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TED WILLIAMS 1918-2002

Baseball's Last .400 Hitter Dies

July 06, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ted Williams, the hall-of-fame baseball player whose primary motivation in life was to be recognized as "the greatest hitter who ever lived," died Friday of heart failure at a hospital in Inverness, Fla. He was 83.

The former Boston Red Sox star outfielder and San Diego native had suffered two strokes in the early 1990s that severely impaired the keen vision that helped Williams hit .406 in 1941, the last time a major leaguer broke the .400 barrier.

Williams had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000, then underwent open-heart surgery in New York in January 2001.

"With the passing of Ted Williams, America has lost a baseball legend," said President Bush, who once owned the Texas Rangers in the American League.

"He inspired young ballplayers across the nation for decades and we will always remember his persistence on the field and his courage off the field. Ted gave baseball some of its best seasons--and he gave his own best seasons to his country. He will be greatly missed."

Nicknamed "The Kid," "The Splendid Splinter" and "Teddy Ballgame," Williams had a .344 career batting average with 521 home runs in 19 seasons from 1939-60. He would have been a 700-homer threat had he not missed almost five seasons serving as a Marine pilot during World War II and the Korean War.

Babe Ruth had more power and Ty Cobb the highest lifetime average, but perhaps no other player hit for power and average as well as the smooth-swinging, left-handed-hitting Williams. His book "The Science of Hitting" is considered the bible of the craft and a must-read for any aspiring ballplayer.

Born in San Diego a month before the Red Sox last won a World Series in 1918, Williams rose from a gangly player at Herbert Hoover High to a big-leaguer of such acclaim that many still consider him the best hitter in baseball history.

"He was the best hitter I ever pitched to," said hall-of-fame pitcher Bob Feller, who played for the Cleveland Indians from 1936-56. "If it hadn't been for World War II and Korea, no one would have more records than Ted Williams."

Hall-of-famer Stan Musial, a seven-time National League batting champion with the St. Louis Cardinals, said: "He was the greatest hitter of our era. He led the [American] league six times and a couple of other times he was close. He served our country for five years or else he would have won more batting titles."

Added Bobby Doerr, another hall-of-famer who played with Williams for 10 seasons, "I think he was the best hitter that baseball has had."

Frank Howard, a former major-league slugger, said, "He is the premier measuring stick for all hitters."

In Boston on Friday, the Jumbotron television screen at Fenway Park carried only a giant 9, Williams' retired number. While members of Williams' former team took batting practice, former Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky stood near home plate and talked about his friend of more than 60 years.

"Williams, he could do anything at bat," said Pesky, gazing out at a seat deep in the stands that has been painted red--the others are green--to commemorate Williams' longest home run, hit to that very spot. "Ted was our guru. He was such a bright guy, and everything came so simply for him."

Even in retirement, Williams' personality so dominated Boston baseball, Pesky said, that, "You could bring Moses down from heaven, and he wouldn't have that impact.... He was like a movie star. He always thought he was the John Wayne of baseball. Which he was."

Present-day Red Sox star Nomar Garciaparra said, "I didn't look at him as the greatest hitter ever. I looked at him as a friend. The impact that he had here in Boston, you see his number up there, retired in right field, and you see the [red] seat. It's all his accomplishments."

An average defensive player with below-average speed, Williams made his greatest impact at the plate. He won Triple Crowns in 1942 and '47, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. He hit .388 at 39 and won a batting title when he was 40.

Williams had almost three times as many walks, 2,019, as strikeouts, 709, and retired with a .483 on-base percentage, baseball's highest. That might be the sport's most meaningful statistic--Williams reached base nearly every other time he came to bat for 19 years. Ruth's .474 is next-highest.

"He was better than Joe DiMaggio," Feller said. "No contest."

Williams and DiMaggio will be forever linked in baseball lore because they were the best players of the 1940s, they starred for archrivals, the Red Sox and New York Yankees, and they were the lead characters in one of baseball's most dramatic seasons, 1941.

That was the year DiMaggio set what many consider an unbreakable record, getting at least one hit in 56 consecutive games, and Williams, with a finishing flourish, posted his .406 average, which hasn't been approached since.

Williams was batting .39955 going into the final day of the season, and Manager Joe Cronin offered to sit him down to protect a mark that would have rounded off to .400.

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