Ted Williams 1918-2002: ‘Teddy Ballgame’ dies
Boston's 'Splendid Splinter' was baseball's last .400 hitter
CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. ? Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox revered and sometimes reviled “Splendid Splinter” and baseball’s last .400 hitter, died Friday at age 83.
Williams, who suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years, was taken from his Crystal River home to Citrus County Memorial Hospital in Inverness, where he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:49 a.m., hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Martin said.
Williams had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000 and underwent open-heart surgery in January 2001.
The Hall of Famer always wanted to be known as the greatest hitter ever, and his stats backed up the claim.
“He is the premier measuring stick for all hitters,” said longtime major league player and coach Frank Howard, who played for Williams on the Washington Senators. “He’s light years ahead of anybody as far as hitting a baseball.
A two-time MVP who twice won the Triple Crown, Williams hit .344 lifetime with 521 home runs despite twice interrupting his career to serve as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War.
He had 145 RBIs as a Red Sox rookie in 1939 and closed out his career fittingly by hitting a home run at Fenway Park in his final major league at-bat in 1960.
Williams’ greatest achievement came in 1941 when he batted .406, getting six hits in a doubleheader on the final day of the season.
Williams contended his eyesight was so keen he could pick up individual stitches on a pitched ball and could see the exact moment his bat connected with it.
He also claimed he could smell the burning wood of his bat when he fouled a ball straight back, just missing solid contact.
Williams was a perfectionist who worked tirelessly at his craft and had no tolerance for those less dedicated. He was single-minded and stubborn, a player who reduced the game to its simplest elements: batter vs. pitcher, one trying to outsmart the other. In those instances, he usually won.
Mellow with age
Tall and thin, gaunt almost, Williams hardly possessed the traditional profile of a slugger. Yet he was probably the best hitter of his time and one with a chip on his shoulder.
Often involved in feuds both public and private during his career, Williams mellowed later in life.
The best example came in his reaction to an emotional ovation from the crowd at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, Williams’ longtime playground.
After a roster of Hall of Famers was introduced, Williams rode a golf cart to the pitcher’s mound, where he threw out the first ball. Suddenly, he was surrounded by a panorama of stars, past and present, who reacted like a bunch of youngsters crowding their idol for an autograph.
For a long time, they just hovered around him, many with tears in their eyes.
Then, San Diego’s Tony Gwynn gently helped a misty-eyed Williams to his feet and steadied him as Williams threw to Carlton Fisk, another Boston star.
The crowd roared.
“Wasn’t it great!” Williams said. “I can only describe it as great. It didn’t surprise me all that much because I know how these fans are here in Boston. They love this game as much as any players and Boston’s lucky to have the faithful Red Sox fans. They’re the best.”
It wasn’t always that way for Williams. Revered as a slugger, he also was remembered for snubbing Fenway fans, refusing to tip his hat when he hit the ultimate walk-off home run in his final at-bat at age 42.
“Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike once wrote in a profile of Williams, who sealed that image in 1941 with an 11th-hour show of courage.
Going into the final day of the season, Williams was batting .3996. Rounded off, that would be .400, and Red Sox manager Joe Cronin suggested he sit out the day’s doubleheader to clinch that golden number.
Williams refused. Instead, he played both games, went 6-for-8 and lifted his season average to .406. No one has approached .400 since.
“He was the best pure hitter I ever saw. He was feared,” DiMaggio said in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Williams’ .406 season and DiMaggio’s hitting streak.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966, his first year of eligibility.
He was brash and outspoken from the start. In 1940, Williams made headlines when he told a writer: “That’s the life, being a fireman. It sure beats being a ballplayer. I’d rather be a fireman.”
A few years after retiring, he was quoted as saying: “I’m so grateful for baseball and so grateful I’m the hell out of it.”
After his 1960 retirement, Williams became an avid fisherman and outdoorsman. But he returned to baseball in 1969 as manager of the Washington Senators.
He managed three years in Washington and one more when the club moved to Texas as the Rangers in 1972. Although he was respected by his peers, Williams’ teams went 273-364, a .429 mark.