Ted Williams, Red Sox Retired #9

Theodore Samuel "Ted" Williams (August 30, 1918–July 5, 2002) was a left fielder in Major League Baseball. He played 21 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, twice interrupted by military service as a Marine Corps pilot. Nicknamed The Kid, the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame, and The Thumper, he is widely considered one of the greatest hitters ever.

Williams was a two-time American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) winner, led the league in batting six times, and won the Triple Crown twice. He had a career batting average of .344, with 521 home runs, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. He is the last player in Major League Baseball to bat over .400 in a single season (.406 in 1941). Williams holds the highest career batting average of anyone with 500 or more home runs. His career year was 1941, when he hit .406 with 37 HR, 120 RBI, and 135 runs scored. His .551 on base percentage set a record that stood for 61 years. An avid sport fisherman, he hosted a television show about fishing and was inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame.

Ted Williams Statue, Fenway Park
Fenway Williams Statue

Ted Williams was born in San Diego as Teddy Samuel Williams, named after his father, Samuel Stuart Williams, and Teddy Roosevelt. At some point, the name on his birth certificate was changed to Theodore, but his mother and his closest friends always called him Teddy. His father was a soldier, sheriff, and photographer from New York and greatly admired the former president. His mother, May Venzor, was a Salvation Army worker from El Paso, Texas.

His paternal ancestors were a mix of Welsh and Irish and his maternal ancestors were of Mexican descent. Through his Mexican side he is related to Mexican Revolutionary General Pascual Orozco, who in turn shares descent from the Habsburg family of Europe, and related to Maximilian I of Mexico. Other sources claim his Mexican mother's family was Basque in origin. Of his Mexican ancestry he wrote: "If I had had my mother's name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, (considering) the prejudices people had in Southern California."

Williams lived in San Diego's North Park neighborhood (4121 Utah Street) and graduated from Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, where he played baseball. Though he soon had offers from the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees, his mother thought him too young to leave home so he signed with the local minor league club, the San Diego Padres, while still in high school. He also had a minor league stint with the Minneapolis Millers.

He had a younger brother Danny who was wayward. When Ted started making some money in 1941, he had the house on Utah Street enlarged and completely renovated. Danny promptly backed a truck up to the house, moved out all the new furniture, including a washing machine and a sewing machine, and sold these items. May, who had been able to get Danny out of his previous scrapes, gave up this time and had him arrested. He spent some time in jail.

Early in his career, Ted stated that he wished to be known as "The greatest hitter who ever lived," an honor that he achieved in the eyes of many by the end of his career. Williams once stated his goal was to have a father walk down the street with his son, point to Williams and remark, "Son, there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." Carl Yastrzemski said of Williams, "He studied hitting the way a broker studies the stock market."

Williams moved up to the major league Red Sox in 1939, immediately making an impact by leading the American League in RBI and finishing 4th in MVP balloting. Williams quickly became known as one of the most potent left-handed hitters in MLB. A myth that developed was that his eyes were the best in history, being able to read the words on a record album while it was spinning.

In 1941, he entered the last day of the season with a batting average of .39955. This would have been rounded up to .400, making him the first man to hit .400 since Bill Terry in 1930. Manager Joe Cronin left the decision whether to play up to him. Williams opted to play in both games of the day's doubleheader and risk falling short, explaining that "if I can't hit .400 all the way, I don't deserve it." He singled in his first at-bat, raising his average to .401, and followed it with a home run and two more hits in the first game. Williams went 2 for 3 in the second game, for a total of 6 hits in his last 8 at-bats, for a final average of .406. No player has hit .400 in a season since Williams. (Williams also hit .407 in 1953 (just 37 games), and in a six-game cameo in 1952.)

In his book, Williams acknowledges that "There was some great batting done that year [1941]" and mentions Joe DiMaggio and Cecil Travis, who hit .359. He continued, "I think, surely, to hit .400 you have to be an outstanding hitter having everything 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."

At the time, Williams' achievement was overshadowed by Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in the same season. Their rivalry was played up by the press; Williams always felt himself slightly better as a hitter, but acknowledged that DiMaggio was the better all-around player. The writers apparently concurred, voting DiMaggio the American League MVP award over Williams.

Williams also set a major-league record in 1941 for on-base percentage in a season at .551. That record would last until surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2002. In 1949, Williams reached base in 84 consecutive games, the most ever. In addition, Williams holds the third longest such streak of 69, in 1941. In 1957, Williams reached base in 16 consecutive plate appearances, also a major league record.

