Ted Williams wanted to be known as the greatest hitter to ever play the game. It is safe to say that he, even 61 years after his retirement, put himself very squarely in the conversation. He worked tirelessly at it. He had a passion and an understanding for it that most around the game had never seen before. He’s been described as a hitting genius.
“Ted Williams was to hitting what Einstein was to mathematics,” as MLB.com’s Jim Street put it.
“Greatest hitter ever” can be a very subjective concept, even with statistics to help make the case. After all, baseball was a very different game when Williams played compared with the Barry Bonds and Mike Trouts of the league. Strategy, training methods, and rules have all evolved. So what we are left with is to see how dominant a player was in their own era–and that’s where one could make a strong case for William’s greatness.
Williams played in 19 Major League seasons from 1939 to 1960, putting his baseball career on hold for a three-year stint during World War II, and again for almost two full seasons to fly combat missions in Korea (more on that in a moment). Over those 19 seasons, he was named an All-Star every year except as a rookie in 1939.
He is the last player in baseball history to bat .400 in a season. Legend is that Williams’ manager, Joe Cronin, told Williams that he could stay out of the lineup through the last couple of games to protect his batting average, which sat at .39955 and would be rounded up. The Red Sox were 17 ½ games out of first place and had nothing to play for, but Williams refused to play it that way. He went six for eight in the doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics and finished the season at .406.
His career batting average was an absurd .344 (6th all-time), while still having the power to hit 521 home runs. His 6’3”, 205-pound frame that earned him the nickname the “Splendid Splinter” was not the traditional build of a guy that routinely sends balls out of the park, but he had a sweet left-handed swing and a meticulous, scientific approach at the plate.
Hall of Fame pitcher Ted Lyons said, “Williams was a Ty Cobb as far as being an intelligent batter. He wouldn’t hit at a bad ball. All he’d want to talk about was hitting.”
That discipline at the plate is a big part of why Ted Williams isn’t part of the prestigious 3,000-hit club. Ahead of his time, in that regard, he was content to draw a walk if he got nothing to hit. He had 2,021 walks to go with his 2,654 career hits. His base on balls: strikeout ratio was nearly 3:1, his .634 slugging percentage (the average of how many bases a player earns each trip to the plate) is second only to Babe Ruth, and his .482 on-base percentage is tops all-time. Yes, Ted Williams got on base almost half the time he stepped to the plate!
Williams enjoyed talking hitting so much, that it would get him into trouble with his own managers, because he would help players on opposing teams during batting practice. He just loved it that much. He carried that love and ability to teach over to his first stretch of military service in World War II, where he opted to be a pilot over the cushier assignment of playing baseball for the Navy, received a Marine Corps commission in 1944 and became an instructor. Williams returned to baseball at the end of the war when he was 27 and didn’t miss a beat, having one of his strongest seasons.
He was recalled from the inactive reserve for service in the Korean War in May of 1952. He was assigned to VMF-311 and flew 37 combat missions in the Grumman F9F Panther, some of them as a wingman to future astronaut and senator, John Glenn. Unlike most athletes and celebrities during their military service, Williams was in some very dangerous situations.
“Once, he was on fire and had to belly land the plane back in,” Glenn said years ago in an interview with MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo.
“He slid it in on the belly. It came up the runway about 1,500 feet before he was able to jump out and run off the wingtip… Another time he was hit in the wingtip tank when I was flying with him. So he was a very active combat pilot, and he was an excellent pilot and I give him a lot of credit.”
Williams was welcomed back to the United States as a hero in July of 1953, but like many veterans, wasn’t comfortable with the praise.
“Everybody tries to make a hero out of me over the Korean thing,” Williams once said. “I was no hero. There were maybe 75 pilots in our two squadrons and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did.”
His friend, John Glenn, however, sees it a little differently:
“Some people came back in from the sports world who were put to work as coaches for the baseball teams or something like that. Ted was not that way. Ted fit right in. He was a Marine pilot just like the rest of us and did a great job.”
“Much as I appreciate baseball, Ted to me will always be a Marine fighter pilot. He did a great job as a pilot. Ted was a gung-ho Marine.”