By Thomas Hauser
A boxing website headquartered in England is an unusual forum to write about an American baseball player. But there's a special bond among great athletes. The death of one is felt by all. Death is a reminder that, no matter how young and strong an athlete might be, the body that serves as a vehicle to glory will ultimately fail.
Ted Williams was a great athlete. That's the first thing to be said about him. By most reckonings, he was the greatest pure hitter of all time. Five men in the history of major league baseball had a higher batting average. Others hit more home runs. But no one combined the two like Williams did.
William made hitting an art and a science. He was able to estimate that, from the moment a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, the batter has 1/10th of a second to recognize the pitch, another 15/100th of a second to decide whether to swing, and a final 15/100th of a second to do it. “That’s what you’re working with,” Williams proclaimed. “Four-tenths of a second with a round ball and a round bat”.
It was his opinion, often voiced, that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing in sports to do.
The world has grown accustomed to books "by" athletes. Invariably, these books are written "with" someone else. Often, the athlete never reads them. He simply talks into a tape recorder, answering questions for a day or two. Then the real author fills in the rest from press clippings. When Ted Williams finally got around to writing a book, he worked with John Underwood but the end product was vintage Williams.
The Science of Hitting, published in 1970, remains the classic work on hitting a baseball. Among the thoughts Williams offered were:
* "All they ever write about the great hitters is what great reflexes they have, what great style, what strength, what quickness; but never how smart the guy is at the plate, and that's fifty percent of it."
* "I was known as a hitter who guessed a lot. But for me, guessing was observing."
* "The single most important thing for a hitter is to get a good pitch to hit. A good hitter can hit a pitch that’s over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a ball in a tough spot.”
* "If a pitcher is throwing fast balls and curves and only the fast balls are in the strike zone, you'd be silly to look for a curve, wouldn't you?"
* "My preference was a light bat 33 ounces>. When we started using pine tar or resin and oil on the handles to improve the grip, I cleaned my bats with alcohol every night. I took them to the post office to check their weights. Finally, I got the Red Sox to put a scale in the clubhouse. I wanted them checked because bats pick up condensation and dirt being on the ground. They can gain an ounce or more in a surprisingly short time."
Williams came up to the major leagues as a twenty-year-old prodigy in 1939 when baseball was truly the national pastime and the sport was deeply ingrained in the fabric of America. When he first donned a Boston Red Sox uniform (the only one he wore during his career), Lou Gehrig and Carl Hubbel were still active players. He retired in 1960, having played through three revolutions that changed the game -- the advent of television, the arrival of Jackie Robinson, and westward expansion.
His records stand as a testament to his prowess. Despite losing three full seasons 1943-1945> in his prime to serve as a Navy pilot in World War II and two more 1952-1953> as a Marine pilot during the Korean War, he played up to a standard that today's hitters can only dream about.
"The days pile one on another to make a career," Williams once said. And what a career it was! 521 home runs . . . . . . 2,654 hits . . . 1,839 RBIs . . . 1,798 runs . . . 2,161 walks . . . a slugging percentage of .690 . . . an on base percentage of .483 . . . and a .344 career batting average .
Along the way, he won six batting titles and led the league in home runs four times, runs scored six times, RBI's four times, walks eight times, slugging percentage eight times, and on base percentage twelve times. He won two triple crowns, was voted the American League's most valuable player twice, and was chosen as an All-Star on sixteen occasions (all but his rookie season and the years he missed because of military service). In 1957, at age thirty nine, he became the oldest man to win a batting title in either league. He won the batting crown again at age forty. If World War II and Korea hadn't intervened, his accomplishments would have been even more formidable.
Williams was also the last man to bat .400 for an entire season, and the way he did it shed light on his character. In 1941 (his third year in the major leagues) his average stood at .39955 going into the final day of the season. Because of the manner in which baseball keeps statistics, that number would have been rounded off to .400. Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered to let him sit out a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics. But Williams insisted on playing that day and got six hits in eight at bats to raise his average to .406.
That's a champion.
"No hitter has it all," Williams later wrote. "There probably never has been what you would call the complete hitter. Babe Ruth struck out more than he should have. Ty Cobb didn't have power."
But Ted Williams had it all. When Pete Rose was chasing the immortal Cobb's record of 4,191 career base hits, Rose opined, "No one can tell me that Ty Cobb would have hit .367 if he started playing ball in 1963. Don't even figure in night ball and relief pitchers. Just look at the gloves the players had back then; short fingers held together at the end by rawhide." Then Rose added, "But Ted Williams could have hit .344 in any era.”
Williams was more than a great hitter. He was also a humanitarian. His work on behalf of various charities made the efforts of his contemporaries in sports pale by comparison. And when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, he used the occasion to voice the view, "I hope that some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance.”
Five years later, Satchel Paige was inducted at Cooperstown. Gibson and other greats from the Negro League followed.
Williams also had a soft spot in his heart for boxing. "I feel the greatest prize in sports is the heavyweight championship of the world," he said. "I happen to have been successful in baseball, but if you want to talk about dedication, take a fighter who climbs to the top and stays there.”
Williams placed Joe Louis at the top of his rankings. "I think that Joe Louis was the greatest heavyweight fighter who ever lived," he reminisced. "I loved his style, his punch, his aggressiveness. He was moving in all the time; stalking you, stalking you. He fought everybody. He fought more often than anybody. To me, nobody will be a greater heavyweight than Joe Louis.”
But Williams also spoke fondly of Muhammad Ali. "As for Vietnam and the political side of things," he said during an interview in 1989, "I served in two wars as a pilot. My career was interrupted several times, and I didn’t agree with what Ali did, but I respected him for it. Ali’s faith was important to him. He was sincere, and he acted in accord with his convictions."
"I have great admiration for Ali," Williams continued. "My first experience meeting him came at the airport in Tampa. I saw him from quite a distance, maybe two hundred feet. Ali looked in my direction, and apparently he recognized me because he started to walk toward me. He got right up to me, and I don’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist of it was, 'I’m Muhammad Ali.' I said, 'I know who you are,' and we started talking. He was going to Canada to fight George Chuvalo, and he told me, 'Chuvalo’s a tough guy, but I won’t have any trouble with him.' I always admired his confidence; saying he was going to do something, and then, by God, going out and doing it."
"Ali was absolutely devoted to being the best, and he was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived," Williams said in closing. "I’ve seen him fight live; I’ve seen all his films. And what always amazes me is the way he maneuvered in the ring. There’s no question in my mind that he was the fastest big man ever in boxing. And I think he got as much out of his physical ability as possible, which is another reason I admire him. He came as close as any athlete I know to getting the most out of his potential. I’ve been a fan of his for a long, long time.”
Ali, for his part, responded in kind, saying simply, "Ted Williams was as great in his sport as I was in mine."