Ted Williams pitched once during his career, on August 24, 1940. He pitched the last two innings in a 12-1 loss to Detroit; Williams allowed one earned run on three hits, while striking out one batter, Rudy York.

Williams said that his greatest thrill as a player was winning the 1941 All-Star Game with a two-out, three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. Another memorable All-Star Game accomplishment came in 1946 in Fenway Park, a 12-0 blowout for the American League. Williams' 4-for-4, 5 RBI day was highlighted by a home run off Rip Sewell's notorious eephus pitch.

Among the few blemishes on Williams' playing record was his performance in his lone postseason appearance, the 1946 World Series. Williams managed just 5 singles in 25 at-bats, with just 1 RBI, as the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Much of Williams' lack of production was due to his stubborn insistence on hitting into the Cardinals' defensive shift, which frequently involved five or six of the Cardinals' fielders positioned to the right of second base. This shift was a version of the Boudreau Shift, popularized by Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau in an attempt to reduce Williams's effectiveness. Williams was also playing with a sore wrist from being hit by a pitch during a pre-World Series exhibition game against a team gathered from other American League squads, while the Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers were playing a best-of-three series to determine the National League champion. However, Williams never cited the injury as an excuse for his subpar play.

A broken collarbone and his famed plate patience cost Williams the 1954 batting title. He had the league's highest average, .345, but walked 136 times en route to just 386 at-bats. 478 at-bats were required to be eligible for the batting title, and thus Williams lost it to Cleveland’s Bobby Avila, who hit .341 in 555 at-bats.

In 1957, he hit .388 to lead the league and remarkably in 1958 at age 40, he led the league with a .328 batting average.

When Pumpsie Green became the first black player on the Boston Red Sox in 1959—the last major league team to integrate its roster—Williams openly welcomed him.

Williams ended his career dramatically, hitting a home run in his very last at-bat on September 28, 1960. The classic John Updike essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" chronicles this event and is often mentioned among the greatest pieces of sports writing in American journalism.

Williams was an obsessive student of hitting. He famously used a lighter bat than most sluggers, because it generated a faster swing. David Halberstam's Summer of '49 recalls him warning teammates not to leave their bats on the ground as they would absorb moisture and become heavier. His devotion allowed him to hit for power and average while maintaining extraordinary plate discipline. In 1970 he wrote a book on the subject, The Science of Hitting (revised 1986), which is still read by many baseball players. Williams was known to discuss hitting with active players enthusiastically until very late in his life; a conversation with Tony Gwynn was filmed for television.

Williams lacked foot speed, as attested by his 19-year career total of only one inside-the-park home run, one occasion of hitting for the cycle, and just 24 stolen bases. (Interestingly, despite his slowness on the basepaths, he is one of only three players in history—along with noted speedsters Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson—to have stolen a base in four different decades.) Williams always felt that had he had more speed, he could have raised his average considerably and hit .400 in at least one additional season. Williams was considered an indifferent outfielder with a good throwing arm; he often spent time in left field practicing "shadow swings" for his next at-bat. Williams occasionally expressed regret that he had not worked harder on his defense.

Williams served as a pilot during World War II and the Korean War. He had been classified 3-A by Selective Service prior to the war, a dependency deferment because he was his mother's sole support. When his classification was changed to 1-A following U.S. entry into the war, Williams appealed to his draft board. The board agreed that his status should not have been changed. He made a public statement that once he had built up his mother's trust fund, he intended to enlist. Even so, criticism in the media, including withdrawal of an endorsement contract by Quaker Oats, resulted in his enlistment in the Navy on May 22, 1942.

Williams could have received an easy assignment and played baseball for the Navy. Instead, he joined the V-5 program to become a Naval aviator. Williams was first sent to the Navy's Preliminary Ground School at Amherst College for six months of academic instruction in various subjects including math and navigation, where he achieved a 3.85 grade point average.

Fellow Red Sox player Johnny Pesky who went into the same training program said about Ted "He mastered intricate problems in fifteen minutes which took the average cadet an hour, and half of the other cadets there were college grads."

Pesky again described Williams' acumen in the advance training for which Pesky personally did not qualify: “I heard Ted literally tore the `sleeve target' to shreds with his angle dives. He'd shoot from wingovers, zooms, and barrel rolls, and after a few passes the sleeve was ribbons. At any rate, I know he broke the all-time record for hits." Ted went to Jacksonville for a course in air gunnery, the combat pilot's payoff test, and broke all the records in reflexes, coordination, and visual-reaction time. "From what I heard. Ted could make a plane and its six 'pianos' (machine guns) play like a symphony orchestra," Pesky says. "From what they said, his reflexes, coordination, and visual reaction made him a built-in part of the machine."

