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'There goes the greatest hitter'

By MIKE STEPHENSON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 6, 2002

They called him The Kid, Teddy Ballgame and the Splendid Splinter, but Ted Williams, who died Friday (July 5, 2002) at age 83, wanted to be known as only one thing:

They called him The Kid, Teddy Ballgame and the Splendid Splinter, but Ted Williams, who died Friday (July 5, 2002) at age 83, wanted to be known as only one thing:

"All I want out of life is that, when I walk down the street, folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived,"' said Mr. Williams, who was pronounced dead at 8:49 a.m. of cardiac arrest at Citrus Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Williams, born in San Diego and a resident of Citrus County since the 1980s, made a compelling case.

He dedicated his life to excellence in hitting baseballs. His .406 batting average in 1941 is the most recent time a player hit .400 for a season. He was 6-for-8 in a doubleheader on the final day of the season after declining to sit out to protect his average.

Mr. Williams finished his career in 1960 with a batting average of .344, 521 homers, six batting titles, two Triple Crowns and two MVP awards, despite missing nearly five seasons to military service. All for a top salary of $125,000.

"The most fun in baseball is hitting the ball," Mr. Williams told the Sporting News' David Kindred in 1994. "That's all I practiced. That's all I did. That's all I could do for 20 years of my early life. If I had not become a pretty damned good hitter, there was something wrong. I had the opportunity; I had energy-plus, enthusiasm-plus, to want to do that very thing. And I certainly must have had some ability, being quick and strong."

The only thing that distracted Mr. Williams from hitting during his major-league career was war. He served in both World War II and Korea, where he flew jet fighters under the command of John Glenn, who went on to become an astronaut and U.S. senator. In all, Mr. Williams lost nearly five seasons to the military, potentially costing him about 1,000 hits and 200 homers.

"He was one of the best athletes I ever saw, certainly the tops in baseball, that's for sure," Glenn told the St. Petersburg Times Friday. "He was as dedicated to this country as anybody could possibly be. He was as proud of being a Marine as anybody could be. ... When the country wanted him, he came. That was it. He'll be missed."

Mr. Williams grew up in San Diego, telling people he intended to be one of the greatest hitters ever.

As a brash 17-year-old, Mr. Williams signed with the San Diego Padres, then of the Pacific Coast League.

After two seasons, the Boston Red Sox purchased his rights. He spent one season with the minor league Minneapolis Millers before joining the Red Sox full time in 1939.

Mr. Williams' career paralleled that of Yankees great Joe DiMaggio. There was even talk of trading one for the other. The possibility seemed delicious because Boston's Fenway Park has a close, but high leftfield wall, the Green Monster, that is ideally suited for a right-handed hitter such as DiMaggio, while New York's Yankee Stadium has a close rightfield wall ideal for left-handers such as Mr. Williams.

But no deal ever came off and Mr. Williams and DiMaggio, who died in 1999, remained legends with their respective teams.

"The game had some great hitters that I did not see," DiMaggio said at the opening of the Ted Williams Museum in 1994 in the small Citrus County community of Hernando. "But from 1936 to the present day, I can truthfully say I have never seen a better hitter than Ted Williams."

But while DiMaggio built a reputation on being quiet and humble, Mr. Williams was brash and cocky. He defiantly pulled the ball, despite the "Williams shift," which packed players on the right side of the field. He regularly jousted with the Boston media, sometimes spitting toward the press box or Red Sox fans.

On Ted Williams Day, his final game, at Fenway Park, Mr. Williams said, "Despite the fact of the disagreeable things that have been said of me -- and I can't help thinking about it -- by the Knights of the Keyboard out there (jerking his head toward the press box), baseball has been the most wonderful thing in my life. If I were starting over again and someone asked me where is the one place I would like to play, I would want it to be in Boston, with the greatest owner in baseball and the greatest fans in America. Thank you."

In that game, Williams hit a home run in the final at-bat of his career. As the fans roared, Williams ran the bases with his head down, not acknowledging them. Without even tipping his cap, he disappeared into the dugout. Despite their continuing cheers and pleas for a curtain call, Williams never emerged. John Updike, at that game, wrote in Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, "Gods do not answer letters."

In 1991, the 50th anniversary of his .406 season, Mr. Williams finally tipped his cap to the Boston fans for the first time in 52 years. He told the fans he loved them and everyone had a good cry.

Among the keys to Mr. Williams' hitting prowess was his incredible eyesight. It was said he had 20-10 vision. A friend told the Washington Post that Mr. Williams claimed to be able to see the ball hit his bat. Another said Mr. Williams' boast was that he could see the ball flatten against his bat.

Mr. Williams' skills and senses extended to his off-the-field passion, fishing. He was elected to fishing Halls of Fame and wrote books, including Fishing the Big Three: Tarpon, Bonefish, Atlantic Salmon.

"Is fishing as challenging as hitting a baseball?" he said to Ira Berkow of the New York Times in 1982. "I've always said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. The hardest thing -- a round ball, round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside down and a ball coming in at 90 miles to 100 miles an hour, it's a pretty lethal thing. But fishing takes a lot, too -- learning the habits of the fish, what kind of flies to use, how to rig 'em just right, when to apply tension to the rod, all that. And patience, patience, patience."

