`Splendid Splinter'

July 09, 2002

IN A GAME in which achieving success four out of every 10 chances is almost perfection, Ted Williams was just about perfect. He was, of course, the last major-league baseball player to hit .400 over an entire season - to be precise, .406 in 1941. Mr. Williams' death last week at age 83 is a sharp reminder of just how long this record has stood, of just how difficult it is to hit that well for that long, and of the validity of the notion that he was the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Mr. Williams brought to the game 20/10 vision, a scientist's approach to the mechanics of hitting, and a pride and tempestuous intensity that at times alienated dedicated fans and friends.

Hitting was his business, and the unparalleled results from 19 seasons over four decades speak for themselves: six American League batting titles, two Most Valuable Player awards, 521 homers, a lifetime .344 batting average, and the second-highest slugging percentage and the highest on-base average of all time.

He achieved all that despite losing nearly five seasons to injuries and military service. During World War II and the Korean conflict, Mr. Williams might have wangled a cushy role bucking up the troops. Instead, he became a Marine pilot and instructor, flying 39 combat missions. Then, and as he grew older and perhaps gruffer, he became baseball's John Wayne, a man who knew what he was doing and would not be trifled with - even as opposing teams took to overshifting to the right side of the field in a desperate effort to counter his ability to pull the ball hard.

There was no secret to Mr. Williams' hitting ability. It was his sweet swing. His many obituaries over the last few days frequently have been accompanied by photos of him swinging the bat - and, particularly, one of him almost entirely twisted around at the hips, his back foot fully pivoted, his front foot planted, his arms and bat wrapped around himself. Every young player who's been told to turn on the ball and explode through it ought to study this 1941 photo, in which Mr. Williams' slender frame exudes a coiled elegance and strength.

The essence of this classic image of the "Splendid Splinter" has been faithfully captured in a life-size wooden statue that stands alongside one of Babe Ruth just inside the entrance of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. For those who love the game, it is the equivalent of Michelangelo's "David."

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