Williams received preflight training at Athens, Georgia; primary training at NAS Bunker Hill, Indiana; and advanced flight training at NAS Pensacola. He received his wings and commission in the U.S. Marine Corps on May 2, 1944.

He served as a flight instructor at Naval Air Station Pensacola teaching young pilots to fly the F4U Corsair. He was in Pearl Harbor awaiting orders to join the China fleet when the war ended. He finished the war in Hawaii and was released from active duty in January 1946; however he did remain in the reserves.

On May 1, 1952, at the age of 34, he was recalled to active duty for service in the Korean War. He hadn't flown for some eight years but turned away all offers to sit out the war in comfort as a member of a service baseball team. Nevertheless Williams was resentful of being called up, which he admitted years later, particularly of the Navy's policy to call up Inactive Reservists rather than members of the Active Reserve.

After eight weeks of refresher flight training and qualification in the F9F Panther jet at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, he was assigned to VMF-311, Marine Aircraft Group 33 (MAG-33), based at K-3 airfield in Pohang, Korea.

On February 16, 1953, Williams was part of a 35-plane strike package against a tank and infantry training school just south of Pyongyang, North Korea. During the mission a piece of flak knocked out his hydraulics and electrical systems, causing Williams to have to "limp" his plane back to K-13, an Air Force base close to the front lines. For his actions of this day he was awarded the Air Medal.

Williams stayed on K-13 for several days while his plane was repaired. Because he was so popular, GI's from all around the base came to see him and his plane. After it was repaired, Williams flew his plane back to his Marine station.

Williams eventually flew 39 combat missions before being pulled from flight status in June 1953 after a hospitalization for pneumonia resulted in discovery of an inner ear infection that disqualified him from flight status. During the war he also served in the same unit as John Glenn and in the last half of his missions, he was serving as Glenn's wingman. While these absences, which took almost five years out of the heart of a great career, significantly limited his career totals, he never publicly complained about the time devoted to military service. Biographer Leigh Montville argues that Williams was not happy about being pressed into service in Korea, but he did what he felt was his patriotic duty.

Williams had a strong respect for General Douglas MacArthur, referring to him as his "idol". For Williams' fortieth birthday, MacArthur sent him an oil painting of himself with the inscription "To Ted Williams - not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who served his country. Your friend, Douglas MacArthur. General U.S. Army."

Williams's two MVP Awards and two Triple Crowns came in four different years. Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Chuck Klein are the only players since the establishment of the MVP award to win the Triple Crown and not be named league MVP in that season.

Ted Williams won the Triple Crown not once, but twice - in 1942, and again in 1947 after missing three years to WWII. In 1949, Williams led the league in home runs (with 43) and RBI (with 159, tied with Red Sox shortstop Vern Stephens), but lost the batting race to Detroit third-baseman George Kell. Kell had 179 hits in 522 at-bats, for a batting average of .3429, while Williams went 194-566, for an average of .3428. A single hit either way would have changed the outcome.

Because Williams's hitting was so feared, and it was known that he was a dead pull hitter, opponents frequently employed the radical, defensive "Williams Shift" against him, leaving only one fielder on the third-base half of the field. Rather than bunting the ball into the open space, the proud Williams batted as usual against the defense. The defensive tactic was later used against left-handed sluggers such as Willie McCovey and Barry Bonds, and is still used to this day against players such as Ryan Howard, Carlos Delgado, and David Ortiz who are also considered dead-pull hitters, and is appropriately called the infield shift.

Ted Williams retired from the game in 1960 and hit a home run in his final at-bat, on September 28, 1960, in front of only 10,454 fans at Fenway Park. This home run, a solo shot hit off Baltimore pitcher Jack Fisher in the 8th inning that reduced the Orioles' lead to 4-3—was immortalized in The New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", by John Updike.

Renowned NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, reflecting on Williams unparalleled success as ball player, wingman, and fisherman, once asked Williams if he realized he was in real life the type of American hero John Wayne sought to portray in his movies. Replied Williams, "Yeah, I know."

