The Last Man to Hit above .400


Ted Williams' Records Rise Above Today's Rumours

Baseball is the only field of endeavour where a man can succeed 3 times out of 10
and be considered a good performer.

- Ted Williams

The way those clubs shift against Ted Williams,
I can't understand how he can be so stupid not to accept the challenge to him and hit to left field.

- Ty Cobb

An outfield composed of Cobb, Speaker and Ruth, even with Ruth,
 lacks the combined power of DiMaggio, Musial and Ted Williams.

- Connie Mack

by Sandy Grady

Ted Williams loved to watch John Wayne movies.  By some peculiar osmosis, as he grew older, he began to look and talk like Wayne - same arrogant, big-shouldered swagger, same booming voice, same flashes of combativeness.  But, as others remarked when he died at 83 this past weekend, there was a difference: Williams did everything in life that Wayne merely faked on the screen.  After all, Wayne hadn't racked up all of the hitting records in what was arguably baseball's greatest era.  He hadn't been a pilot in two world wars.  He hadn't flown as John Glenn's wingman in Korea.  Or crash-Ianded a flaming F-9 Panther jet.  Or managed in the major leagues.  Or become a world-renowned fisherman.

Yep, Williams was the real - as opposed to reel - John Wayne.  Maybe that's why Williams seemed to grow more famous in his years after baseball, just as some generals, writers and presidents mysteriously grow in stature.  While his rival Joe DiMaggio became more reclusive, Williams crackled with life, the biggest man in any room he entered.  "If you think you're a big shot in politics and want a lesson in humility," former president George Bush once said, "campaign with Ted Williams at a fishing show in Manchester, New Hampshire."

Williams wasn't a mere celebrity, a glitter awarded to hip-hop artists or teenage girl singers with pierced navels.  He was larger than life.  It wasn't only his edgy, crackling personality.  It was solid achievement, one trophy that lit up every Williams obituary: Last Man To Hit Four Hundred.  There's a purity behind that number - .406 - that illiams achieved in 1941, overshadowed as it was by DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.  It's solid.  Tap it, and you strike granite.  And it's something to ponder as we fans watch the 2002 AII-Star game in basebalI's Era of Rumour - so many whispers of steroid use, we don't know whether hitting records come out of a druggist's vial.  In the new druggy millennium, does Slugger X do it with muscle, sweat and craft or with a pill?

Sure, there were raps against Williams in his prime.  He was moody, egocentric, lackadaisical on defense.  Flopped in the only World Series he played.  He spat at fans, flashed obscene gestures.  Snarled at sportswriters as "gutless knights of the keyboard."  Even when he exited with a final at-bat, glorious 1960 home run, some called him a failure.  But undeniably he was a pure hitter.

I doubt whether Shakespeare as a teenager said, "I'm going to write plays people will watch 400 years from now."  But a callow, spindly Williams wanted people someday to see him on the street and marvel, "There's the greatest hitter who ever lived."  You can make your case for Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.  But that's a fair epitaph for Williams' tombstone.  Lord knows, he was obsessive about it.

I met Williams a couple of times after his playing days.  I remember the megaphone voice spraying baseball's ubiquitous "F" word.  Williams was swinging a rolled-up magazine, giving boozy sportswriters a post-grad seminar in hitting: "Get your good pitch. ...The bat speed comes from the hips. ...Like this."  Swish.

Now we see Williams' graceful, balletic swing only in TV clips.  But we sense how different he was from those in the modern era: a player who performed all of his career with one team; a star who asked for a $25,000 pay cut after a subpar year; a hitter who gave up four-and-a-half of his best years to his country's wars.  But, sadly, there's another contrast: We know Williams' achievements - the six batting titles and two Triple Crowns and the .406 - were done with sinew, eyes and art, not chemicals.

Drugs to hit better?

