Zalusky: Looking back at Ted Williams' magical 1941 season

  • Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams weighs one of his new 36-ounce Hickory baseball bats in the clubhouse after morning workout at spring training in Sarasota, Floria.

    Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams weighs one of his new 36-ounce Hickory baseball bats in the clubhouse after morning workout at spring training in Sarasota, Floria. Associated Press/March 16, 1948

 
Updated 11/5/2021 12:52 PM

Part 2 of 2

In baseball, perfection in hitting is nearly impossible.

 

Batting averages of 1.000 belong to players with Moonlight Graham-brief careers -- Roe Skidmore of the Cubs with his 1-for-1 and John Paciorek of the Houston Colt .45s with his 3-for-3.

But over the long season, 1.000 is an impossible dream.

It is hard enough to be one-third perfect, while two-fifths perfect is rarefied air indeed.

In 1941, Ted Williams became the last major leaguer to join the .400 club when he batted .406.

But even Teddy Ballgame had a steep climb up the mountain and nearly lost his footing. And at the start of the season, he practically had to make the ascent on one foot. He broke his right ankle in spring training, and at the end of May one writer pointed out, "Every step he takes, despite tight bandaging, gives him pain." But it didn't stop him from hitting .429 at the time.

The season could have gotten off on the wrong foot if Williams hadn't offered an olive branch to the press and the Boston fans that year.

The year before he said he would rather be a fireman than play baseball, which earned him razzing not only from the press, but opposing players.

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But Williams returned a solid citizen, prompting Billy Evans, who as Red Sox GM of farm operations had scouted Williams in Ted's native San Diego, to say in midseason, "It is a good thing Ted Williams did make peace with the writers and with the fans. They very easily could have chased him out of baseball."

By June 6, Williams' batting average reached .436. The "willowy" left-hander was also hitting for power and drawing walks. By the end of the season, he would lead the league in home runs with 37, walks with 147, and runs scored with 135. His .553 on-base percentage remained a single-season record until 2002, when Barry Bonds broke it.

Inevitably, as both approached major milestones, comparisons cropped up between Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

One writer found similarities -- both being tall and rangy and both relying on wrist action to lash the ball.

In September 1941, legendary sports writer Grantland Rice compared Williams to Shoeless Joe Jackson, writing, "Williams, like Jackson, lacks any form of tension at the plate." He added that both had "almost perfect hand and wrist action."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

DiMaggio and Williams would share a moment of glory July 8 at the All Star Game at Detroit's Briggs Stadium.

With the National League up 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, Williams came up with two out and two on, including DiMaggio, who had hit into a run-scoring fielder's choice.

Williams, facing the Cubs' Claude Passeau, drove a liner that traveled 325 feet before bouncing off the roof top press box in right field to win the game.

Williams said, "I closed my eyes and swung."

As the season swung into its second half, Williams told a reporter, "I'd like to break every hitting record in the book. When I walk down the street I'd like for them to say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the best hitter in baseball.'"

But in the days following his All Star heroics, his batting average sank a few points below .400, But by July 25, he was back above the .400 mark, reaching .414 by Aug. 21.

Meanwhile, Williams received advice from Red Sox coach Hugh Duffy, who hit .438 in 1894. When Duffy was asked in August whether he talked to Williams about slumps, he said, "I warned him never to shift his stance, or change his grip, or use a different bat to get out of a slump."

On Sept. 28, the Red Sox ended the season in Philadelphia with a doubleheader. With his average at .3995, which would have been rounded to .400, Williams could have sat out both games.

But he played in left field in both games. In the opener, he went 4-for-5, boosting his average to .404. In the nightcap, he sealed the deal with a 2-for-3 performance.

In his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, he said, "Ballplayers are not born great. They're not born great hitters or pitchers or managers, and luck isn't a big factor. No one has come up with a substitute for hard work. I've never met a great player who didn't have to work harder at learning to play ball than anything else he ever did."

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