Nearly every pennant-winning baseball team has one player who may be singled out as "the difference" between finishing first and second. In the case of the post-World War II Yankees, it was Joe DiMaggio. In 1950, when the Phillies triumphed in the National League, it was Jim Konstanty. And last year, of course, it was the Giants' Willie Mays.
It is much rarer, however, to discover one man who is capable of lifting up a weak, second-division team and sending it on a run against the league leaders, possibly fast enough to become a pennant contender. Yet the 1955 Boston Red Sox are that kind of a team and Ted Williams is that kind of a man.
It has not always been so simple to evaluate the psychological worth of Williams as opposed to his purely physical contributions to the Red Sox cause. Usually morose, often sullen, reticent to a fault, Ted was a man who worried, at least on the surface, only about Ted. He did his job magnificently and let a succession of Boston managers, general managers and fans worry about whether the remaining members of the team were doing theirs. Forced into a succession of comebacks by military service and injuries, Williams on each return to the Red Sox lineup produced a terrific display of fence-rattling fireworks. This did not, however, inevitably generate an accompanying upward surge by the team as a whole.
But this year has been different and there is no one, from Manager Mike Higgins to the batboy, who denies the difference has been Ted. A month ago the Red Sox were battling tooth and claw to stay out of seventh place. Now, the hottest item in the American League, they have moved up to challenge the brash young Detroit Tigers for a spot in the first division. They could, conceivably, go much higher.
At first it was a slow process, almost as if the Red Sox were hanging back, waiting to see if this piquant stranger was really the formidable Ted Williams of old. Then, convinced, they started up the ladder. They won five games, lost one, won four more, lost another, won five more in a row. In a period of three weeks, hitting and running and fielding like no Red Sox team has in almost a decade, Boston won 14 of 16 games and moved into a tie for fourth place. Then, with Williams sitting out four games with a sore back, they suffered a temporary derailment at the hands of the sharp-pitching Chicago White Sox. But it had been an eye-popping streak, made even more impressive because it was at the expense of good ball clubs like Cleveland (which lost only two games to Boston during the entire 1954 season) and Detroit, and it started the leaders worriedly peering back over their shoulders.
NO RUST ON TED'S SWING
Certainly some of this success was attributable directly to Williams' hitting. He walloped a triple and a double in his second game on May 29 and the next day hit a home run. Plagued by improper conditioning, a cold and a recurring back ailment, the big slugger had some bad days; but he had some good ones, too. A few examples: two home runs and a single June 10 when Boston beat Detroit, 5-2; a home run and two doubles June 14 (Boston 12, Kansas City 4); two home runs June 19; a three-run homer which beat the Tigers two days later; three doubles on June 22. At the end of his first 21 games, Ted was hitting .387, had driven in 24 runs and slammed 9 homers.
But if Ted's physical contribution to the drive was great, there was an even bigger reason why the Red Sox were winning. Suddenly revitalized by the new, almost incredible, spark-throwing Williams personality, Boston became a good, hard-hitting ball club where before it had been languishing along at a 17-24 pace. The simultaneous improvement in so many individuals was too marked to be coincidental. The big guy was back, the Sox were glad and they began to show it. Jackie Jensen, rapidly gaining stature as one of the game's real stars at the plate, in the field and on the bases, has always maintained he hit better with Ted in the lineup. He promptly began to prove his point. Rookies Norm Zauchin and Billy Klaus profited by some batting tips from Williams, and have been clubbing the ball at a terrific pace. But not only have the rookies and younger players like Sammy White and Jim Piersall responded; so have such veterans as Billy Goodman and Grady Hatton. And, for that matter, so has the pitching staff which Yankee Manager Casey Stengel several weeks ago called "a whole lot better than people have been giving them credit for," but which was suffering mainly from a shortage of runs. Now the Sox are getting runs.
"It's meant a lot to have him back," says Higgins. "Not only the hits he gets but he takes the pressure off the rest of the team so they can play better ball and puts pressure on the opposition, so they can't do so good. It is more up here," he adds, tapping his forehead, "than down here," clasping his hands around an imaginary bat.
This is, indeed, something new. Always a man willing to work with young hitters, both on his own team and around the league, Williams has been doing even more of that than usual. Klaus, Zauchin, Jensen, Piersall and others credit Ted with boosting their averages. So does Detroit's phenomenal youngster, Al Kaline, who said a ten-minute session with Williams was the most valuable discussion of hitting he has ever heard.
In actual combat, Williams seems as eager as a rookie. Before, when Williams hit a home run, he trotted around the bases, face set, and accepted the few congratulatory handclasps with all the warmth of the bonefish he likes to catch during the off-season. Now he clearly shows his joy and, when he gets back to the dugout, the whole squad, including Higgins, climbs all over him, pounding his back and shouting obscene pleasantries.
Whatever the reasons behind this marvelous temperamental transformation, its impact on the Red Sox is noticeable off the field as well as on. The old Williams was respected and sometimes feared by his teammates, but was not much liked and was seldom publicly praised. Now listen: "He's fantastic," says Eddie Joost. "The greatest, that's all," adds Hatton. And Higgins, when informed at one point that Williams was hitting .415, only nodded and said: "That's about right for him. That's the level hitter he is. I often wonder why he doesn't hit .500 every season."
As an example of the responsibility Ted bears, and the Red Sox's faith that he will meet it, consider an occurrence in the June 10 game against Detroit. With the score tied and two out, Klaus lined a double down the right field line. When everyone looked up at second base, however, Billy wasn't there—he'd stopped at first. Later he explained his actions. "I figured if I went to second, leaving first base open, they'd walk Ted. If I stayed on first, they'd pitch to him and we might get some runs." Klaus was perfectly right. The Tigers pitched to Williams. He hit a 3-1 pitch into the right field seats.
"That's not what we mean by 'skin diving,' Miss La Farge!"