Last .400 hitter dies after long battle with
strokes and congestive heart failure
CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. – Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox revered and sometimes reviled “Splendid Splinter” and baseball’s last .400 hitter, died Friday at age 83.
Williams, who suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years, was taken Friday to Citrus County Memorial Hospital in Inverness where he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:49 a.m., said hospital spokeswoman Rebecca Martin.
He underwent open-heart surgery in January 2001 and had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000.
“With the passing of Ted Williams, America has lost a baseball legend,” said President Bush, a former baseball owner. “Whether serving the country in the armed forces or excelling on the baseball diamond, Ted Williams demonstrated unique talent and love of country.
“He inspired young ballplayers across the nation for decades and we will always remember his persistence on the field and his courage off the field. Ted gave baseball some of its best seasons – and he gave his own best seasons to his country. He will be greatly missed.”
The Hall of Famer always wanted to be known as the greatest hitter ever, and his stats backed up the claim.
He had 145 RBIs as a Red Sox rookie in 1939 and closed out his career – fittingly – by hitting a home run at Fenway Park in his final major league at-bat in 1960.
Williams was a two-time MVP who twice won the Triple Crown. He hit .344 lifetime with 521 home runs – despite twice interrupting his career to serve as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War.
“Ted was an American legend,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “Besides being one of baseball’s all-time greats, he was a genuine war hero, having served as a Marine flyer in World War II and in the Korean conflict.
“When Ted was a young man, he often said it was his goal that people would say of him: ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’ Ted fulfilled that dream.”
Williams’ greatest achievement came in 1941 when he batted .406, getting six hits in a doubleheader on the final day of the season.
“He is the premier measuring stick for all hitters,” said longtime major league slugger and coach Frank Howard, who played for Williams on the Washington Senators. “He’s light years ahead of anybody as far as hitting a baseball.
“The country lost a great American today,” Howard said.
Williams contended his eyesight was so keen he could pick up individual stitches on a pitched ball and could see the exact moment his bat connected with it.
He also asserted he could smell the burning wood of his bat when he fouled a ball straight back, just missing solid contact.
“I think he was the best hitter that baseball has had,” said Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who played with Williams for 10 seasons.
“He wanted to be the greatest hitter of all time, and he worked hard at that, but he was also a great teammate. He patted everyone on the back,” Doerr said from Junction City, Ore.
Williams was a perfectionist who worked tirelessly at his craft and had no tolerance for those less dedicated. He was single-minded and stubborn, a player who reduced the game to its simplest elements: batter vs. pitcher, one trying to outsmart the other. In those instances, he usually won.
“I am truly heartbroken,” Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto said. “We have lost another great ballplayer, another great person.”
“And when I was just a rookie in 1941, he took me under his wing. After he hit a double one day, he called timeout and told me, ’Kid, you’ve got a chance to play for the Yankees for a long time, so bear down.’ He was a credit to the game and did so much for so many people,” he said.
Tall and thin, gaunt almost, Williams hardly possessed the traditional profile of a slugger. Yet he was probably the best hitter of his time – and one with a chip on his shoulder.
Often involved in feuds both public and private during his career, Williams mellowed later in life.
The best example came in his reaction to an emotional ovation from the crowd at the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway Park, Williams’ longtime playground.
After a roster of Hall of Famers was introduced, Williams rode a golf cart to the pitcher’s mound, where he threw out the first ball. Suddenly, he was surrounded by a panorama of stars, past and present, who reacted like a bunch of youngsters crowding their idol for an autograph.
For a long time, they just hovered around him, many with tears in their eyes.
Then, San Diego’s Tony Gwynn gently helped a misty-eyed Williams to his feet and steadied him as Williams threw to Carlton Fisk, another Boston star.
The crowd roared.
“Wasn’t it great!” Williams said. “I can only describe it as great. It didn’t surprise me all that much because I know how these fans are here in Boston. They love this game as much as any players and Boston’s lucky to have the faithful Red Sox fans. They’re the best.”
It wasn’t always that way for Williams. Revered as a slugger, he also was remembered for snubbing Fenway fans, refusing to tip his hat when he hit the ultimate walk-off home run in his final at-bat at age 42.
“Gods do not answer letters,” John Updike once wrote in a profile of Williams, who sealed that image in 1941 with an 11th-hour show of courage.
Going into the final day of the season, Williams was batting .3996. Rounded off, that would be .400, and Red Sox manager Joe Cronin suggested he sit out the day’s doubleheader to clinch that golden number.
Williams refused. Instead, he played both games, went 6-for-8 and lifted his season average to .406. No one has approached .400 since.
