"There Goes the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived." SPENDID SPLINTER Legendary Williams Mastered the Art and Science of Hitting
Peter Bragan Jr. recalls watching Ted Williams one day during spring training in Fort Myers. Talk of fundamentals, which had dragged on and on, abruptly ended when Williams blurted out, "Let's just go hit!"
"That's a hitter for you," said Bragan, vice president and general manager of the Jacksonville Suns. "It's always, 'Let's just go hit!' "
Williams' feel for hitting remained almost supernatural even after his playing days. The man booed for inconsistent play in left field is universally applauded as one of the two greatest hitters in baseball history, along with Babe Ruth.
The Splendid Splinter, a Hall-of-Famer and baseball's last .400 hitter, died yesterday. He was 83.
"When you talk about great ballplayers, you throw in Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and DiMaggio and Gehrig and Ruth," former batting champion Wade Boggs said. "When you talk about hitting, you talk about Ted Williams."
Williams' legs and legendary eyes, measured as having 20-10 vision at the time of his military induction in 1943, helped him to a .344 career average.
When Williams took batting practice at Fenway Park for the first time after the Korean War, he suspected home plate was misaligned. Surveyors proved him correct: It was off by an inch or so. The batmaker Hillerich & Bradsby once placed six bats in front of him on a bed and asked Williams to close his eyes and pick out the bat that was a half-ounce heavier. He picked the right one twice in a row. He reputedly could read the label on a 78 rpm record as it spun on a turntable.
"When Ted was a young man, he often said it was his goal that people would say of him: 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' Ted fulfilled that dream," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.
While many considered Williams a natural born hitter, he also worked countless hours to improve. He often said hitting a baseball was "the hardest thing to do in sports."
He once ordered postal scales for the Boston clubhouse so he could be sure of the weight of his bats. In the on-deck circle, he would massage the handle of his bat with olive oil and resin, producing a squeal that disconcerted many pitchers.
"In order to hit a baseball properly," he explained, "a man has got to devote every ounce of his concentration to it."
Williams also asserted he could smell the burning wood of his bat when he fouled a ball straight back, just missing solid contact.
He shared his insights in a book, The Science of Hitting, that became a how-to manual for generations of ballplayers. Eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn was among his biggest fans.
"The influence he has had on my career is amazing," said Gwynn, like Boggs a polar opposite to Williams in terms of batting style and approach. "I've been a much more tuned-in hitter since then."
Williams swung with a slight uppercut, preferring to hit the lower half of the ball. Standing at the back of the batter's box, he waited as long as possible for a pitch, then turned his hips into the ball ahead of his hands, bringing the bat through the strike zone at a speed few ever have matched.
"He never seemed to swing at a bad pitch or get fooled by pitches," said White Sox executive Roland Hemond, 72, who grew up as a Red Sox fan in nearby Rhode Island. "They would throw pitches under his chin, and he would hardly back off. He owned the plate."
His refusal to attack the defensive shift teams used against him by hitting to left field was cited as another example of his resolve. Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau first tried what became known as the "Williams shift" in 1941. It involved putting the third baseman behind second base, the shortstop halfway between second and first, and the second baseman in short right field behind the first baseman. …