston writer to outline the factors that have contributed to this moment. For 10 years or so the big leagues have been trying to find ways to help the hitters, mainly by lowering the mound and reducing the strike zone, so that pitchers have less leverage. They put in the DH. This year, with the fences rattling, everybody has been writing about the livelier ball, and there must be some truth in it because tests have shown up positive. Carew himself told me that guys that never hit the ball are now hitting shots. It is barely halfway through the season and Carew already has six home runs and more triples [14] than he ever hit in a single season. [ Carew leads the league in slugging percentage this year with .606.]

But most important, they have expanded the league three times since I retired as a player in 1960. The record of every good player should be helped by expansion. I'm not going to blow a lot of hot air about the pitching today but, together with the decline of the minor leagues, there is no escaping the mathematics. There are simply fewer pitchers pitching in professional baseball, and more pitchers in the big leagues—50 or so starting who would be in the minors were it not for expansion teams.

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