Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, April 29, 2006


As the "performance enhanced" Barry Barry Bonds encroaches on the immortal Babe Ruth for second place on baseball's all-time home run list, I've been reflecting on Ted Williams -- the "greatest hitter who ever lived."

While walking around the exterior of Fenway Park last week, I came upon the statue of "Teddy Ballgame" and paused to admire it. The plaque at the base of the statue noted that Williams was a decorated war hero who had missed five full seasons due to service in two different wars -- WWII and Korea.

The greatest hitter who ever lived compiled extraordinary numbers -- such as 521 career homers -- while missing five seasons during his storied career. That's truly remarkable. At the time, only one player - Ruth - had surpassed the 700 home run mark. And upon refection, it seems that Williams -- if not for the missed time -- would've joined him in that pantheon.

In 1942, during the prime of his career, Williams voluntarily enlisted in the Navy reserve and was called to active duty that November. He was only a year removed from his now legendary .406 season. When his call to duty was over, Williams had missed three consecutive seasons as he studied and learned how to fly.

Though he was never called into active combat, he served honorably and was discharged in December of 1945. Returning to the Red Sox for the 1946 season, he picked up right where he left off. Despite the lengthy absence, Williams hit .342 and belted 38 homers. However, just six years later, the military beckoned once again.

Williams was called from the inactive reserves in 1952 to fight in the Korean War. As a result, he missed that season as well. Arriving in Korea in February 1953, Williams served as a member of the first Marine Air Wing and fought in combat. He was hit on several occasions and managed to escape death each time. Williams flew a total of 39 missions in Korea, losing part of his hearing in the process.

Williams didn't return to baseball again until the end of the 1953 season, playing in just 37 games. Though he didn't qualify for the batting title due to his limited plate appearances, he still managed to hit .407 in limited action.

And injuries also took their toll on the "Splendid Splinter," lessening the playing time of this legendary player.

Williams broke his elbow during the 1950 All-Star Game when he ran into the wall at Comiskey Park. Despite the injury, he didn't say a word to anybody and proceeded to get a base hit in his very next at-bat. In only 89 games of limited action that abbreviated season, Williams still managed to swat 28 homers and drive in 97 runs.

In 1954, Williams broke his collarbone early in Spring Training and missed a third of the season. He still finished with 29 homers and a .345 average.

In his final season, 1960, the 41-year-old Williams hit .316 with 29 homers and 72 RBIs, homering in his final at-bat in Fenway. Even at that advanced age, there was still pop in his bat.

Williams' enormous potential was immediately evident upon arrival for his rookie season in 1939. The "Kid" batted .327 with 31 home runs and 145 runs driven in. Offensively, it was the greatest rookie season in the history of the game.

That began an extraordinary run in which Williams played in 18 All-Star Games, won baseball's elite Triple Crown twice (1942 and 1947) and was named the American League MVP twice (1946 and 1949). Consider this; Williams won the Triple Crown in '42 without being named MVP. Go figure. And in '47, he lost out on the MVP by a single vote -- a year in which a disgruntled Boston writer left him of the ballot.

Williams finished his career with a .344 lifetime batting average, hitting over .300 in every season except 1959, when he was 40-years-old. And, incredibly, Williams collected more RBI's than games played (1949).

All of that got me thinking. Williams hit 521 career homers despite missing all, or parts, of eight different seasons. In particular, what would he have done if he'd played those five seasons instead of fighting for his country?

Williams career extended from 1939 to 1960 -- a 22-year span. In that time, he won six batting titles (between the ages of 23-40), led the American League in on-base percentage a record twelve times, runs scored six times, home runs and RBIs four times, walks eight times, and slugging percentage seven times. However, due to his military commitments, Williams only played 17 seasons. MLB counts the two years he fought in Korea even though he played in only 6 and 37 games, respectively. And, largely due to injury, Williams missed roughly a third of three additional seasons. That leaves us to wonder what he would have done if not robbed of those eight critical years during the prime of his career?

For comparison's sake, Carl Yastrzemski played 23 season for the Sox, yet had over 4,000 more at-bats than Williams. In fact, in spite of his tremendous accomplishments as a hitter, Williams is only fourth on the Red Sox career at-bats list. And, of all 20 Major Leaguers with at least 500 career homers, only one - Mark McGwire - has fewer at bats than Williams. In fact, Ken Griffey Jr. is the only other player besides Williams and McGwire to accomplish the feat with fewer than 8000 at-bats. In contrast, Bonds has already amassed over 9000 career at-bats, and he's still accumulating them every day.

Think of it this way; in the 17 years that Williams played, he averaged 31 home runs per season. Multiply that by the five years he missed to active duty, and you can tack on an additional 155 home runs to his career total of 521. That would make 676 home runs. That would have placed him second to Ruth through 1974, when Hank Aaron eclipsed Ruth's mark.

Now of course this is just theoretical, but it's not much of a leap. After all, Williams hit 38 homers at the age of 39. Even if we exclude the injury years, had Williams averaged 36 homers per year during those lost war years -- not unimaginable since he averaged 36 homers in the two years preceding and following WWII -- he would have joined Ruth as the only other member of the "700 Club." Since that time, only Aaron and Bonds have joined the esteemed group.

Most importantly, Williams' marks were accomplished without the aid of performance enhancing drugs. Williams and his numbers were clean. He wasn't a cheater, unlike Bonds. Bonds' 700 home runs are phony, trumped up, drug-enhanced and simply bogus.

Bonds and Williams have little in common. Unlike Bonds, Williams wasn't a selfish player. Bonds is all about Bonds. However, Williams was the first Hall of Famer to call for the inclusion of Negro Leagues stars in Cooperstown.

Ted Williams repeatedly proved that he was more than just a baseball player -- he was a patriot. As his former Red Sox teammate Mickey McDermott put it, "He was the man John Wayne wanted to be."

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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