The Hub Kid was a milkshake drinker who even disliked tobacco smoke.  He'd be aghast at the steroid Generation.  Look, I don't know whether Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Bobby Bonds crushed all of those ESPN SportsCenter dingers courtesy of some druggist's gizmo.  Like you, I read Ken Caminiti's recent Sports Illustrated self-expose that he won a 1996 MVP title with the help of steroids, and his claim that half of baseball's performers are users.  Jose Canseco is reportedly writing a tell-all book claiming the number is higher.  We see sluggers' bodies suddenly bulking up, balls flying over fences, records shredded - Roger Maris' old mark of 61 homers eclipsed seven times in the past four years.

To put it bluntly: I don't believe what I'm seeing.

Maybe some fans in the Prozac Era shrug off the falsehood of Better Baseball Through Chemistry.  Maybe we shouldn't worry that players risk ravaging their health with steroids to jack up homers.  But baseball, above all sports, is embedded in numbers.  Statistics are the game's lifeblood.  We study the box scores, read old baseball cards, memorise the stats books, play fantasy leagues.  Records that once seemed immutable as the Washington Monument may be turning into pharmaceutical junk.

Time for the players union - and owners smug that dope-juiced homers hike their gate receipts - to give baseball a drug-testing policy at least equal to those of pro football and basketball.  A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll shows that 86% of baseball fans and 79% of the players surveyed support such testing.  The game blew its credibility apart With the Black Sox scandal.  Now the Steroid Cheaters may be ripping up its history.

Someday another Ted Williams will come along to break the .400 mark that has stood for six decades.  I hope he does it with a bat, not some phony pill.  Say what you will of Williams - that he was a compulsive, cantankerous egotist.  But he was real.  And so was .406.

Sandy Grady, a former sports and political columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

Source: USA Today Tuesday 9 July 2002 photo resources: Mike Segar, Reuters and the Baseball Hall of Fame Library assembled by Web Bryant USA Today

See also:

bulletWhat Happened to Ted? - 2 dime-size holes were drilled into the head to insert sensors that could detect cracks during the freezing process.  But after "a huge crack" occurred in the head in April and 9 more cracks were reported in July, Williams' head was removed in "neuroseparation" surgery.  His daughter contends her half-brother isn't following Ted's wishes but that he merely wants to preserve their father's DNA, perhaps to sell it...

A Different Kind of Hero

A Tribute to Fred Rogers: 15 Reasons Mister Rogers Was the Best Neighbour Ever

  1. Even Koko the Gorilla Loved Him

    Most people have heard of Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who could speak about 1000 words in American Sign Language, and understand about 2000 in English.  What most people don’t know, however, is that Koko was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fan.  As Esquire reported, when Fred Rogers took a trip out to meet Koko for his show, not only did she immediately wrap her arms around him and embrace him, she did what she’d always seen him do onscreen: she proceeded to take his shoes off!
  2. He Made Thieves Think Twice

    According to a TV Guide piece on him, Fred Rogers drove a plain old Impala for years.  One day, however, the car was stolen from the street near the TV station.  When Rogers filed a police report, the story was picked up by every newspaper, radio and media outlet around town.  Amazingly, within 48 hours the car was left in the exact spot where it was taken from, with an apology on the dashboard.  It read, “If we’d known it was yours, we never would have taken it.”
  3. He Watched His Figure to the Pound!

    In covering Rogers’ daily routine (waking up at 5; praying for a few hours for all of his friends and family; studying; writing, making calls and reaching out to every fan who took the time to write him; going for a morning swim; getting on a scale; then really starting his day), writer Tom Junod explained that Mr Rogers weighed in at exactly 143 pounds every day for the last 30 years of his life.  He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, didn’t eat the flesh of any animals, and was extremely disciplined in his daily routine.  And while I’m not sure if any of that was because he’d mostly grown up a chubby, single child, Junod points out that Rogers found beauty in the number 143.  According to the piece, Rogers came “to see that number as a gift… because, as he says, “the number 143 means ‘I love you.’  It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’  One hundred and forty-three.”
  4. He Saved Both Public Television and the VCR