Ted Williams was on uncomfortable terms with the Boston newspapers for nearly twenty years, as he felt they liked to discuss his personal life as much as his baseball performance. He maintained a career-long feud with SPORT magazine due to a 1948 feature article in which the SPORT reporter included a quote from Williams' mother. Insecure about his upbringing, and stubborn because of immense confidence in his own talent, Williams made up his mind that the "knights of the typewriter" were against him. Some seemingly were. After having hit for the league's Triple Crown in 1947, Williams narrowly lost the MVP award in a vote where one mid-western newspaper writer left Williams entirely off his ten-player ballot.

He treated most of the press accordingly, as he described in his memoir, My Turn at Bat. However, Ed Linn in his book listed hereunder in 'Further Reading' states that Ted's memoir is 'replete with factual errors' (Linn, p. 57). Intriguingly, both Ted and Linn spell Ted's mother's maiden name as Venzer but per the 'Ancestry of Ted Williams' in the Notes [on wikipedia], the family name in various census entries is cited as Venzor.

Williams also had an uneasy relationship with the Boston fans, though he could be very cordial one-on-one. He felt at times a good deal of gratitude for their passion and their knowledge of the game. On the other hand, Williams was temperamental, high-strung, and at times tactless. He gave generously to those in need, and demanded loyalty from those around him. He could not forgive the fickle nature of the fans—booing a player for booting a ground ball, then turning around and roaring approval of the same player for hitting a home run. Despite the cheers and adulation of most of his fans, the occasional boos directed at him in Fenway Park led Williams to stop tipping his cap in acknowledgement after a home run. 
Sculpture of Ted Williams outside Fenway Park.

Williams maintained this policy up to and including his swan song in 1960. After hitting a home run in his last career at-bat in Fenway Park, Williams characteristically refused either to tip his cap as he circled the bases or to respond to prolonged cheers of "We want Ted!" from the crowd by making an appearance from the dugout. Boston manager Pinky Higgins sent Williams to his fielding position in left field to start the ninth inning, then immediately recalled him for backup Carroll Hardy, thus allowing Williams to receive one last ovation as he jogged on and off the field. But he did so without reacting to the crowd. Williams's aloof attitude led writer John Updike to wryly observe that "gods do not answer letters."

Williams's final home run did not take place during the final game of the 1960 season, but rather the Red Sox' last home game that year. The Red Sox played three more games, but they were on the road in New York and Williams did not appear in any of them, as it became clear that Williams's final home at-bat would be the last of his career.

In 1991 on Ted Williams Day at Fenway Park, Williams pulled a Red Sox cap from out of his jacket and tipped it to the crowd; it was the first time he had done so since his earliest days as a player.

A Red Smith profile from 1956 describes one Boston writer trying to convince Ted Williams that first cheering and then booing a ballplayer was no different from a moviegoer applauding a "western" movie actor one day and saying the next "He stinks! Whatever gave me the idea he could act?" But Williams rejected this; when he liked a western actor like Hoot Gibson, he liked him in every picture, and would not think of booing him.

In his induction speech in 1966, Williams included a statement calling for the recognition of the great Negro Leagues players: "I've been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform, and I hope some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given a chance." (Montville, p. 262).

Williams was referring to two of the most famous names in the Negro Leagues, who were not given the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Gibson died early in 1947 and thus never played in the majors; and Paige's brief major league stint came long past his prime as a player. This powerful and unprecedented statement from the Hall of Fame podium was "a first crack in the door that ultimately would open and include Paige and Gibson and other Negro League stars in the shrine." (Montville, p. 262) Paige was the first inducted, in 1971. Gibson and others followed, starting in 1972 and continuing off and on into the 21st Century.

In 1954, Williams was also inducted by the San Diego Hall of Champions into the Breitbard Hall of Fame honoring San Diego's finest athletes both on and off the playing surface.

At the time of his retirement, Williams ranked third all-time in home runs (behind Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx), seventh in RBIs (after Ruth, Cap Anson, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Foxx, and Mel Ott; Stan Musial would pass Williams in 1962), and seventh in batting average (behind Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Lefty O'Doul, Ed Delahanty and Tris Speaker). His career batting average is the highest of any player who played his entire career in the post-1920 live-ball era.

Williams was also second to Ruth in career slugging percentage, where he remains today, and first in on-base percentage. He was also second to Ruth in career walks, but has since dropped to fourth place behind Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson. Williams remains the career leader in walks per plate appearance.

Most modern statistical analyses place Williams, along with Ruth and Bonds, among the three most potent hitters to have played the game. Williams' 1941 season is often considered favorably with the greatest seasons of Ruth and Bonds in terms of various offensive statistical measures such as slugging, on-base and "offensive winning percentage." As a further indication, of the ten best seasons for OPS, short for On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage, a popular modern measure of offensive productivity, four each were achieved by Ruth and Bonds, and two by Williams.

