Today’s post is about Ted Williams, the baseball player who might have been the greatest hitter who ever lived. There’s no attempt here to make the piece accessible to people who neither know nor care about baseball so, if you came to the blog for publishing or digital change today, please come back for the next post.
But if you know and care about baseball, you’ll be getting three stories of interest that never appeared in any Williams bio I ever read, and I think I’ve read them all. Each of these stories contains a little surprise about a character we thought we knew well. The first one is short and indicates that he wasn’t the hard-hearted SOB many sportswriters made him out to be. The second is a bit longer and shows that the great student of hitting learned from some apparently unlikely teachers. And the third is a lengthier tale that shows that Williams could also learn from a fan.
The first one came to me just a couple of weeks ago from Roger Waynick, the owner of Cool Springs Press, a gardening publisher I’ve written about before on this blog.
When Roger was in his mid-teens, before he had a drivers license, he went on a trip with his father to Islamorada, Florida to fish for tarpon. The group that included his dad breakfasted one morning and then, for some reason, left Roger behind when they went to the boat.
Ted Williams, a pretty famous tarpon fisherman (one of his major endorsement deals was with Sears for fishing tackle), noticed the young man sitting by himself and asked him what was going on. Roger explained that his dad and his dad’s friends had left him behind. Ted invited him to spend the day with him fishing on his boat.
Waynick has two great memories of the day. One was about the legendary Williams eyesight. (It was claimed that he could read the label on a 45 rpm record while it was spinning on the turntable.) Waynick explained to me that fishing for tarpon is like hunting; you see the target game first and then “cast to it.” As Waynick put it, “he had brilliant eyes and could see the fish long before I could!”
But the other recollection Waynick has nearly 40 years later is about Williams’s strength. “We caught several fish and I was amazed how he could hold his rod almost vertically as these huge fish pulled. For me, I was being pulled around the boat…but not him. He stood still and straight. Splendid.”
In the late 1980s, I spent a couple of spring training seasons in Florida with a press pass working on a book called “The Baseball Fan’s Guide to Spring Training.” I even saw Williams once working with young hitters on a back field at the Red Sox camp, then in Winter Haven, Florida. But that’s not the second story.
One morning I was hanging around with other writers and broadcasters at the batting cage at the Phillies spring home, then at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater. (Jack Russell was a charming red brick edifice, one of my favorite spring training ballparks. It has been replaced, but at least the new park the Phillies built, Bright House Field, is perhaps the nicest of the new generation of spring training parks.) Also at the cage that morning was Tony Kubek, the former Yankee shortstop who was then a broadcaster. Kubek was talking about his first All-Star game appearance.
He was witness to a conversation between Williams and Kubek’s teammate, Yogi Berra. This would have been in 1958. (I had to look that up. Kubek was rookie-of-the-year in 1957, but he didn’t appear on the All-Star roster that year.) Williams had won the batting champtionship with an astounding .388 average in 1957; he was on his way to winning it again in 1958, but with an average that was 60 points lower. The defenses were shifting on him, loading up the right side of the infield and daring him to hit to left field.
Berra was a left-handed hitter, like Williams, but, unlike Williams he could hit effectively to left field. So Williams asked Berra for at tip on going the other way.
As Kubek related it, Berra said, “you have to throw the top hand over. Make a throwing motion with the top hand as you swing to hit line drives. Otherwise you’ll pop the ball up.”
I was amazed. “You’re telling us that Yogi Berra taught Ted Williams to hit to left field?” I asked Kubek. “Exactly,” he said.
There’s a coda to this story that has nothing to do with Williams. As it happened, a day or two later I was at the Houston Astros training camp in Kissimmee, Florida. Yogi was a coach for the Astros at that time so, with my press pass again allowing me on the field before the game, I went looking for him. I learned that very hot day that Yogi sought the shade. He was never in the sun before that game. I found him in the dugout. So I approached him.
“Hello, Mr. Berra,” I said, offering my hand. He made no move and just stood there. “I’m Mike Shatzkin, a writer from New York. I’m working on a book on Spring Training. Yesterday at the cage in Clearwater Tony Kubek said you taught Ted Williams to hit to left field.”
Berra didn’t move. He didn’t acknowledge a word I said. He showed no expression.
“Is that true?” I said. “Do you recall it?”
Still no reaction. I gave up; “slinked away” would be an accurate description.