    Strange but true.  When the government wanted to cut Public Television funds in 1969, the relatively unknown Mister Rogers went to Washington.  Almost straight out of a Capra film, his 5 - 6 minute testimony on how TV had the potential to give kids hope and create more productive citizens was so simple but passionate that even the most gruff politicians were charmed.  While the budget should have been cut, the funding instead jumped from $9 to $22 million.  Rogers also spoke to Congress, and swayed senators into voting to allow VCR’s to record television shows from the home.  It was a cantankerous debate at the time, but his argument was that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family.
  5. He Might Have Been the Most Tolerant American Ever

    Mister Rogers seems to have been almost exactly the same off-screen as he was onscreen.  Despite being an ordained Presbyterian minister, and a man of tremendous faith, Mister Rogers preached tolerance first.  Whenever he was asked to castigate non-Christians or gays for their differing beliefs, he would instead face them and say, with sincerity, “God loves you just the way you are.”  Often this provoked ire from fundamentalists.
  6. He Was Genuinely Curious about Others

    Mister Rogers was known as one of the toughest interviews because he’d often befriend reporters, asking them tons of questions, taking pictures of them, compiling an album for them at the end of their time together, and calling them after to check in on them and hear about their families.  He wasn’t concerned with himself, and genuinely loved hearing the life stories of others.  Amazingly, it wasn’t just with reporters.  Once, on a fancy trip up to a PBS exec’s house, he heard the limo driver was going to wait outside for 2 hours, so he insisted the driver come in and join them (which flustered the host).  On the way back, Rogers sat up front, and when he learned that they were passing the driver’s home on the way, he asked if they could stop in to meet his family.  According to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life — the house supposedly lit up when Rogers arrived, and he played jazz piano and bantered with them late into the night.  Further, like with the reporters, Rogers sent him notes and kept in touch with the driver for the rest of his life.
  7. He Was Colour-Blind

    Literally.  He couldn’t see the colour blue.  Of course, he was also figuratively colour-blind, as you probably guessed.  As were his parents who took in a black foster child when Rogers was growing up.
  8. He Could Make a Subway Car full of Strangers Sing

    Once while rushing to a New York meeting, there were no cabs available, so Rogers and one of his colleagues hopped on the subway.  Esquire reported that the car was filled with people, and they assumed they wouldn’t be noticed.  But when the crowd spotted Rogers, they all simultaneously burst into song, chanting “It’s a wonderful day in the neighborhood.”  The result made Rogers smile wide.

    A few other things:
  9. He Got into TV Because He Hated TV

    The first time he turned one on, he saw people angrily throwing pies in each other’s faces.  He immediately vowed to use the medium for better than that.  Over the years he covered topics as varied as why kids shouldn’t be scared of a haircut, or the bathroom drain (because you won’t fit!), to divorce and war.
  10. He was an Ivy League Dropout

    Rogers moved from Dartmouth to Rollins College to pursue his studies in music.
  11. He Composed All the Songs on the Show, and over 200 Tunes
  12. He Was a Perfectionist, and Disliked Ad Libbing

    He felt he owed it to children to make sure every word on his show was thought out.
  13. Michael Keaton Got His Start on the Show as an Assistant

    He helped puppeteer and operate the trolley.
  14. Several Characters on the Show Are Named for His Family

    Queen Sara is named after Rogers’ wife, and the postman Mr McFeely is named for his maternal grandfather who always talked to him like an adult, and reminded young Fred that he made every day special just by being himself.  Sound familiar?  It was the same way Mister Rogers closed every show.
  15. The Sweaters

    Every one of the cardigans he wore on the show had been hand-knit by his mother.

Tom Junod wrote a wonderful profile of Fred Rogers and an obituary for him.  They are two lovely pieces.  Mental Floss researcher Kara Kovalchik deserves credit for digging them up on an internet archive located here.

Source: 23 May 2007

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