Ted Williams

Born: 8/30/1918 (San Diego, CA)
Alma Mater: Herbert Hoover High School
Drafted/Debut: 1939
Years Active: 19 years
Teams: Boston Red Sox (1939-42, 1946-1960)
Position(s): Left Field   Height: 6'3"   Weight: 205 lbs   Bats: Left   Throws: Left
World Series: N/A
All-Star: 19x (1940-42, 1946-51, 1953-60)   Olympic Medals: N/A
MVPs: 2x AL MVP (1946, 1949)   Other Awards: 2x Triple Crown (1942, 1947)
Hall of Fame Class: 1966

Baseball hitter extraordinaire, decorated Marine fighter pilot, champion of charity, outsized personality—makes the short list of the 20th Century’s most compelling figures, his influence extending well beyond the realm of sports.

The last major league baseball player to hit .400 (.406 in 1941), Williams debuted for the Boston Red Sox as a 20-year-old rookie in 1939, and at the age of 42 on Sept. 28, 1960, he hit a home run at Fenway Park in his final at-bat in the major leagues. That home run was memorialized by author John Updike in the pages of the New Yorker in an article entitled “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” Updike noting of Williams’ refusal to acknowledge the ovation he received in Fenway Park with the immortal line, “Gods do not answer letters.’’

In a career that touched four decades and was interrupted twice for military service, the San Diego native, who was given his lasting nickname of “The Kid’’ by Red Sox clubhouse man Johnny Orlando upon Williams’s arrival at his first spring training in Sarasota, Fla., in 1938, arguably made good on the ambition he articulated in his autobiography.

“A man has to have goals — for a day, for a lifetime — and that was mine, to have people say, ‘There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived,’’’ Williams wrote in “My Turn At Bat,’’ written with author John Underwood.

Williams served his country in two wars, World War II and the Korean War, raised millions in his tireless efforts on behalf of the Jimmy Fund–New England’s beloved charity that supports efforts to eradicate childhood cancer—and elevated hitting a baseball to a science.

Williams’ theories on his craft were published as “The Science of Hitting,” a textbook embraced by generations of players and validated by 21st Century analytics.

“I feel in my heart that nobody in this game ever devoted more concentration in the batter’s box than Theodore Samuel Williams,’’ he once said, referring to himself in the third person. “A guy who practiced until the blisters bled, loved batting anyway, and always delighted in examining the art of hitting the ball.’’

 Williams won six American League batting titles, including consecutive crowns at the age of 39, when he hit .388, and at 40 (.328), making him the oldest batting champion in history. A left-handed hitter who led the league in home runs four times, Williams is the Red Sox’ career leader in homers (521), and at the time of his retirement ranked third in major league history, trailing only Ruth (714) and Jimmie Foxx (534), who was a teammate for a short period.

“Few men try for best ever,” wrote Richard Ben Cramer in a celebrated article in Esquire Magazine, “and Ted Williams is one of those.”

Blessed with superb vision (20-10), Williams twice won baseball’s Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in during the same season. Eight times he led the league in slugging percentage, eight times in walks, and he holds the record for career on-base percentage (.483).

Williams, dubbed The Splendid Splinter, won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1946 and 1949, and in 1969, as part of baseball’s centennial celebration, he was named Hitter of the Century. 

He was a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1966, and used his induction speech as an opportunity to speak on behalf of Negro League players.

“I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can … be added to the symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given a chance,” Williams told the crowd that day.

Due in part to his speech, the Hall of Fame has enshrined 35 Negro Leaguers to date, including Paige and Gibson.

Williams’ numbers would have been even better if he had not lost almost five full seasons in the prime of his career to military duty, in World War II (1943-45) and the Korean War (1952-53). 

At the age of 33, married and with a daughter, Williams was called up by the Marines and flew 39 combat missions in Korea, where he was commissioned a captain and served for a time as wingman to John Glenn, the future astronaut and US Senator.