Later in the press box I told a Houston writer the story. When I got to the part about approaching Yogi in the dugout, he said, “Did you get him to say anything?” “No,” I said. “No surprise there. He doesn’t talk to writers he doesn’t know.”
The third story originated with a movie producer introduced to me by a Hollywood friend in the late 1980s. This fellow (whose name eludes me 20 or more years since I last spoke with him) had apparently secured the rights to do a movie about Ted Williams. The film would revolve around an amazing story about Williams, still largely unknown (not in those bios!) But, sort of like the Berra coda to the Kubek story, I have an extra twist to offer.
Williams had missed most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons serving in Korea. He came back for the last few weeks of 1953 and hit well, but, nonetheless, announced in a national magazine before Spring Training that 1954 would be his last year. He would become 36 years old during the season and had been in the big leagues since 1939. As the movie producer told me the story, his wife at that time had very clear personal preferences: “no weddings, no funerals, no ballgames.” And as if to confirm that his plan to quit was the right one, Williams broke his shoulder making a tumbling catch in left field in one of the first exhibition games of the spring. But he rejoined the club early in the year and was, as always, hitting well.
After a game with the Orioles in mid-season, Williams was alone in the Baltimore train station when he was approached by a stranger. “You’re Ted Williams, right?” “Yes.”
“Are you really planning to retire when this season is over?” “Yes.”
“Well, you better not do that if you want to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The writers vote for the Hall of Fame and they hate your guts. And your numbers just aren’t good enough. If you quit after this year, you’ll never make it on the first ballot.”
Since Williams had hit well over .300 in every season he’d played, and hit with power from the very beginning, he was skeptical. “What do you mean my numbers aren’t good enough?”
“You missed too much time fighting in the wars. Your lifetime totals just don’t cut it.”
Williams’s curiosity was piqued. He arranged to meet the fan again soon in New York. They stayed up all night talking. At the end of the session, Williams said, “OK, what do I have to do?”
The fan said, “you have to hit 500 home runs. If you do that, they can’t possibly keep you out of the Hall of Fame. They’ll have to put you in on the first ballot.” At that time, only Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Mel Ott had hit 500 home runs in all of baseball history. Lou Gehrig was 4th on the all-time list with 493 home runs.
At the end of the 1954 season, Williams had 366. The following spring, he was divorced, reported late, and started the season late. But his pledge to retire had been forgotten and he kept right on hitting. And his new friend kept in touch with him, kept encouraging him, and kept tracking how Williams was doing against the lifetime records that had been posted before him.
Williams hit .356 in 1955 and .345 in 1956. In 1957, the season in which he turned 39, that .388 average won the batting championship by more than 20 points over Mickey Mantle’s career-best .365. In 1958, the year Kubek played with him in the All-Star game, he won his sixth American League batting championship.
But age caught up with him in 1959. He had a painful pinched nerve in his neck that hampered him all year and, for the first time, his average fell below .300. He only hit .254. But he finished the year with 492 home runs, one behind Gehrig, eight short of 500. He couldn’t retire!
So he volunteered for a pay cut and came back for a final year in 1960. He climbed back above .300, hit 29 homers to total 521, and, in a final act that inspired one of the most famous New Yorker articles ever by John Updike (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”), hit a home run in his last at-bat in the major leagues. Five years later, after the mandatory waiting period was over, Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
What a story, I thought. I told the movie producer: you need to turn this into a book. He agreed. Could I help him find a writer?
I had a friend named Lawrie Mifflin, who was one of the first woman sportswriters. She had started covering the New York Rangers for the Daily News and then covered them for the New York Times. Her husband at that time, Arthur Kimmel, had just left a job at an advertising agency. Arthur was a good writer, and really knew sports. I decided to see if he’d be interested.
So I called Arthur and said, “I have a guy who wants to make a movie about Ted Williams and needs a writer to do a book of the story.” And Arthur said, “have you ever heard the amazing story about Lawrie’s father and Ted Williams?”
The fan who influenced Williams — almost certainly the most important fan in baseball history — was Eddie Mifflin.
Lawrie is still with the Times, a Senior Editor working on new digital initiatives, and still a friend. What a nice series of coincidences. The most influential baseball fan in history is the father of one of the first women to cover professional sports for a major daily. Her friend who dabbles as a baseball historian finds out about it through the most circuitous imaginable route. And a dabbling baseball historian has three stories about the greatest hitter that ever lived which never made it into mainstream lore.