.406 in '41 put him in class apart

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

Hall of Famer Ted Williams was, by most accounts, the greatest pure hitter in the history of baseball, but the proof was in his astounding performance during the magical summer and fall of 1941.

Williams, 83, who died of heart failure yesterday in Inverness, Fla., batted .406 that year and created a modern standard that has gone largely unthreatened in the six decades since. That number - .406 - stands as his signature achievement and sets him apart from every great hitter who has tried to swing a bat in his image.

What a season. What a year. The same summer, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games to set one of the sport's most enduring and astonishing records. Months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and touched off America's involvement in World War II.

Williams would go off to war with millions of other Americans, but he already had achieved a measure of immortality with the greatest season of what would turn out to be one of baseball's greatest careers.

He got his share of breaks in cozy Fenway Park, but his .406 average was no accident. He would admit later that he embarked on his third major-league season with every intention of making history.

"From boyhood, I had been preparing for this to the exclusion of everything else," Williams said in a 1991 interview. "I could see the right time coming. I had been in the league two years already and had learned the pitchers pretty well. Only a veteran could hit .400.

"And here I was, a guy who lived to hit, and I had taken so many swings in practice and worked my butt off so that I was going to mature as a hitter, hit my peak there, right as I was at my peak physically. I was ready. Everything was ready."

Williams was so unwilling to leave anything to chance that he traveled to Louisville, Ky., to the Hillerich & Bradsby Co. factory before the 1941 season to oversee the production of his bats.

Everything fell into place, including the spring-training ankle injury that limited him to pinch-hit duty during the early weeks of April. He never liked to hit in cold weather.

Even DiMaggio's great hitting streak played a role, keeping the focus off Williams well into the summer.

DiMaggio electrified the summer with his 56-game hitting streak. Williams actually outhit DiMaggio over that period (.412-.408) and went on to bat over .400 for the first time since Bill Terry (.401) in 1930 - the weight of the accomplishment greatly enhanced because of a series of rule changes over the course of professional baseball's first half-century that made it vastly more difficult to hit for such a high average.

Terry, for instance, was not charged with an at-bat for any out that advanced a runner, a statistical distinction (in place from 1926 to 1933) of such significance that it clearly accounted for his great 1930 average. The magnitude of Williams' performance is defined best by the 60 years that have passed without it being equaled.

Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett came close, batting .390 in 1980. Rod Carew, considered by some to be the best pure hitter of his era, flirted with .400 before finishing at .388 in 1977. Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton carried a .400 average late into the 2000 season, but his numbers were inflated by the hitter-friendly altitude of Denver.

In 1941, when Williams arrived at the final day of the regular season, he was batting .39955. That was close enough to the magic number to be rounded off to .400 in the record books.

Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered Williams the chance to sit out a season-ending doubleheader against the Athletics at Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Williams insisted on playing both games.

"No surprise there," boyhood friend and Boston teammate Bobby Doerr said years later. `To tell you the truth, I'm surprised old blue-eyed Ted didn't punch Joe for suggesting it."

Williams had four hits in the first game and two in the nightcap to go 6-for-8. He raised his amazing average more than six points. The stuff of legends.

"Not a bad day at all," Williams said a half-century later. "I have to tell you that I would have been the most disappointed guy in the world if I didn't make it."

Ted Williams' career statistics

Regular season

Year Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI Avg

1939 Boston 149 565 131 185 44 11 31 145 .327

1940 Boston 144 561 134 193 43 14 23 113 .344

1941 Boston 143 456 135 185 33 3 37 120 .406

1942 Boston 150 522 141 186 34 5 36 137 .356

1946 Boston 150 514 142 176 37 8 38 123 .342

1947 Boston 156 528 125 181 40 9 32 114 .343

1948 Boston 137 509 124 188 44 3 25 127 .369

1949 Boston 155 566 150 194 39 3 43 159 .343

1950 Boston 89 334 82 106 24 1 28 97 .317

1951 Boston 148 531 109 169 28 4 30 126 .318

1952 Boston 6 10 2 4 0 1 1 3 .400

1953 Boston 37 91 17 37 6 0 13 34 .407

1954 Boston 117 386 93 133 23 1 29 89 .345

1955 Boston 98 320 77 114 21 3 28 83 .356

1956 Boston 136 400 71 138 28 2 24 82 .345

1957 Boston 132 420 96 163 28 1 38 87 .388

1958 Boston 129 411 81 135 23 2 26 85 .328

1959 Boston 103 272 32 69 15 0 10 43 .254

1960 Boston 113 310 56 98 15 0 29 72 .316

Totals 2292 7706 1798 2654 525 71 521 1839 .344

World Series

Year Opponent G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI Avg

1946 St. Louis 7 25 2 5 0 0 0 1 .200

Managerial record

Year Team G W L Pct. Standing

1969 Washington 162 86 76 .551 4

1970 Washington 162 70 92 .432 6

1971 Washington 159 63 96 .396 5

1972 Texas 154 54 100 .351 6

Totals 637 273 364 .429 n/a

Highlights

American League Most Valuable Player: 1946, 1949.

American League Triple Crowns: 1942, 1947.

Led American League in batting: 1941-42, 1947-48, 1957-58.

Led American League in home runs: 1941-1942, 1947, 1949.

Led American League in RBIs: 1939, 1942, 1947, 1949.

Led American League in total bases: 1939, 1942, 1946-47, 1949, 1951.

Led American League in walks: 1941-42, 1946-49, 1951, 1954.

Led American League in slugging average: 1941-42, 1946-49, 1951, 1954, 1957.

Led American League in on-base average: 1940-42, 1946-49, 1951, 1956-58.

Elected to the Hall of Fame: 1966.

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