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A Times Editorial

Tampa Bay fans bid Kid adieu

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002


Ted Williams was even greater than his legend. He might have broken every batting record in baseball's voluminous book if he hadn't spent five years during the peak of his career fighting for his country in two wars. His reputation would have been even more exalted if, like his contemporary Joe DiMaggio, he had spent his career in the media epicenter of New York instead of Boston. And he would have been an even bigger national hero if he hadn't maintained such a prickly relationship with fans and the press.

Ted Williams was even greater than his legend. He might have broken every batting record in baseball's voluminous book if he hadn't spent five years during the peak of his career fighting for his country in two wars. His reputation would have been even more exalted if, like his contemporary Joe DiMaggio, he had spent his career in the media epicenter of New York instead of Boston. And he would have been an even bigger national hero if he hadn't maintained such a prickly relationship with fans and the press.

Williams' irascibility never went away, but it lost its edge. In his later years, the Splendid Splinter lost the chip on his shoulder. The Kid became a benign, avuncular presence to those who once were cowed by him. Williams seemed especially happy and relaxed once he moved to Citrus County, where he established the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. Quick-witted and profane, he had an inexhaustible supply of great stories -- baseball stories, fishing stories, war stories -- he shared with those who were lucky enough to gain an audience with him.

Some of his more recent admirers probably had no idea just what a great ballplayer Williams was, but no modern player was greater. His left-handed swing was the most graceful the game has seen, and he had an uncanny sense of drama. Generations of youngsters memorized the story of how Williams was too proud to sit out the last day of the 1941 season to protect his .400 batting average. Instead, he rapped out six more hits in a doubleheader to finish the season at .406. No one has hit .400 since (although Williams hit .388 in 1957, when he was 39).

In the last at bat of his career, at the age of 42, Williams banged one final home run -- and left the field, as usual, without tipping his cap to Boston's Fenway faithful. Although his final years were painful and difficult, he was lucky to have lived long enough to make his peace with the admirers he kept at arm's length during his playing career. Bulked-up modern players may break some of his records, but none of them will leave his imprint.

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