Born in San Diego, California on August 30, 1918 as Teddy Samuel Williams, Ted Williams eventually had the name on his birth certificate officially changed to Theodore, although his mother and closest friends continued to call him “Teddy.” Named after his father, Samuel Stuart Williams, and former United States President Teddy Roosevelt, Williams attended Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego, where he excelled in baseball to such an extent that he received offers from the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees before he even graduated. However, since his mother considered him too young to leave home, Williams signed on instead with the local minor league team, the San Diego Padres. After honing his skills with the Padres, Williams signed an amateur free-agent contract with the Boston Red Sox in 1936. He spent two years in Boston’s minor league farm system before making his major league debut with the team on April 20, 1939.
Williams hardly acted like a typical major league rookie when he joined the Red Sox in spring training that year. Exuding tremendous self-confidence, the cocky 20-year-old surprised many of his teammates with his bold and brazen manner. As Williams prepared for his first batting-practice session with the big club, one of his teammates said to him, “Wait until you see (Jimmie) Foxx hit!” Unimpressed, Williams responded, “Wait until Foxx sees me hit!”
Williams’ brashness might have rubbed his teammates the wrong way had he not had the ability to back up his words. Boston’s new leftfielder had a fabulous rookie season, hitting 31 home runs, scoring 131 runs, batting .327, leading the league with 145 runs batted in and 344 total bases, and finishing fourth in the A.L. MVP voting. He followed that up with another outstanding performance in 1940, batting .344, driving in 113 runs, and leading the league with 134 runs scored and a .442 on-base percentage. However, the best had yet to come.
After Joe DiMaggio’s record-setting 56 consecutive game hitting streak captivated the nation earlier in 1941, Williams took center stage during the season’s final few weeks as he strove to become the first man since Bill Terry to hit .400. Williams entered the final day of the season with a batting average of .39955, which would have been rounded up to .400 had he elected not to play in either game of Boston’s season-ending doubleheader against Philadelphia. Offered the option to sit out both games by Red Sox manager Joe Cronin, Williams responded, “If I can’t hit .400 all the way, I don’t deserve it.” In a memorable performance, Williams ended up collecting six hits in eight times at bat over the course of the day, to raise his batting average to .406. No man has hit .400 since. The Splendid Splinter also knocked in 120 runs and led the American League with 37 home runs, 135 runs scored, 147 walks, a .553 on-base percentage, and a .735 slugging percentage. He finished second to DiMaggio in the league MVP voting.
Williams had another great year in 1942, leading the league in eight different offensive categories, including home runs (36), runs batted in (137), and batting average (.356), to win his first triple crown. Yet, even though the Red Sox finished a very respectable second to the Yankees in the American League standings, Williams failed to win the MVP Award. The honor instead went to New York second baseman Joe Gordon.
There is little doubt that the contentious relationship Williams shared with the baseball writers of the day contributed greatly to the lack of support they showed him at times during the MVP balloting. The slugger was moody, hot-tempered, impatient, and somewhat temperamental, especially in his early years in the league. As a result, Williams had numerous confrontations with various members of the press early in his career that jaded their opinion of him throughout the remainder of his playing days. Williams was extremely honest and forthright in his responses to their questions, and didn’t particularly care how they might react to his answers. The writers often misinterpreted Williams’ self-confidence as arrogance, and they conveyed their feelings towards him to the Boston faithful in their newspaper articles. Before long, Red Sox fans turned against Williams as well, finding particularly objectionable his habit of practicing his swing in the outfield during the opposing team’s at-bats. Boston fans believed the sport’s greatest hitter didn’t pay as much attention to the other aspects of the game as he should have, and they soon took to booing him at every opportunity. Williams responded by refusing to ever again tip his cap to them when they cheered him after hitting a home run.
The media’s unfavorable opinion of Williams also caused the Boston leftfielder to consistently come up short in comparisons made between the American League’s two greatest players of the era – Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Williams was acknowledged to be as fine a hitter as anyone in the game. But the more popular DiMaggio was considered to be the superior all-around player. To his credit, Williams never challenged that assessment. Although he believed he was a slightly better hitter than the Yankee Clipper, Williams often said DiMaggio was superior to him as an all-around player.
The debate as to which player was better was put on hold for three years when the United States entered World War II. Both DiMaggio and Williams entered the service in 1943, with the latter spending the next three years serving as a pilot in the U.S. Navy.
Johnny Pesky, who spent his entire career playing with Williams on the Red Sox, went into the same training program as his teammate. Pesky later recalled the tremendous acumen Williams displayed during the program: “He mastered intricate problems in 15 minutes which took the average cadet an hour, and half of the other cadets there were college grads.”
After serving as a flight instructor at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Williams was stationed in Pearl Harbor awaiting orders to join the China Fleet when the war ended. He finished the war in Hawaii and was released from active duty in January of 1946.
