“The greatest team I played for was the Marine Corps.”
“Ted was everything that was right about the game of baseball. If you really think about it, he was everything that is right about this country.”
–Lloyd McClendon, Pittsburgh Pirates manager
“At age 70, Ted was still big and loud. If he needed to, he still looked plenty rugged enough to crush a fastball into the bleachers, yank a tarpon out of teal water, shotgun a duck on the wing, dead-stick a flaming fighter jet on a runway, or chase a sportswriter out of a clubhouse.”
“Ted Williams was one of the best wing men I ever had. His eyesight was so good that he could see the enemy planes coming before any of us could. He’d spot ’em coming and tell the rest of us.”
–John Glenn, U.S. Senator, Astronaut, Marine Corps fighter pilot
When I was a kid, there was only one game in town, and that was major league baseball. Thanks to my grandfather, I started following the game before I’d lost my baby-teeth. He’d inherited his love of the sport from his father, and between the two of them, they’d seen just about every great player that ever lived. My great-grandfather was in the stands when the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first ever professional team, defeated the Philadelphia Athletics 27-18, enroute to a 57-0 season in 1869. I mention this so you know that when those two debated the greatest hitter of all-time, they had a rock-solid basis for comparison. My great-grandfather was certain no one was ever better than Ty Cobb, the “Georgia Peach”, a sterling batsman and an even more accomplished misanthrope. My grandfather, having reached the age of majority just as the era of the home run began, argued in favor of Babe Ruth from the left side and old “Double X” Jimmy Foxx from the right; but one evening, as the debate shuttlecocked back and forth around the kitchen table, Pop cocked his head, took a puff on his cigar, and said, “But y’know, that Williams of the Bostons is pretty good too.”
Ted Williams was a great hitter to be sure, but he was an even greater American, sacrificing five prime years of his career and nearly losing his life in the service of his country. Dean Hybl speculates in The Lost Years of Ted Williams what Ted could have accomplished:
Many still consider Williams the best pure hitter in baseball history, but had he played those five prime years that he lost to military service his overall totals would have squelched any doubt about who was the best hitter of all-time.
Williams finished his career with a .344 average, 2,654 hits, 521 home runs and 1,839 RBI. Because he missed time during two different periods of his career, I compiled the numbers for the six years before and after the time he missed from 1942-1945 and then did the same thing for the six years around his absence in 1952 and 1953. Because Williams did play briefly during the 1952 and 1953 seasons, I did include those numbers when figuring his projected numbers for those years.
Even with missing nearly five full baseball seasons, Ted Williams is still ranked among the greatest hitters of all-time.
If the totals for the five seasons he missed were added to his ledger, Williams would have hit .342 with 3,452 hits, 663 home runs and 2,380 RBI. Those numbers would have lifted him from 69th to sixth in career hits; from 18th to fourth in home runs; and from 13th to first in runs batted in.
When Ted died at the age of 83 in 2002, Mike Meserole described his most harrowing Korean War mission in a piece for ESPN titled There Goes The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived:
Williams turned out to be baseball’s longest-serving military warrior, missing three full seasons (1943-45) during World War II and most of the 1952 and ’53 seasons when the Korean War was going on. Trained as a Navy fighter pilot and slated for combat in the South Pacific in ’45, Japan surrendered before he could see action. Seven years later, at age 33, his reserve unit was recalled to active duty with the Marines and he flew 39 missions over the Korean mainland.
On Feb. 19, 1953, flying low on a bombing run far above the 38th parallel, Williams’ F-9 Panther was hit by small arms fire and started leaking hydraulic fluid. With his plane shaking badly (he didn’t know it was also on fire), his control panel lit up with warning lights, and his radio dead, Williams followed a fellow pilot back to base, flying without hydraulics and wrestling his stick all the way.
Approaching the landing field, an on-board explosion blew off one of the wheel doors and Williams was forced to land his crippled jet at 225 miles-an-hour and on one wheel. When the F-9 finally came to a stop at the end of the runway after skidding over 2,000 feet, Williams walked away from the burning wreck as firemen hosed it down with foam. Fortunate but enraged, he reacted to nearly auguring in as if he had just popped out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth — he yanked off his helmet and slammed it to the ground.
Ted Williams was brash and profane–and a hero on and off the diamond. He hated the news media, fickle fans, and the wearing of neckties. He loved hitting, fishing, the Marine Corps, and dogs. That’s a great man in anyone’s book.