John Holway / History
TED WILLIAMS: THERELL NEVER BE ANOTHER
By John B. Holway
I first saw Ted Williams when I was 11 years old on September 9 1941. He was clinging to .400, and we wondered if he could hold it, or would he fail, as so many men before and since, had done at the end?
He cocked his elbow, squeezed, brought the bat forward like a samurai practicing a sword stroke, held the pose a second, then cocked and squeezed again. Finally, a quick dimpling of the right knee, a stride, and a whoosh. The ball bounced straight toward our box seat as the first base coach danced safely aside, like a matador and a bull.
Ted went 1-for-4 that day and lost two points. Jeez, he told me 40 years later, when youre up that high, does it come down fast!
As many fans know, he didnt fail. Batting .39995 before the final double-header, he refused to sit out and accept a rounded off .400. He needed four hits in eight at bats 3-for-8 wouldnt do it -- smashed six hits in eight at bats, and finished with a triumphant .406.
A friend of mine, lucky enough to wedge into the Red Sox clubhouse, recalled Ted prancing in the nude, whooping, How about that? to everyone in the room.
In 1980 he would relive that magnificent season, day by day, for me for a book, The Last 400 Hitter.
Next spring, 1942, I took my seven-year old brother to old Griffith Stadium in Washington, and we waited outside the dressing room door until everyone else had sauntered out except Ted. Finally he emerged, tousled Jims head, and boomed he didnt say things, he boomed them Nice boy, Sonny.
And, says Jim, I haven't washed my head since.
That winter, at the age of 24, beginning the peak years of a players life, Williams was gone into the Navy Air Corps. The second youngest 400-hitter ever, Ted missed the next three years, when Ty Cobb hit .400 twice, and Rogers Hornsby and many others, topped it for the first time. Ive always insisted that Ted could have done it again, even twice more, in the missing years.
At that age he had hit more home runs than any 23 year-old ever. Babe Ruth would break the old record at 24 and go on to 59 at age 26, Teds last year in the Service. In those ages, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays all suddenly hit 50 or more. Roger Maris hit 61.
When we compare Williams to all the great hitters, we are comparing them at their peaks to Ted before and after his peak.
When he finally came back, in 1946, I was sitting in rightfield in Fenway Park for the All Star game, when Ted came up for his last at bat against blooper-ball pitcher Rip Sewell. Ted fouled one off into the third base dugout. The next pitch was lobbed up and would fall short. Ill never forget Ted doing a little Fred Astaire two-step hop and under-cutting the ball, which climbed up and up and up. A short fly, I moaned. But it kept soaring, and rightfielder Enos Slaughter back-pedaled until the ball dropped over his head into the bullpen next to me.
Ted was always doing things like that. He homered in his first game back after World War II, homered his last game before going off to Korea and his first game back from Korea, and, of course, his last at bat of all.
Williams was ten years older than me, and we went off to Korea together, he to the Marines, I to the infantry. I was hit and remember listening from a hospital ward as the radio brought the news that Ted had also been shot down over North Korea and crash-landed safely in the South.
Its hard for todays fans to believe, but back then Williams was one of the most hated men in sports. The fans bellowed obscenities from the leftfield stands, the sports writers pilloried him and withheld their votes for MVP. They quoted him when, off the record, he called President Truman a gutless politician.
He spit at the knights of the keyboard, as he called them, and petulantly tossed his bat, which bounced crazily into the stands and hit a lady. The curses increased.
Williams was 39 years old in April 1957 when I nervously dialed his room at the old Wardman Park hotel on 16th Street, expecting to get my head bitten off. When he answered the phone, I talked fast. Ill just take a few minutes, I stammered. I wanted to ask what two wars had cost him. A long pause. OK, Ted said, come on up.
He opened the door in his shorts, and for the next hour and a half we had a delightful talk.
Williams surprised me with his modesty. Just take my lifetime average and give me that, he said. I protested that those werent average years he had lost, but he wouldnt budge. Personally I think 650 lifetime home runs would be about right, and a batting average near .350.
What about this year? I asked. Oh, about .350 and 35 homers. I silently scoffed: An old geezer at that age won't hit 35 homers. I was right, of course. He didnt. He actually hit 38 and batted .388.
Ted said Mickey Mantle was swinging all wrong and demonstrated too big a swing and Mick wouldnt choke up with two strikes.
The last time I talked to him, two years ago, he insisted that there will be more 400 hitters if todays players only learn to shorten their swings with two strikes. But Ted, who was paid $17,500 for hitting 400, didnt begrudge them their monstrous salaries. More power to em, he said.
When other writers were describing an ogre with horns, I found a charmer. If I were a woman, I told others, Id always be pregnant. In fact, we were interrupted by a phone call, and Ted slipped into a syrupy bedroom purr. I could only imagine the caller slowly melting into a helpless puddle on the other end of the line.
Slowly, others were beginning to see the same Ted Williams I saw. The generation that had aimed jeers and curses gave way to new generations, who accorded him the awe due an elder statesman.
Ted went out with class. His speech at Cooperstown, urging a spot in the Hall for Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, opened the doors for Negro Leaguers. It was perhaps the finest, most statesman-like speech ever made in that hallowed setting. Howard University gave him a Brotherhood Award. Im PROUD of that! Ted boomed when I met him for several long interviews at his home on the Florida keys.
Ted slipped off his shoes, sipped a drink, and gave liberally of his time and memories.
As he relaxed, he told one delicious story that I ached to put in the book. I called later to ask about it, and he asked me not to. Hed been burned by other writers who did abuse confidences, but that story will follow both him and me to our graves.
Although Ted could be gracious, the old demons had not been exorcised. When he took me and his housekeeper, a delightful Barbara Bush look-alike, out for a seafood dinner, suddenly, for no apparent reason, he raised his voice in a flare-up of some of the old fabled anger. While diners swung their heads around to look, she scolded him: Just because you can hit a baseball doesnt mean you know everything. The anger went out of him like a pricked balloon, the storm passed, and the dinner resumed good-naturedly.
Of all my memories, this is one of my favorites. It was in St Louis in 1948. I joined a mob of kids keeping vigil outside the clubhouse. Other players exited and left, but we wouldnt give up, we knew he had to come out. When he finally did, the mass of boys glomped onto him, shoving scorecards up into his face. It was like trying to walk through glue.
When I was 11 he had sent me an autographed picture at my request and would have done the same for any kid who wrote to him. But now we had him imprisoned, and he did something Ive never seen anyone else do.
You! he called to one boy at the fringe and made all the others give way so the kid could come forward. Ted signed, then pointed again to another distant kid, who also pushed forward to claim his prize. In an instant, the whole motley army had turned tail. Boys were running away as fast as they could, shouting over their shoulders, Me, Ted! Me! while their prisoner caught a cab and escaped.
I was 31 when I saw Ted's home run #520 and felt that my boyhood had finally ended.
Tonight I feel a great sense of mortality as though one of baseball's greatest stories of the 20th century is over. Neither the game nor I will be the same without him.
/// John B Holway's "The Last 400 Hitter" will be reissued in the spring. ///