Theodore Samuel Williams: "The Kid," "The Splendid Splinter," "Teddy Ballgame"
Only two players can claim the mantle of "Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived" - Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. While Ruth was simply a natural, Williams combined his keen vision and quick wrists with a scientific approach to hitting. He simply knew how to hit - in his book The Science of Hitting, a tome which has become the classic handbook on how to hit a baseball, Williams divides the strike zone into 77 baseballs (seven high by 11 wide) and predicts how he would hit each one. For example, he hit .230 on the low outside strike, and .400 on his "happy zone" - the heart of the plate, belt-high, and with some sugar on it.
He had the highest on-base average of all time and the second-highest slugging percentage, behind Ruth. Williams led the league in slugging percentage 8 times and in on-base average 11 times. Only Ruth did either more often. He is the only hitter to win two Triple Crowns besides Rogers Hornsby (he won in 1942 and 1947 - he missed a third in 1949 by a single base hit, losing the batting title by a margin of .3429 to .34275) - and all this despite missing almost five seasons in his prime to war (Williams was a premier jet fighter pilot during WWII, for which he missed the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons, and then missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons to fight in Korea).
Williams may be best remembered for his .406 season in 1941; no player has reached the .400 plateau since. He also had 6 American League batting championships, 521 career home runs, a lifetime average of .344 and 18 All-Star games. Despite his current popularity, Williams' cockiness made him highly controversial when he was playing. He won two MVPs, but would have won twice more if he hadn't alienated the writers who voted for the award. For all the things he did, many remember Williams for what he refused to do - tip his hat to the fans at Fenway Park.
"If his noodle swells another inch, Master Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox won't be able to get his hat on with a shoehorn," wrote Jack Miley in the New York Post. "For when it comes to arrogant, ungrateful athletes, this one leads the league." In 1941, when Williams hit .406, he narrowly lost the MVP to Joe DiMaggio. In 1947, when he won the Triple Crown (.343 AVG, 32 HR, 114 RBI) he lost to DiMaggio (.315 AVG, 20 HR, 97 RBI) again, this time by a single vote because a Boston sportswriter named Mel Webb left him off his ballot of ten players entirely, so much did he hate Williams.
The fans booed Williams early in his career, and Williams never forgave them. The criticism may have bothered him, but it also may have fueled the fire that made Williams such a respected batter. Few ever played so well for so long. He batted .388 in 1957, at the age of 39, and won the A.L. batting title again at .328 the following season at age 40.
Williams missed almost five seasons to wars. An ace pilot, he flew 39 missions in Korea and survived the fiery crash of his F-9 fighter; he also flew with a young lieutenant named John Glenn.
"People always told me that my natural ability and good eyesight were the reasons for my success.
They never talk about the practice, practice, practice."
- Ted Williams
Picture from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc.