Master of his art

Ted Williams, 1918-2002

An Appreciation

July 06, 2002|By Michael Hirsley | Michael Hirsley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Making any suggestion to Ted Williams about hitting a baseball took a lot of nerve, but Ty Cobb was shamelessly bold.

In the 1940s, the retired Hall of Fame outfielder sent the future Hall of Famer a letter urging him to hit more to the opposite field.

It would increase Williams' batting average, Cobb contended, and it would discourage opponents' desperate tactic of overshifting infielders toward right field to combat the Boston Red Sox superstar.

"I was in a cab with Ted when he opened the letter," recalled Bobby Doerr, Williams' longtime Red Sox teammate, friend and fishing buddy. "He read it and told me that he didn't want to change anything about the way he hit."

To say Williams fared well without changing is like saying the Mona Lisa looks OK without airbrushing.

Williams, who died yesterday at 83, was a major-league masterpiece.

"With the passing of Ted Williams, America lost a baseball legend," President Bush said in a statement from Kennebunkport, Maine, where he was spending a long Independence Day weekend.

Williams was affectionately dubbed "The Splendid Splinter" in homage to his slender, 6-foot-3 physique when he broke into the big leagues. The last man to hit .400 (.406 in 1941), he won six batting titles, two Triple Crowns, and was twice named the American League's Most Valuable Player.

There are no asterisks to connote extenuating circumstances affecting Williams' statistics, but there could be. It could be argued that his baseball career would be all the more amazing had he not lost nearly five years to military service.

As a Marine reservist, he flew combat missions in Korea in 1951 and 1952 with John Glenn, who would become an astronaut and U.S. senator.

Reacting to news of Williams' death, Glenn called him a "very active" fighter pilot who persevered after crash landing a burning plane, and added, "If he had stayed in baseball, he would have broken even more records than he did."

In his statement, President Bush noted, "Ted gave baseball some of its best seasons, and he gave his own best seasons to the country. He will be greatly missed."

Doerr, himself a Hall of Fame second baseman, said, "Ted would have to be one of the greatest hitters of all time, especially when you consider he was a pull hitter who probably hit 98 percent of the time to right field. That means he had to swing with incredible precision in a very tight zone right in front of him."

Doerr insists that he literally saw evidence of Williams' perfect swing: "He used resin on his bats that darkened the barrel. And when you looked at one, you could see a white spot because he'd hit so many balls on that same part of the bat."

Even though some teams shifted three infielders toward right field when he came to the plate, "Williams hit the ball so hard, he could hit through the shift," said White Sox executive Roland Hemond, who grew up in New England as a Red Sox fan.

Hemond, who was general manager of the Orioles from 1988 to 1995, remembers going to Boston's Fenway Park "as a kid, getting there early to watch Ted Williams take batting practice. Players on the other team would even stop what they were doing to watch him hit."

Through his front-office career in baseball, Hemond got to spend time with his childhood hero. And, he recalled, "Ted Williams was the one player that whenever I was with him, I was awestruck."

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said Williams dreamed of being remembered as "the greatest hitter who ever lived. Ted fulfilled that dream."

Slugger Frank Howard, who played for Williams when he managed the Washington Senators from 1969 to 1971, said he was "the premier measuring stick for hitters. He's light-years ahead of anybody as far as hitting a baseball."

New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio, a magnificent superstar rival who died in 1999, once called Williams "the best pure hitter I ever saw."

For Williams, playing all his 19 seasons in Boston meant a career defined by the frustration of chasing the perennial champion Yankees, comparisons with DiMaggio and exposure to fickle fans.

Those fans booed Williams' shortcomings in the outfield - to which he once reacted by spitting at some near the dugout and to which he always responded by refusing to tip his cap when they applauded his best work at the plate.

Even his final best work. After hitting a home run in his last major-league at-bat at Fenway Park in 1960, Williams did not doff his headgear.

Al Pilarcik, who now lives in Schererville, Ind., was the Orioles' right fielder in that game. As a fellow fly fisherman who had swapped stories and flies with Williams, Pilarcik was a big fan of the legendary hitter he had heard dubbed "Teddy Ballgame," "The Kid," and, of course, "The Splendid Splinter."

"To me, he was so big and powerful by then that I thought he should've been called "The Magnificent Plank,'" Pilarcik quipped.

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