On his third mission, on Feb. 16, 1953, while flying a Navy F-9 Panther to scout a tank and infantry training school near Pyongyang, Williams was hit by small-arms fire that knocked out his radio and compass, and disabled his landing gear. He landed the aircraft while it was on fire and ran to safety before the plane was consumed in flames.

“Everybody tries to make a hero out of me over the Korean thing,’’ Williams said. “I was no hero.’’

His country chose to believe otherwise. On Nov. 18, 1991, Williams was summoned to the White House by President George H.W. Bush and presented the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Williams’ other abiding love was for fishing. For many years, he had a home in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, where he fished for bonefish and tarpon, and a cottage on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, where he fished for salmon.

“He was the best fisherman in the world,’’ Bobby Knight, the former Indiana University basketball coach and a Williams fishing buddy, said at the NCAA basketball Final Four in 1987. “Can you imagine being the best at two things in your lifetime? He was the best hitter and now he’s the best fisherman.’’

Williams was born in San Diego on Aug. 30, 1918 , one of two children, both sons, born to Samuel and May (Venzer) Williams. His father, who was of Welsh and English extraction, originally was from Mount Vernon, N.Y., and claimed to have ridden with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. On his first-born’s birth certificate. the first name is listed as “Teddy.’’

“I never did like that ‘Teddy,’ so I always signed my name ‘Theodore,’’’ wrote Williams. Later, on his birth certificate, “Teddy’’ was crossed out and “Theodore’’ written in its place.

Samuel Williams owned a little photography shop in downtown San Diego. May Williams, who was of Mexican and French parentage, worked for the Salvation Army, and on the streets of San Diego, she was known as “Salvation May’’ and “The Angel of Tijuana.’’ Williams and his younger brother, Danny, born in 1920, saw little of their parents, and Williams would later go to considerable lengths to obscure his Mexican ancestry.

Williams’s prowess as a hitter was frequently overshadowed by his tumultuous relationship with Red Sox fans and the Boston media, to whom Williams displayed his contempt on several occasions, spitting at the stands and press box and making obscene gestures.

Frequently profane and always loud, the 6-foot-3-inch Williams, who never wore a necktie, dominated his stage like a real-life John Wayne.

“Ted Williams can hush a room just by entering,’’ Cramer wrote. “There is a force that boils up from him and commands attention. This he has come to accept as his destiny and his due…’’

After his first season, Williams refused to acknowledge the fans with the ballplayer’s time-honored tradition of tipping the cap, even after the last at-bat of his career, in which he hit a home run off Jack Fisher of the Baltimore Orioles.

“The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories,’’ Updike wrote.

Williams conceded he was not one to forget a slight.

“I was never able to be dispassionate, to ignore the things people said or wrote or implied,’’ Williams wrote. “It just wasn’t in me.’’

But Williams abandoned that stance when he was honored with a day at Fenway Park on May 12, 1991, 50 years after his epic .406 season. He reached into his pocket and produced a cap borrowed from Red Sox pitcher Jeff Reardon and in a grand, sweeping gesture, tipped it to the fans.

“So they can never write again that I was hardheaded, so they can never write again that I never tipped my hat to the crowd, today I tip my hat,’’ Williams, 72 at the time, told the sellout crowd of 33,196.

His last appearance in Fenway Park was perhaps his most emotional. On July 13, 1999, the 80-year-old Williams was the centerpiece of the third, and likely last, All-Star Game to be played at Fenway Park. With 31 of the game’s greatest living players present, Williams, who was named to 18 All-Star teams and hit two of the most celebrated home runs in All-Star history, was driven onto the field in a golf cart to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

In a spontaneous demonstration of affection, the game’s all-time greats and the present-day All-Stars — a group that included Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Bob Feller as well as active stars such as Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and Williams devotee Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres — engulfed Williams, who wept openly. “You know, there were a lot of guys out there that teared up,’’ said Mark McGwire, the former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who at the time ranked as the game’s premier slugger. “The Hall of Famers out there, and the All-Stars, when you see Ted Williams and he has tears running down his eyes, it’s an emotional time.’’

In that moment, wrote Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, Williams was transformed from Teddy Ballgame to Father Baseball.