Teddy Ballgame’s Greatest Hits

It's not too often that "Player of the Decade" seems modest.

Among my many time-wasting hobbies, I enjoy digging through the LIFE image archives on Google. It’s relaxing, it’s always interesting and I’m a sucker for anything old, anyway.

Among my favorite searches are always old baseball photos. And I came across this image of Ted Williams pointing the bat over home plate, demonstrating the strike zone, from 1957.

Williams had an amazing year in 1957, which sent me to his Baseball Reference page to confirm that. Of course, once there, all his other accomplishments on the diamond start jumping off the page, and it can feel a bit daunting.

I’m mixing my metaphors now, but in that vintage spirit, I’ll pay homage to my other passion — record collecting — and compile The Kid’s greatest hits, waiting for your hi-fi at your local Woolworth’s. Perfect for when you just need the quick sampler of greatness and don’t have time to flip through the 45s and the baseball cards.

★ Side 1 ★

1. Rookie of the Year
Playing the spacious right field in Fenway Park, a cocky, skinny kid from San Diego leads the American League with 145 RBI, hits .327 with 31 home runs and posts a 1.045 OPS in his first season. He forms a devastating one-two punch with hulking first baseman Jimmie Foxx, and if the Rookie of the Year award had existed in 1939, it would’ve been his.

2. .406
I feel as though I may not to highlight this more than I already have. But, for the record, the highest batting averages since Ted’s .406 in 1941 belong to Tony Gwynn (.394 in a strike-shortened 1994), George Brett (.390, 1980), and, of course, Ted Williams with .388 in 1957, percentage points ahead of Rod Carew’s .388 in 1977.

3. Two Triple Crowns
I noticed early on that the third track on most of the albums I liked always seemed to be great (“Alive,” “High and Dry” and “Heart Shaped Box” confirm that, just sticking with the early 1990s). So what better than to highlight the fact that Ted won the Triple Crown twice — in 1942 and ’47 — keeping the Red Sox in contention on both ends of World War II.

4. Two MVPs
Ted could have easily won this award three times, if not for the fact that Boston sportswriters despised the man, and that Joe DiMaggio had his own memorable run in 1941, relegating Ted to second.

All told, Williams finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 12 times in his career, and finished second four times. C’est la vie; he’s still the greatest hitter who ever lived.

5. War Hero
It interrupted his career, so it seems fitting to wrap up Side 1 with a break in his career. But in his distinguished career as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, Williams rose to the rank of captain and fought in World War II and Korea, missing all of the 1943-46 seasons and most of 1952-53.

★ Side 2 ★

1. “I’m Ted ƒ!¢!$%* Williams”
Ted was a studious hitter, meticulously breaking down pitchers and constantly working to improve his swing and improve the odds of making contact and driving the ball far.

But he was also loud, brash and funny. And according to Jim Bouton, during batting practice, Ted would routinely scream, “I’m Ted Fucking Williams” before each pitch.

“I’m Ted Fucking Williams!” Sock. Yes he was.

2. 521 Home Runs
Williams really played only 17 full seasons, but he made the most of them. That said, he still sits in the top 20 on the all-time home run list despite the fact that at least six players have entered the rankings in the past 10 years with questionable credentials.

Let’s give him World War II back. Over 1941-47, Williams averaged 36 home runs. If we give him just those three seasons back, Williams could have added 108 home runs to his total, pushing him to 629, good for sixth on the list. If he gets his two Korea seasons back at an average of 29, subtracting the 14 he did get in 43 games played, he would have another 44 home runs, getting that total up to 643, meaning Williams would have retired with the second-most home runs ever, trailing only Babe Ruth’s 714.

3. The Teammates
Here’s the requisite ballad, a tale of four teammates — Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio — who were inseparable on the field, the core of the great Red Sox rosters of the 1940s and early ’50s, and remained close friends to the end.

David Halberstam’s The Teammates is required reading, as is checking out Fenway Park’s newest statue honoring the four friends.

4. Ted’s Wild ’57
I’m on record as always being impressed with high performance at an advanced age, and that was certainly the case for Ted in 1957. At the age of 38, Williams was hitting .401 on June 5 and got his average back up to .390 by Aug. 18, finishing at .388 for the season. He also hit 38 home runs, posted a 1.257 OPS with an OPS+ of 233, which are absurd numbers for a Hall of Famer in his prime, never mind a guy who actually turned 39 before September.

5. “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”
Williams, famously, homered in his final at-bat for the Red Sox, sending a Jack Fisher pitch to center field. He also unintentionally inspired perhaps the greatest piece of sports writing the genre has seen, when the New Yorker’s John Updike, in attendance, was moved enough to write his famous essay.

It’s his “A Day in the Life” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a stunning coda to an amazing body of work.

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