“He killed the ball, just killed it,” said Pete Suder, who played shortstop for the Philadelphia Athletics that day. “He hit one into the loudspeaker horns. He hit another one over the fence.”
That year, Williams also led the league with 37 homers, 145 bases on balls and a .735 slugging percentage. Despite all those gaudy statistics, the American League MVP award went to Joe DiMaggio, who had a record 56-game hitting streak.
The next year, Williams won the Triple Crown, leading the league with 36 home runs, 137 RBIs and a .356 average. But the MVP award went to Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon (.322, 18, 103).
The same thing happened in 1947, when Williams won his second Triple Crown by hitting .343 with 32 homers and 114 RBIs, but lost the MVP vote again to DiMaggio (.315, 20, 97).
By then, Williams’ relationship with the writers, particularly in Boston, had deteriorated badly. One writer left him off the MVP ballot entirely in 1947, costing him the award.
Williams and DiMaggio were fierce competitors. Once in the fog of a cocktail party, they were nearly traded for each other so that the lefty-swinging Williams could benefit from the cozy right-field stands at Yankee Stadium and the right-handed DiMaggio could target the Green Monster at Fenway Park. The next morning, clearer heads prevailed and the deal was called off.
“He was the best pure hitter I ever saw. He was feared,” DiMaggio said in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Williams’ .406 season and DiMaggio’s hitting streak.
When DiMaggio died, in March 1999, Williams said there was no one he “admired, respected and envied more than Joe DiMaggio.”
Williams led the league in hitting six times, the last in 1958, when, at age 40, he became the oldest batting champ in major league history.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966, his first year of eligibility.
Although considered a born hitter by many, Williams worked countless hours to improve throughout his career. He often said hitting a baseball was “the hardest thing to do in sports.”
“A round ball, a round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside down and a ball coming in at 90 to 100 miles an hour, it’s a pretty lethal thing,” he said.
He once ordered postal scales for the Boston clubhouse so he could be sure of the weight of his bats. In the on-deck circle, he would massage the handle of his bat with olive oil and resin, producing a squeal that disconcerted many pitchers.
“In order to hit a baseball properly,” he once explained, “a man has got to devote every ounce of his concentration to it.”
Williams was only 20 when he joined the Red Sox in 1939, beginning a tempestuous, colorful career. He had several nicknames: Thumpin’ Ted, Teddy Ballgame and The Kid. But none stuck like “The Splendid Splinter,” a reference to his skinny, 6-foot-3 physique.
He was brash and outspoken from the start. In 1940, Williams made headlines when he told a writer: “That’s the life, being a fireman. It sure beats being a ballplayer. I’d rather be a fireman.”
A few years after retiring, he was quoted as saying: “I’m so grateful for baseball – and so grateful I’m the hell out of it.”
But he didn’t really stay away. He managed the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers in 1969-72 and maintained lifetime connections with the Red Sox. In 1984, the team retired his number 9.
Theodore Samuel Williams was born Aug. 30, 1918, in San Diego. Out of high school, he signed a Pacific Coast League contract with his hometown team.
He played 1 1/2 seasons with San Diego, then was obtained by the Red Sox in 1937 for the then-outrageous sum of $25,000 and five players. After a year in Minneapolis, he came to the majors in 1939.
With a dependent mother, Williams received a military deferment from his draft board in 1942. When that season ended, though, he enlisted, becoming a Marine flier. In 1946, he returned to lead the Red Sox to the pennant and his first MVP award.
As a member of the Marine Reserves, was called up as a jet pilot in 1952. After combat service as a fighter pilot in Korea, he rejoined the Red Sox late in the 1953 season.
After his 1960 retirement, Williams became an avid fisherman and outdoorsman. But he returned to baseball in 1969 as manager of the Washington Senators.
He managed three years in Washington and one more when the club moved to Texas as the Rangers in 1972. Although he was respected by his peers, Williams’ teams went 273-364, a .429 mark.
Williams returned to the Red Sox as a vice president, then was a consultant and spring training hitting instructor. But the strokes, especially a particularly severe one in February 1994, limited his vision and mobility.
He still did occasional public appearances in his wheelchair, and remained quick-witted and an avid fan. Commenting on the 1998 home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, he said: “The McGwire-Sosa thing was so super-great. McGwire is the closest thing to gargantuan at the plate.”
In 1995, Boston dedicated a $2.3 billion harbor tunnel bearing Williams’ name. At the ceremony, he made it clear he didn’t consider it a memorial.
“Every place I go, they’re waving at me, sending out a cheer, sending letters and notes,” he said. “And I thought, I’ve only seen it happen to somebody who looks like they’re going to die. ... I’m a long ways from that.”
Married three times, he had three children: Bobbie Jo, Claudia and John Henry Williams.