Ted Williams, as Ted Williams would have told you, was many things—a man for whom the description “larger than life” was a tailored fit. His stated ambition from an early age, and one that resounded time and again, was to be able to walk down the street and have people say, “there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” With August 30 being Williams’ centennial, it’s nice to mark his belief that self-confidence can indeed have a place in this world; that it need not make you an ego-driven braggart and it can drive you forward, something we should consider during these homogenized times.
Williams was famously the last man to hit .400, in 1941, but more important than any of his baseball achievements was what he did in far larger service, losing nearly five years of the prime of his career flying combat missions in WWII and Korea. Put that time back into Williams’ baseball travels and even allow for a dip in numbers—which would not have happened, given the whole “prime of his career” thing—and he would be your all-time leader in runs scored and runs batted in, replacing Rickey Henderson and Hank Aaron, respectively.
“The Splendid Splinter” also wrote two of the best baseball books in The Science of Hitting, which gets into things like launch angle, a “new and brilliant concept” for today’s stat geeks, back in 1986; then there is his autobiography, My Turn at Bat, that will change how you view the world. It certainly did for me, when I read it for the first of many times in grammar school. What was even more fascinating than Williams’ writing about his own personal and professional arcs was how he was the arcs, the lives, the talents of others.
If you’re someone who reads ballet criticism, you’ve probably noticed that certain writers can describe physical movement in such a manner where you can almost feel what is going on with someone else’s body. Williams’ passages on the sheer beauty of Jimmie Foxx’s swing, for instance, and how in love with it Williams was, how taken by its perfection, its flow, present us with a man who thought he was the absolute best in the world at what he did, who saw no problem in saying this, and who had not a drop of ego in him. Rather than feeling threatened by Foxx—who had the simply awesome joint nicknames of “The Beast” and “Double X”—or Joe DiMaggio, Williams was heartened by their presence.
Williams left the game in 1960, three years after batting .388, which meant that if he could have legged out just a handful of infield hits, he would have batted .400 in his age 38 season. Not normal, barely mortal. Babe Ruth is the best ballplayer of all-time. He was a dominant pitcher for a while, to go along with his Paul Bunyan-esque stature as a swatter of epic moonshots. But Williams was the best hitter, and no one knew that better than Ted Williams, for Ted Williams knew hitting. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966, he decided at his induction speech in Cooperstown that he wanted to talk about some other players. Some were pitchers, many were hitters. Some of the latter might have been in old Teddy Ballgame’s ballpark, so far as greatness went, but none of them were in the Hall of Fame, for these were the players of the Negro leagues.
A lot has been made lately about the fact that Williams had Mexican blood. A very 2018-centric effort has been made to coronate him as a person of color, but Williams was never dogged by racial injustice, and didn’t seem like a man who would have given the matter a second thought. What he did give a second thought, and many more, was how ashamed he felt as a kid over his mother’s religious fervor, as she whisked him around on her missions of zealotry. Whether or not he was prejudged was irrelevant, in a way, because he felt that he was.
Williams did things that today would set the mobs on you. He was not beloved in Boston for long portions of his career, in part because the writers hated him. They hated his individuality, his confidence, his swagger. He would not tip his cap after hitting home runs at Fenway Park. When he was booed for this, he would conclude each home run trot by crossing home plate and spitting in the direction of the fans. Bat flips? People are offended by bat flips? This dude spit. But he also couldn’t suffer fools to any degree, as Williams was a connoisseur of that which is special.
Connoisseurs often become advocates, because they see things and have knowledge that you do not, and that can enhance your world. It was always a hobbyhorse for Williams to get Shoeless Joe Jackson—one of the alleged villains of the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal—into the Hall. These days, acceptance speeches roll on and on, like those green fields at the close of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but Williams elected for seven punchy paragraphs. The most important one went like this:
“Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as anybody else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope some day Satchel Page and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols, as symbols of the great Negro league players who are not here only because they were not given a chance.”
We are at a period in our country’s history where next to nothing happens because of merit. Things happen because of cronyism, nepotism, and other advantages bestowed upon people in a given in-crowd. We often wish to crucify those who are smarter than us, work harder than us, produce more than us, because they make us feel awful about what we are not doing. Sports, right now, is perhaps the last bastion of meritocracy in American society. If you are better at hitting a baseball than anyone on planet earth, you will not be stashed away in Single-A ball for the remainder of your playing days.
But it didn’t used to be this way. Williams was a smart guy. If he were around now, he’d realize that in most of polite society, we are battling against our nature. We don’t want to be “intense”—the ultimate pejorative now, and something Williams would be called—but “chill.” Let’s be abundantly clear about this: Williams is a footnote in the story of the great Negro league players. He has nothing to do with their talents or their successes. Their achievements, their greatness, belong solely to them. But what Williams did do was help give them a push into history’s spotlight.
Personally, I became obsessed with the Negro leagues as a youngster. I’d never seen these players play, of course, but I read everything I could, utterly fascinated by them, blown away by the numbers and the tales of heroics. Baseball is great that way. You can fall in love with players you’ve never seen in a manner unlike any other sport.
A lot of baseball writers might not have liked Ted Williams, but there are some people you hate because they are right far more often than you are not wrong. You still listen to them, though. You can’t help but listen to them. Maybe that makes you hate them all the more. But they still get through to you.
In 1971, Satchell Page became the first ballplayer inducted into the Hall of Fame whose accomplishments were primarily from the Negro leagues (Jackie Robinson, naturally, had gone in earlier, in 1962). Many other Negro league players would follow throughout the 1970s, with Josh Gibson’s turn coming in 1972. The honor was important, but what was more so was how it became more likely that people who love baseball, who love meritocracies, who love competition, who love being better at a thing than someone else is at that thing, could learn more readily from these men, what they endured, what their talents kept driving them toward. And the more I learned, the more Williams’ role in all of that receded into the background, which is exactly how he would have wanted it.