Classic excuses never carried much weight with Teddy Ballgame

Phil Jackman

July 12, 1993|By Phil Jackman

Right up there next to "The check is in the mail" and other assorted falsehoods is the claim by baseball players that election or selection to an All-Star squad is about as important to them as the relative humidity in Sumatra.

You know the bit: how vital it always seems that "Lefty" or "Slugger" have a few days off to charge up the battery for the second half of the season; to be by the hearth with wife and family; to have a chance to do missionary work in the Chilean Andes; or to catch a fish.

Bull? Of course it is. But each year, dutifully, four, eight or a dozen players will lay out their complaints. Whenever it happens, I think of one guy: Theodore Samuel Williams.

Yes, good ol' "Teddy Ballgame," who, despite his 74 years and weather that is giving us all a sampling of the inglorious hereafter, is in town for the rampant festivities.

Williams, you see, was the All-Star Game for about a decade. And nothing short of World War II, a recall during the Korean War or age and injury could keep him away.

Imagine a far from proven rinky-dink elevated to All-Star status by the simple expedient of all teams being represented balking at something "The Thumper" said was his greatest thrill in a remarkable, two-decade career.

It was 1941, Briggs Stadium, Detroit, and the heavily favored American League trailed the Nationals, 5-4, with two outs and two aboard in the last of the ninth inning. Ted swings at a Claude Passeau pitch and you can forget it. "The Kid" (Ted had a lot of nicknames, remember) jumped around the bases as if his team had just won the Little League World Series. He probably never reacted with such boyish enthusiasm again.

"The reason it stands out," he says, "is because it was the first time I had done something [big] on a national stage."

This from a man who batted .327 as a rookie, .344 the next season and was headed toward a .406 average that year, which ended with the world at war. Exhibition? Not in the minds of all the great ballplayers who had taken part during halcyon days "When It Was A Game."

The next time we pick up Ted's exploits, it's 1946, he's home in Fenway Park in Boston and the game needs a shot somewhere to recover from wartime baseball and the fact the game hadn't even been contested the year before due to travel restrictions.

"If you remember that game, they had us beat 8-0 going into the last of the eighth," recalls Pittsburgh pitcher Rip Sewell in the fine book "Baseball When The Grass Was Real." Rip threw a pitch dubbed the "eephus," a blooper that rose to a height of about 12 feet as it floated merrily toward home plate.

The pitch caused a minor sensation that season and, as Sewell says, "I guess the most famous blooper was the one I threw to Ted Williams. Before the game Ted said to me, 'Hey, Rip, you wouldn't throw that damned crazy pitch in a game like this, would you?' "

Sewell replied that he would and would, in fact, serve it up to the mighty Ted. Williams was extremely doubtful.

"It was a lousy game and the fans were bored," continued Sewell. "Ted came to the plate and I smiled and nodded to him. He shook his head telling me not to throw it. I nodded to him: you're going to get it, buddy.

"The count got to 1-and-2 after he had taken the eephus and fouled another one off and now he was looking for it. I threw a good one, dropping right down the chute for a strike. He took a couple of strides up on it, which was the right way to attack that pitch, and he hit it right out of there. And I mean he hit it."

While the fans stood up and were going crazy, the pitcher trotted around the bases with the hitter shouting, " 'the only reason you hit it is because I told you it was coming.' He was laughing all the way around the bases and I got a standing ovation when I walked off the mound. We turned a dead turkey of a game into a real crowd pleaser. And Ted was the only man ever to hit a home run off the blooper."

Fitting.

By 1950, the All-Star Game had again become the Midsummer Classic when Williams was once more the center of attention and controversy.

Just one notable injury had occurred in the first 16 games, Earl Averill smacking a line drive off the toe of pitcher Dizzy Dean in 1937, and the resulting broken toe causing Diz to change his motion and all but end his playing career.

This day, in Chicago's Comiskey Park, Williams fractured his left elbow while making a catch and was through for the season. Boston and New England were distraught. Call off this fiasco where Hall of Fame players can be disabled. The Red Sox, remember, had been beaten out of the pennant by a game the year before when the hated Yankees defeated them on the last two days of the season.

There would be no stopping the Sox in 1950. They had a team that batted .302 and scored 1,027 runs. That's an average of 6.66 per game and, at the break, Williams had 28 homers, 22 doubles, 106 hits and 82 walks on the way to a .317 average and 97 RBI in just 89 games.

Billy Goodman moved from backing up in the infield to the outfield and ended up winning the batting title with a .354 average, but there was no replacing Thumper.

In conversations over the years, Teddy Ballgame was never heard to rue his bad luck over that run-in with the cold, unyielding green cement of Comiskey.

Believe a player when he says an All-Star appearance is no big deal if you want, but you can bet the guy has his fingers crossed behind his back and wouldn't spout such heresy in front of Ted.

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