In 1999, Williams was ranked as Number 8 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, where he was the highest-ranking left fielder.

After retirement from play, Williams had one more duty in Boston—to help new left fielder Carl Yastrzemski in hitting. Williams then served as manager of the Washington Senators, from 1969–1971, then continuing with the team when they became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season. Williams's best season as a manager was 1969 when he led the expansion Senators to an 86–76 record in their only winning season in Washington. He was chosen "Manager of the Year" after that season. Like many great players, Williams became impatient with ordinary athletes' abilities and attitudes, particularly those of pitchers, whom he admitted he never respected, and his managerial career was short and largely unsuccessful. Before and after leaving Texas (which would be his only manager job), he occasionally appeared at Red Sox spring training as a guest hitting instructor. Williams would also go into a partnership with friend Al Cassidy to form the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, Massachusetts. It was not uncommon to find Williams fishing in the pond at the camp. The area now is owned by the town and a few of the buildings still stand. In the main lodge one can still see memorabilia from Williams' playing days.

On the subject of pitchers, in Ted's autobiography written with John Underwood, Ted opines regarding Bob Lemon (a sinker-ball specialist) pitching for Cleveland Indians around 1951: "I have to rate Lemon as one of the very best pitchers I ever faced. His ball was always moving, hard, sinking, fast-breaking. You could never really uhmmmph with Lemon."

Then there was Ray Scarborough with the Washington Senators, who always seemed to do well against Boston. "He was a right-handed pitcher and he was nothing if not smart and crafty. Not only did he give the Boston right-handers a difficult time, but he was poison to their best left-handed hitter Ted Williams. Scarborough could decoy Williams better than any other pitcher in the league.

It was not just a matter of his selection of pitches, it was his motion as well. He would show fastball and then at the last minute go to his curve. Forty years later Williams paid Scarborough the ultimate accolade: He said that he probably chased more balls out of the strike zone with Ray Scarborough than with any other pitcher in the American League

Around 1950 largely at the urging of Williams, it was said, the Red Sox traded for Ray Scarborough, by then thirty-five. but it was too late for him, and too late for them. He lasted a little more than one season before moving on"

He was much more successful in fishing. An avid and expert fly fisherman and deep-sea fisherman, he spent many summers after baseball fishing the Miramichi River, in Miramichi, New Brunswick, Canada. Williams was named to the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame in 2000. Some opined that Williams was a rare individual who might have been the best in the world in three different disciplines: baseball hitter, fighter jet pilot, and fly fisherman. Shortly after Williams's death, conservative pundit Steve Sailer said the following about him:

"The baseball slugger was possibly the most technically proficient American of the 20th Century, as his mastery of three highly different callings demonstrates... Can you think of anybody else who was #1 in America in his main career [hitting a baseball], probably Top 10 in his retirement hobby [fishing], and roughly Top 1000 in his weekend job [fighter pilot]? [John] Glenn springs to mind as military pilot, astronaut, and Senator, but each new career flowed from the previous one. The same is true for Jimmy Doolittle. Williams' three careers, in contrast, were uniquely disparate."

Williams reached an extensive deal with Sears, lending his name and talent toward marketing, developing, and endorsing a line of in-house sports equipment - specifically fishing, hunting and baseball equipment. He was also extensively involved in the Jimmy Fund, later losing a brother to leukemia, and spent much of his spare time, effort, and money in support of the cancer organization.

In his later years, Williams became a fixture at autograph shows and card shows after his son (by his third wife), John Henry Williams, took control of his career, becoming his de facto manager. The younger Williams provided structure to his father's business affairs, exposed forgeries that were flooding the memorabilia market, and rationed his father's public appearances and memorabilia signings to maximize their earnings.

On November 18, 1991, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush.

One of Ted Williams's final, and most memorable, public appearances was at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston. Able to walk only a short distance, Williams was brought to the pitcher's mound in a golf cart. He proudly waved his cap to the crowd—a gesture he had never done as a player. Fans responded with a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. At the pitcher's mound he was surrounded by players from both teams, including fellow Red Sox Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Gwynn. Later in the year, he was among the members of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team introduced to the crowd at Turner Field in Atlanta prior to Game 2 of the World Series.

The Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston (December 1995), and Ted Williams Parkway in San Diego (1992) were named in his honor while he was still alive.

His jersey number 9 was formally retired by the Red Sox in 1984.

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