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TED WILLIAMS 1918-2002

The Scientist of Hitting

Statistics Don't Tell Just How Splendid The Kid Really Was

July 06, 2002|ROSS NEWHAN

Traded by the Angels during the previous off-season, second baseman Jerry Remy was in his first spring with the Boston Red Sox. It was 1978, and he was sitting in the clubhouse in Winter Haven, Fla., when Ted Williams walked in, stopped in front of a mirror, and said to no one and anyone: "I'm looking at the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Remy laughed as he recalled the incident Friday and said, "I certainly wasn't going to argue, and no one else did either."

Nor would I. Not then, not now.

Williams was who he said he was, the hitter he vowed to be every season, the hitter he set out to be when he was carrying a bat to school every day in San Diego.

I know the litany. Pete Rose collected more hits, Ty Cobb hit for a higher career average, Henry Aaron and 10 other players slugged and continue to slug (in the case of Barry Bonds) more home runs.

All deserve due respect, but it was Williams who claimed that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports and then made it look almost easy while doing it better than anyone ever did. It was Williams who brought "The Science of Hitting" to life even before he wrote the book, compiling a statistical legacy that speaks louder than the man himself did.

In the process, during a 19-year career interrupted twice by military obligations, over the 83 years that ended with his death Friday, he became bigger than life.

His sometimes stormy relationship with fans and reporters as a Boston Red Sox left fielder mellowed into mythical reverence.

He was the Kid, the Splendid Splinter and Teddy Ballgame.

How many players have three nicknames, a fourth if you include the Splendid Spitter, which he received in 1956 when he expectorated in every direction after being booed at Fenway Park for misplaying a fly ball.

Williams once claimed that he could hear a single boo, just as he could single out the stitches on a fastball, could actually see the ball hit the bat, and even when he bowed out with a home run in his final at-bat, leaving to Fenway cheers, he still refused to tip his cap.

He could be cantankerous, temperamental, arrogant, self-absorbed. He did not tolerate less-than-total dedication, a trait that would undermine his attempt at managing just as his admitted immaturity helped fuel his early feuds with the competitive New England media that picked faults with his defense, his refusal to compromise his strike zone or any slight failure once he had raised expectations to unprecedented levels.

That feud may have cost Williams the 1947 most-valuable-player award in voting by members of the Baseball Writers Assn. He always thought that Mel Webb, a Boston writer, left him off the ballot. It wasn't Webb, who didn't have a vote that year, but another Boston writer Dave Egan, who snubbed him. Joe DiMaggio won because he received eight first-place votes to three for Williams, a remarkably low total that suggests his relationship with Boston reporters did factor in, considering he had won the Triple Crown that year and was the MVP favorite.

Ultimately, he would settle for two MVPs, two Triple Crowns, six batting titles, eight seasons of leading the league in both slugging and on-base percentage and is still the only player to lead two consecutive decades in slugging percentage, doing it in the 1940s and '50s.

He is also the last to hit .400, batting .406 in 1941, and would prove that he could still see grass grow, as longtime umpire Ed Hurley once said of him, by winning the batting title at 40 after hitting .388 at 39.

Williams would finish with a .344 career average--a remarkable stat considering he seldom beat out a ground ball and teams loaded the right side, trying to thwart his tendency to pull pitches.

He hit 521 home runs, an equally remarkable total that might have exceeded 700 if he hadn't lost almost five seasons as a Marine pilot in World War II and Korea.

As much as Williams loved to hit (he once said that he existed for his next turn at the plate) and pamper his bats (he brought a postal scale to the clubhouse so that he would be sure they weighed 32 ounces precisely), he was a perfectionist who loved to talk about hitting--or just about anything.

Said Bobby Doerr, a former teammate and fishing companion: "Each hour, no matter what he was going on about, I got to interrupt. It's amazing how well it worked out."

Longtime Boston broadcaster Curt Gowdy, reflecting on his friend's ability with a bat, fly rod, cockpit controls (and just about anything else he touched), once called him "the most competent man I've ever met."

Williams would certainly become one of the most beloved. A $2.3-billion tunnel under Boston Harbor was named for him in 1995, and his emotional appearance during pregame ceremonies at the Fenway Park All-Star game in 1999 generated tears among the awed players, a reflection of his all-time status.

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