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This is the way to go out hitting

Ted Williams' nervy approach to earning a .406 batting average in 1941 befits a legend.

September 29, 2011|BILL DWYRE
  • Baseball legend Ted Williams didn't need to take shortcuts to finish the 1941 season with a .406 batting average.
Baseball legend Ted Williams didn't need to take shortcuts to finish… (Ted Sande / Associated Press )

One wonders if Jose Reyes would understand the juxtaposition of what he did Wednesday.

One also wonders if there could be any better illustration of the difference between sports stars of the past and of today.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 01, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Ted Williams: A column in the Sept. 29 Sports section said that baseball great Ted Williams died at the age of 87 six years ago. In fact, Williams died at the age of 83 in 2002.

Reyes started for the New York Mets, collected a bunt single and sat down for the rest of the game. He hoped his one-for-one day would boost him to a National League batting title, which it did. Going to the plate for the rest of the game would have endangered that.

Seventy years ago Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1941, Ted Williams confronted a similar situation, only much more historic in scope. The Splendid Splinter, a 23-year-old in his third year with the Boston Red Sox, entered the final two games of the regular season, a doubleheader, with a .3996 average. If he sat it out the rest of the way, as his manager Joe Cronin suggested, they would round his average off to .400.

Williams decided to play, saying, "If I can't hit .400 all the way, I don't deserve it."

Williams went six for eight, including a home run and a double. He ended up with a .406 average. Exactly 70 years have passed, and nobody has hit .400. It is both a baseball milestone and a monument to one of the greatest hitters ever.

Williams wasn't even most valuable player of the league that year. The New York Yankees won the pennant going away and they had some guy who hit safely in 56 straight games.

"Hell, I'd have even voted for DiMaggio," Williams said years later.

Reyes' decision only adds to the need to commemorate Williams on the anniversary of his famous .406. There have been personalities in sports over the years and are plenty now. But there was only one Teddy Ballgame, a snarly, bighearted contradiction.

A sports column can't capture him. He is a book, and that was exactly the conclusion of former Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood six years ago, when Williams died at 87. Underwood had become Williams' friend, a status not easily achieved from the crotchety Williams. His decades-long access resulted in a wonderfully readable little book that still sits in the darkened corners of some bookstores.

It is called "It's Only Me."

"He kind of talked out of the side of his mouth," Underwood said. "He'd call on the phone and that's what he'd say when you answered: 'It's only me.' "

Underwood describes a man who loved life and was tortured by it.

"He had abysmal downs and herculean ups," Underwood said. "There was a greatness there, but he just didn't understand himself. He was quirky, like your favorite eccentric uncle."

Underwood had talked Williams into going fishing with him for an SI story, and their mutual love of the outdoors led to more excursions, even to Africa. That access has Underwood writing a screenplay, with the usual hopes that a Hollywood producer will wander by.

The problem is, they may have already made the movie. In "The Natural," the hero, Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs, batted third in the lineup, wore No. 9 and, in his last at-bat, smashed a row of lights with a towering home run. Williams broke a loudspeaker horn with a double on his last day in 1941, and also homered in his last at-bat in 1960.

The famous line in the movie is when Hobbs is asked what he wants to accomplish, and says, "When I walk down the street, people will say, 'There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.' " Williams was fond of saying, "All I care about is when I walk down the street, people will know

I was the greatest hitter ever."

Younger generations may not be able to comprehend the likes of Ted Williams. He missed five summers of prime career because he served as a fighter pilot in both World War II and Korea. In Korea, he crash-landed his damaged plane. It came in at 225 mph, slid for a mile and exploded in flame seconds after he jumped out and rolled away.

He complained little about his military service, always tempering those discussions with his understanding of the need to serve and protect. Underwood said that Williams once told his son, "The best team I ever played for was the Marines."

He hated most of the Boston writers and they him. It was an era when there were as many as a half-dozen daily papers in the city, all competing for scoops, and Williams was the daily whipping boy.

That makes his friendship with Underwood even stranger.

Williams was a world-class fisherman and hunter. He is in baseball's Hall of Fame and the International Game Fishing Assn. Hall of Fame. Among his catches: a 1,250-pound marlin and a 500-pound thresher shark.

He was married and divorced three times, and when he died, two of his children had his body frozen.

Underwood said that his last conversation with Williams was a few weeks before he died.

"I was in the area [where Williams lived in Florida], and I didn't know how bad [ill] he was," Underwood said. "When he came to the phone, it sounded like somebody who wasn't Ted Williams. He said, 'If I had to have this year over to keep all the other ones, I wouldn't.' "

Ted Williams' 1941 is a keeper. He had 185 hits, 147 walks, struck out 27 times and had a .553 on-base percentage. In his record-setting streak, DiMaggio hit .408. In that same span, Williams hit .412.

In those days, sacrifice flies counted as at-bats. Williams, slow of foot, had just three infield hits. The longest spell he went without a hit was seven at-bats.

Sounds like numbers that would make even Jose Reyes proud.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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