A Little Respect For The Splendid Splinter

  • AP

    They named a candy bar for Babe Ruth and a disease for Lou Gehrig. Ted Williams they just called names. Officially he was the Kid, the Splendid Splinter, Thumper, but the best ballplayer to make Boston his home received less flattering sobriquets from Red Sox fans at Fenway Park. That's what you get for refusing to tip your hat after a home run.

    Yet however indifferent he may have been to fans' adulation, Williams doggedly pursued their respect. As he often said, his goal was "to have people say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" That's telling: he wanted the acclaim even more than the achievement.

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    Now he has it. When he died last week at 83 from cardiac arrest in Inverness, Fla., Fenway Park groundkeepers mowed Williams' number, a giant 9, in the left-field grass he used to patrol. And elegists certified his pre-eminence. They pointed to his six batting titles (the first when he was 23, the last when he was 40), his 521 home runs, his astronomical on-base percentage of .483. They recalled his military heroism. He interrupted his career for nearly five years to fly for the Navy in World War II and 39 combat missions for the Marines in the Korean War (he was John Glenn's wingman). And they cited Williams' two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards — but, really, he deserved more.

    In 1941 the Kid from San Diego had a dream year, one of the most dominant of any athlete in any sport. He led the major leagues in runs, homers and walks. And he batted .406--an average no one has come near since. Need some drama? On the season's last day, with his average right at .400 (actually .39955), his manager suggested he sit out the doubleheader. Williams declined, went 6 for 8 and achieved the now sacred .406. Yet no bard sang his praises; instead, the airwaves were filled with Joltin' Joe DiMaggio — for the Yankee Clipper, who had hit in 56 consecutive games (another feat not approached in six decades). Though Williams had the stronger season, baseball writers named DiMaggio the league's MVP.

    In the age before TV, sportswriters had more power. When they rouged up a rough image or drew a mustache on a hero, the picture stuck. Williams didn't care to smile for the camera, so the writers painted him as a surly cur. They didn't like him in 1942, when he won the Triple Crown (batting average, home runs, runs batted in) but lost the MVP to the inferior Joe Gordon.

    After that affront, Williams went off to war. Combat did not dull his baseball skills: he led the league in slugging and on-base percentages the first four years after his return. Back from Korea at the end of the '53 season, he played in 37 games and batted .407. (He did not bat enough times to qualify for a hitting title.)

    At first Williams had a wild swing that often, eerily, found the ball. Later, observed Red Sox star Carl Yastrzemski, "he studied hitting the way a broker studies the stock market." Williams treated the game as a science and a fine art, weighing his bats on a postal scale, massaging them with olive oil and resin. When he said, "Hitting is 50% above the shoulders," he was speaking of a sharp eye — to read the seams on a curve ball and then smack the cover off it — and a univac brain that held all relevant data on a rival pitcher's quirks.

    His ears were sensitive too, perhaps overly so: he could hear a heckle from the back of the bleachers. A craftsman but not a showman, he carried himself, in Wilfrid Sheed's phrase, "with all the jumpy irritability of a man interrupted in the act of love." And so the fans of the Fens booed their legend. "If he'd just tip his cap once," said Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, "he could be elected mayor of Boston in five minutes." Instead, Williams often behaved like a disgraced alderman, spitting toward the box seats, offering a derisive middle finger to a baseball town that since 1918 has built its legend on losing.

    In a way, Williams' legacy is that you can win while losing — by doing your job with supreme grace. "If I was being paid $30,000 a year," he said, "the very least I could do was hit .400." Of all team sports, baseball is the most solitary: a man on the mound vs. a man at the plate. Bringing his genius for concentration to that lonely battle, Williams excelled from his first at bat to his very last: a home run, at age 42. That geste finally cued two lovely tributes: an ode from Beat poet Gregory Corso and a famous essay. "Williams," John Updike wrote, "is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

    That is a finer tribute to a workingman like Ted Williams — not that he did it best but that, every day, he did it so well.