Williams showed no signs of rust when he returned to the major leagues in 1946. If anything, he was physically stronger since he had added a considerable amount of bulk to his slender frame during his time in the service. The 6’3″ slugger had previously depended primarily on his quick wrists and picture-perfect swing to generate power through the hitting zone. But an additional 10-12 pounds of bulk helped Williams become even more of a power threat. He hit 38 home runs in his first year back, knocked in 123 runs, batted .342, and led the league with 142 runs scored, 156 walks, a .497 on-base percentage, and a .667 slugging percentage. The Red Sox captured their first pennant since 1918, and Williams was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
Pitcher Bobby Shantz discussed the dilemma pitchers faced when Williams stepped into the batter’s box: “Did they tell me how to pitch to Williams? Sure they did. It was great advice, very encouraging. They said he had no weakness, won’t swing at a bad ball, has the best eyes in the business, and can kill you with one swing. He won’t hit anything bad, but don’t give him anything good.”
Williams won his second triple crown in 1947, leading the league with 32 home runs, 114 runs batted in, and a .343 batting average. Yet, he was edged out by Joe DiMaggio in the MVP balloting, finishing just one point behind the Yankee Clipper in the voting. It later surfaced that one Boston sportswriter left Williams completely off his ballot since he didn’t get along very well with the slugger.
After another outstanding performance the following year in which he captured his fourth batting title with a mark of .369, Williams had his most productive season in 1949. In addition to finishing a close second in the batting race with a mark of .343, Williams established career highs with 43 home runs, 159 runs batted in, 150 runs scored, and 162 walks, leading the league in each category. The Red Sox finished just one game behind the pennant-winning Yankees, and Williams was named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the second time.
Williams posted outstanding numbers in each of the next two seasons as well, before
being recalled for active duty in the Korean War on May 1, 1952. Eight years removed from his last flight, Williams was not particularly happy about being pressed into service in Korea, but he did what he felt was his patriotic duty. He eventually flew 39 combat missions before being pulled from flight status in June 1953 as the result of an inner ear infection. Williams returned to the Red Sox later that year, batting .407 in his 37 games with the team.
Thirty-five years old at the start of the 1954 campaign, Williams appeared in as many as 130 games in only two of his seven remaining seasons. He never again compiled more than 420 official at-bats in a season. Yet, Williams remained a great hitter to the very end, winning two more batting titles, including leading the league with a mark of .388 in 1957, at the age of 38. Williams homered in the final at-bat of his career, in front of a sparse turnout at Boston’s Fenway Park on a cool, dreary late-September afternoon. Knowing that Williams intended to retire after the game, the Fenway faithful gave him a standing ovation. Always true to himself, Williams later recalled, “I thought about tipping my cap to them for one brief moment. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Williams left the sport at the end of that 1960 season with 521 career home runs, 1,839 runs batted in, 1,798 runs scored, 2,654 hits, a .344 batting average, a .634 slugging average, and an all-time best .483 on-base percentage. In addition to his six batting titles, Williams led the league in home runs and runs batted in four times each, runs scored six times, walks eight times, slugging average nine times, and on-base percentage 12 times. He finished in the top five in the league MVP voting a total of nine times, winning the award twice and placing second in the balloting four other times. He appeared in a total of 17 All-Star games.
Stan Musial expressed his admiration for Williams when he stated, “Ted was the greatest hitter of our era. He won six batting titles and served his country for five years, so he would have won more. He loved talking about hitting and was a great student of hitting and pitchers.”
Carl Yastrzemski, who claimed the starting leftfield job in Boston after Williams retired from the game, commented, “They can talk about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial and all the rest, but I’m sure not one of them could hold cards and spades to Williams in his sheer knowledge of hitting. He studied hitting the way a broker studies the stock market, and could spot at a glance mistakes that others couldn’t see in a week.”
Following his retirement, Williams was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. In his 1966 induction speech, Williams included a statement calling for the admission into Cooperstown of some of the great Negro League players who never had an opportunity to perform in the major leagues. Williams stated, “I’ve been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform, and I hope some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.”
Williams started a second career in 1969 as manager of the Washington Senators, serving in that capacity until shortly after the start of the 1972 campaign, when the team became the Texas Rangers. He subsequently made guest appearances from time to time at Red Sox spring training, until he became unable to do so in later years due to failing health. Williams had a pacemaker installed in November of 2000 and underwent open- heart surgery in January of 2001. After suffering a series of strokes and congestive heart failures, he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 83 on July 5, 2002.
Upon learning of his passing, Dale Petroskey, the President of the Baseball Hall of Fame, expressed his admiration for Williams by saying: “Ted’s passing signals a sad day, not only for baseball fans, but for every American. He was a cultural icon, a larger-than-life personality. He was great enough to become a Hall of Fame player. He was caring enough to be the first Hall of Famer to call for the inclusion of Negro League stars in Cooperstown. He was brave enough to serve our country as a Marine in not one but two global conflicts. Ted Williams is a hero for all generations.”
Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Lloyd McClendon discussed what the Boston legend meant to him: “Ted was everything that was right about the game of baseball. If you really think about it, he was everything that is right about this country. It is certainly a sad day for all of us. He is a man who lost five years of service time serving his country. What he could have done with those years in the prime of his life…it would be awesome to really put those numbers together. He would have probably been the greatest power hitter of all time.”
Ted Williams wrote in his book My Turn At Bat, “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.'” Many people feel that Williams reached his ultimate goal.