Ted Williams was true Hall of Famer

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 12, 2002

Sports Columnist

"There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."

Ted Williams openly stated that his goal in life was to walk down the street and hear people say those words about him.

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And people throughout the world who truly know the game of baseball are saying words to that effect today as they remember the Hall of Famer who died last week at the age of 83.

But the title "Hall of Famer" just doesn’t seem adequate to describe the man who was known as The Splendid Splinter, The Thumper, and Teddy Ballgame. To remember him as anything other than the greatest hitter who ever lived would be to deny one of the greatest careers in the history of the American Pastime.

The statistics alone are staggering.

He was the last player to hit .400 in a season, and 60 years later no one else has been able to match it. He had a lifetime batting average of .344, and that’s over a career that began in 1939 and ended in 1960. An average of .344 would be a fantastic number for one season today, and Ted did it for nearly two decades. His career on-base percentage was .483, tops in the history of the game and nearly 100 points better than the great Joe DiMaggio at .398.

Further testament to his mastery at the plate was his ability to, in his words, "get a good pitch to hit." In his career, he drew 2,019 walks, compared to striking out just 709 times.

But if his ability to reach base safely and collect base hits were the only stats, there might be others who could be included in the debate, but when you figure in the power stats, the other names begin to fall to the wayside.

He retired as third all-time in home runs, with 521, and second only to Babe Ruth all-time in slugging percentage with .634. He drove in 1,839 runs and scored 1,798 more.

Yet despite all these monumental numbers, the scariest thing of all is that we will never know just how much higher those numbers may have been, or how many other records Ted Williams could have owned. Because after the 1942 season, at the absolute pinnacle of his athletic ability, Ted left to fight for his country in World War II, missing three full seasons. This following the 1941 season in which he hit .406, and the 1942 season when he won the Triple Crown with a .356 average, 36 homers, and 137 RBIs. He also missed two more seasons during the Korean War.

What in the world would his stats have been had he played those 5 years?

If he had merely maintained similar numbers to what he had the two years prior to his tour of duty, he would have amassed 700 homers and something like 2500 RBIs. And those numbers would be a modest estimate, considering he had only just finished his third season in the majors, and that he was clearly capable of even higher power stats. In 1949, four years after his return, he hit 43 homers and drove in 159 runs, both career highs. That season he missed winning his third Triple Crown of the decade by less than one percentage point in batting average.

And how long has it been since anyone won the Triple Crown just once?

Most of the great hitters of our time ­ Gwynn, Boggs, Mattingly, etc. ­ would usually take whatever the pitcher gave them and "go with the pitch", hitting the ball to whichever part of the field the pitch dictated. Not Ted. He stubbornly refused to swing until he got "a good pitch to hit", and he was a decidedly dead-pull hitter. Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau designed an exaggerated shift, to try and cut off right field, where everyone knew Ted would be going with the ball. But Ted, stubborn as ever, hit it through the shift, refusing to allow someone else to make him hit to the opposite field.

That same stubbornness led to one of his most enduring legends. In the final weeks of the ’41 season, he had struggled somewhat and his batting average had "dropped" to .39955 going into the final day of the season. If he had not played that day, his average would have been rounded up to .400, and his place in history would have been assured. But stubborn Ted would probably have been haunted the rest of his life with the thought that his average was "rounded up" to give him .400, so he played ­ both games of a double header. He went 6-for-8 and cemented his historical .406.

It should also be pointed out that in those days, a sacrifice counted against your batting average, so his .406 would undoubtedly have been even higher using today’s standards.

We marvel today at the young phenom named Ichiro, at his mastery of the strike zone, at his ability to take virtually any pitch that comes his way and swat it into a hole somewhere. He hits somewhere in the neighborhood of .350 and we talk about what a marvelous hitter he is. But can you imagine adding, say, Mike Piazza’s power to Ichiro’s other abilities?

If you can, you’d still have to add about 30 percentage points and 10 homers a year to match Ted Williams. In short, it ain’t likely to happen again. And most likely, 50 years down the road, we’ll still be able to watch film of Ted Williams and say, "there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived."