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The 'Splendid Splinter' slugs his way past .400


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 13, 1999

Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak was only half of what would become one of baseball's most remarkable seasons. When the streak ended -- and the Yankees were well on their way to winning the 1941 American League pennant by 17 games over Boston -- the fans' attention turned to Ted Williams, star of the Red Sox.

His was a love-hate relationship with Boston -- teammates, fans and the city's seven daily newspapers. His first season, 1939, was exceptional, but when he started slowly the following year, seemed to be just going through the motions and complaining about his salary -- boos were mixed in with the cheers (he said later that he mostly heard the boos) and the newspapers criticized him. After another superb season, Williams said he wanted to be traded.

He wasn't. He started the 1941 season hot and stayed hot. Baseball, he said, was "fun again," no more so than at the All-Star Game July 8 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. With one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, DiMaggio, 48 games into his streak, hit what appeared to be a game-ending double-play grounder. But the relay by Brooklyn second baseman Billy Herman pulled the first baseman off the bag.

That gave Williams a chance to hit, and he did. After studying a couple of pitches by Claude Passeau of the Cubs, he turned on a belt-high fastball and drilled a two-out, three-run homer off the parapet of the rightfield stands for the American League's 7-5 victory.

Williams was batting .405 at the All-Star break. He was leading the league with a .39955 batting average going into the final day, Sunday, Sept. 28, a doubleheader against the Athletics in Philadelphia. Manager Joe Cronin offered to bench him because Williams' average would be rounded off to .400. That would make him the first batter to finish at that plateau since Harry Heilmann of Detroit had hit .403 in 1923.

No thanks, Williams said. "If I couldn't hit .400 all the way," he said later, "I didn't deserve it."

The night before the final day, he prowled the streets of Philadelphia, thinking about the pitchers he would face and what he had to do.

When he came to bat the first time in the opening game, Bill McGowan bent to brush off the plate the way all umpires do -- his butt aimed at the pitcher -- and quietly advised Williams, "In order to hit .400 you've got to be loose."

Williams, in fact, was tight as a drum, his hands shaking. Still, he singled to right -- and hit a home run and two more singles in the opener. He was 4-for-5 and well above .400. Now he could sit without guilt.

But he didn't. He played the second game as well, hitting a single and a double in three at-bats. The 6-for-8 day ended Williams' 1941 season at .406.

In the 58 years since, San Diego's Tony Gwynn has come closest to .400, batting .394 in 1994. When they met for a conversation on ESPN, Williams told Gwynn: "I still think as good as you are, everybody wants to know, "Well, is he going to hit .400?' I said, "Well, ... anybody I got to bet on now, I got to bet on you, Tony.' "

-- Information from Baseball, an Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (Knopf) was used in this report.

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