Baseball Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams dead at 83

Record-breaking slugger was heralded fighter pilot

1918 - 2002

July 06, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams was a complicated man with a surprisingly simple goal in life.

From the time he emerged as a star with the Boston Red Sox - during the darkening years before the start of World War II - he was on a mission to prove that there would never be another quite like him.

"All I want out of life," he once said, "is that when I walk down the street folks will say, `There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"

Mr. Williams died yesterday of cardiac arrest at the age of 83, his lofty goal fulfilled. By most accounts, "The Splendid Splinter" was the greatest batsman who ever carried a Louisville Slugger to home plate - a distinction that he earned the hard way and wore proudly through a 19-year major-league career and a lengthy, distinguished retirement.

"This is a sad day for baseball, a sad day for anybody who knew Ted," said former New York Yankees star Yogi Berra. "Nobody was more loyal, generous, courageous, more respected than Ted. He sacrificed his life and career for his country. But he became what he always wanted to be: the greatest hitter ever."

Other baseball greats were equally effusive in their praise.

"It's hard for me to imagine anybody being better," said Montreal Expos manager Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer and former Orioles slugger.

Former Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan said, "As a Hall of Famer, every time you went to the Hall of Fame, you wanted Ted to be there, as it put the stamp of approval on your being there."

Mr. Williams was born in San Diego in 1918 and achieved fame just as the German war machine was gobbling up Europe. His baseball career was interrupted twice, for a total of nearly five seasons, while he served as a Marine pilot in World War II and the Korean War.

Baseball's greatest hitter was a symbol of the "greatest generation," one of millions of Americans who put their lives on hold - and at stake - to save the world. He lost many of the prime years of his baseball career, leaving room to wonder just how much more he might have accomplished on the diamond if he had not put his country first.

"He might have hit 800 homers," Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter once said.

Not out of the question. If Mr. Williams had been able to sustain his career averages during those lost seasons, he would have added enough home runs to threaten Babe Ruth's record of 714 (since broken by Hank Aaron) and enough RBIs to set a mark that would be considered unapproachable today.

Mr. Williams played into his 40s and - even with those prime seasons excised - he still finished with a .344 career average, 521 home runs and 1,839 RBIs.

"There were great hitters that I did not see," said Joe DiMaggio, the late Yankees Hall of Famer. "Fellows like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, George Sisler, all were great hitters. But from 1936 to the present day, I can truthfully say I've never seen a better hitter than Ted Williams."

Mr. Williams was never shy about his ability. He was never shy about anything. He carried on a contentious relationship with Boston baseball fans and the Boston media throughout his career, only in his later years emerging as the beloved character who was brought to tears by a pre-game tribute at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park.

He was once dubbed "The Splendid Spitter" after responding to abusive fans in a particularly impolite way. He labeled Boston "a lousy town" the year before his momentous 1941 performance and referred to his $12,500 salary - considered a small fortune by most Americans after The Great Depression - as "peanuts."

The press, prone to alliteration in those days, labeled him "Terrible Ted" and "Tempestuous Ted." He also got the derisive nickname "Fireman Ted" after he complained that he would rather be a fireman than a ballplayer.

Of course, all was forgotten the next season when Mr. Williams and Mr. DiMaggio turned it into a dual showcase the magnitude of which was not seen again until Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998.

In 1941, Mr. DiMaggio hit in 56 consecutive games and Mr. Williams completed the season batting better than .400. Mr. Williams' .406 batting average stands as one of the greatest baseball achievements of the modern era.

Little more than a year after his record-setting season, Mr. Williams was in the Navy, and again he would choose not to play it safe. Mr. Williams could have spent the war doing morale tours or playing on military baseball teams, but he went to flight school to become a fighter pilot. He worked largely as a flight instructor during World War II but was recalled to active duty for the Korean War and flew 39 combat missions - many of them alongside friend and future astronaut John Glenn.

The damage to his career was obvious, but "The Kid" had grown up to be a patriot.

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