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Williams' proudest moment came in the military

By MIKE STEPHENSON and BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2002


Ted Williams' career statistics rank near the top of the baseball charts, but his totals might have been even more spectacular had it not been for nearly five years of military service.

Ted Williams' career statistics rank near the top of the baseball charts, but his totals might have been even more spectacular had it not been for nearly five years of military service.

Some estimate Williams might have added 1,000 hits and 200 home runs to his totals of 2,654 and 521 had he not lost prime years to the service.

"He may have gone on to even greater heights in baseball," former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn, who flew in the same squadron with Williams in Korea, told the Times Friday. "But there were greater things than baseball. That was our country, and when Ted got that call he answered that call. That's to his everlasting credit."

Williams was a reluctant warrior but served the military well.

He was a Navy Air Corps and Marine pilot in World War II and Korea, serving from 1942-46 and from '52-53. He flew half his 39 missions in Korea as wing man for Glenn.

"The proudest moment of my life was the day I earned my Navy wings," Williams told Cox News Service in 2000. "What an honor. The best bunch of guys in the world, and I was one of them. And later, in Korea, with John Glenn. ...

"Combat? I was lucky. Sure, I gained perspective. You have to. It's combat. But don't get me wrong. I didn't come back and play baseball and think, this is just a game, this isn't combat. It is, especially when a pitcher is trying to hurt you. You know, every experience in life has a lesson that can be applied somewhere else in life. You gotta just keep learning the lessons."

According to Ted Williams: A Baseball Life by Michael Seidel, Williams maneuvered to get a draft exemption at the outbreak of World War II and enlisted in the Navy's flight program only after media accusations that he was a slacker. He didn't see combat in that war, studying at Amherst College in Massachusetts and training.

When his career again was interrupted six years later by a callup from the reserves for Korea, he and others protested over what they believed was a publicity stunt. He was 33, married and had a daughter. But Williams served well in Korea.

"Some of the missions we flew were tough," Glenn said "Ted got hit once (by antiaircraft fire) and the plane was on fire back around the engine. He should have bailed out but he didn't want to. He fought to keep the plane airborne, couldn't get the landing gear down, didn't have any radio. He bellied it in." The plane burst into flames on the runway. Williams escaped.

On his Web site, www.tedwilliams.com, Williams said, "Everybody tries to make a hero out of me over the Korean thing. 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. But I liked flying. ... The flying came easy."

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