Although his reputation was for stubborness, Mr. Williams had his softer side.

He was said to be devastated when his longtime companion, Louise Kaufman, died in August 1993. His three marriages had ended in divorce before he was with Kaufman for two decades. He previously had a son, John Henry, and two daughters, Bobbie Jo and Claudia.

Although there was a long period when they were not close, John Henry moved to Citrus County to help care for his father in 1994. Last month, John Henry Williams, 33, fulfilled a dream by signing with the Red Sox Gulf Coast League affiliate and playing briefly as a first baseman before breaking a rib. The Red Sox said they signed the younger Williams out of respect for his father.

At his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mr. Williams spoke of Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, helping to pave the way for their admission to the hall. Late in life, he championed the cause of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who was banned from enshrinement because of his involvement in the "Black Sox" scandal when Chicago's White Sox threw the 1919 World Series in return for a payoff from gamblers.

For years, Mr. Williams was active in Boston with the Jimmy Fund, which raises money to fight children's cancer. Mr. Williams' brother Danny had leukemia and died at age 40.

Mr. Williams' health problems came much later in life.

Starting in December 1991 he suffered a series of strokes, limiting his legendary vision and causing general weakness and disorientation.

"Surprisingly, though I've lived here in this house four or five years, I'll sometimes get lost," he told People magazine in 1995. "So every hallway that's important is marked with a number 9 (Mr. Williams' uniform number): 9 to the bathroom, 9 to the living room, 9 to my bedroom. Little things like that help me navigate."

After being diagnosed with congestive heart failure, he was fitted with a pacemaker Nov. 6, 2000, at Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On Jan. 15, 2001, in New York, he underwent open-heart surgery, spending 91/2 hours in the operating room. Doctors fixed a leak in the mitral valve on the left side of his heart, replacing it with pig tissue, and tightened another valve. He recovered in San Diego and then returned to Florida in June 2001.

Aside from health updates, Mr. Williams' final moments in the spotlight came in 1999. He threw out the first pitch at the All-Star game in Boston and was among the All-Century team players introduced at the World Series in Atlanta.

"This has been a joyous day for me," Mr. Williams told the Boston Globe after the game. "I've been treated so very, very nicely. It just substantiates even more solidly the way I feel about these fans. They are the greatest. They really are."

-- Times staff writer Bruce Lowitt and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which includes information from other news organizations.

Ted Williams highlights

BORN: Aug. 30, 1918, in San Diego.

MILITARY SERVICE: Served in the Navy Air Corps (1942-45) and the Marine Corps (1952-53).

NICKNAMES: The Kid, Teddy Ballgame, Splendid Splinter.

HALL OF FAME: Elected in 1966.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Last major leaguer to hit .400 or better in a season with .406 in 1941. Won two Triple Crowns (1942, 1947), two MVP awards (1946, 1949) and six American League batting titles. Hit 521 home runs, including 17 grand slams. Had 2,654 hits and finished with a lifetime average of .344. Appeared in 18 All-Star games. Played for Boston Red Sox 1939-60. Homered in final at-bat. Managed Washington Senators/Texas Rangers 1969-72.

BOOKS: The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams and John W. Underwood; My Turn at Bat, The Story of My Life, by Ted Williams and John Underwood (contributor); Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams, by Ed Linn; The Insightful Sportsman: Thoughts on Fish, Wildlife and What Ails the Earth, by Ted Williams and James E. Butler; Ted Williams (Baseball Legends), by Rick Wolff and Jim Murray (illustrator); Ted Williams: A Portrait in Words and Pictures, Glenn Stout and Dick Johnson (editor); Ted Williams' Hit List, by Jim Prime and Ted Williams; Fishing the Big Three: Tarpon, Bonefish, Atlantic Salmon, by Ted Williams and John Underwood; The Last .400 Hitter: The Anatomy of a .400 Season, by John B. Holway; Ted Williams: A Baseball Life, by Michael Seidel; Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid, by Richard Cramer, Mark Rucker (editor); Ted Williams Reader, by Lawrence Baldassaro (editor); Ted Williams, by Edwin Pope.


Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame

WHERE: 2455 N Citrus Hills Blvd., Hernando, off of County Road 486 in Citrus County. From Interstate 75, exit at the U.S. 44/Wildwood exit and turn left onto 44 West. Follow for about 15 miles to U.S. 41 and turn right (north). Follow about 7 miles to the town of Hernando. Turn left on County Road 486 (Norville Bryant Highway). The museum is 3.5 miles on your left.

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Closed holidays.

COST: $9 adults, $1 children.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: (352) 527-6566 or

No funeral planned

John Henry Williams, Ted Williams' son, said no funeral service is planned for his father. "Dad never wanted a funeral," Williams said. "He wanted a celebration of his life. As long as people talk about his life, that's all we can ask."

Red Sox officials are considering a memorial celebration at Fenway Park July 22, and a ceremony is planned before or during Tuesday night's All-Star Game.

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