GOES 6 FOR 8 AS BOSTON SPLITS TWIN BILL WITH A'S
PHILADELPHIA, SEPT. 28, 1941—You can say this about the Kid: He does some damage. He hit a shot here today in Shibe Park that punched a hole in one of Connie Mack's loudspeaker horns way out there in right center. You add that bit of destruction to all the lights he took out in Fenway last year while he was taking target practice with a .22 on the 400-foot sign, and you've got to admit that Ted Williams is a player who brings a lot of overhead to the ballpark. If the Kid continues to dismantle American League stadiums piece by piece, well, the boys in the press box will have to come up with another nickname for him—maybe the Splendid Splinter or some such. (Hey, you heard it here first.)
Of course, if the Kid turns in a couple more .400 seasons like this one for Boston, Mr. Tom Yawkey will gladly pay Mr. Mack for the horn, even on top of the $18,000 salary he pays Williams. And don't be surprised to see the Red Sox owner give his young slugger a raise. It's well known that Mr. Yawkey thinks the world of the Kid—just last year the two spent a couple afternoons together shooting pigeons inside Fenway with 20-gauge shotguns.
But on Sunday against the last-place Athletics in Philadelphia, in a season-ending doubleheader, Williams worked alone and used no firepower other than his Louisville Slugger. Including that bolt off the speaker on the right-center wall (after the game, Williams said it was the hardest he'd ever hit a ball), he was 6 for 8 in the twin bill and—whew!—finished the season with a .406 average. Keep in mind, it's been 11 years since anyone topped that magic mark; the last was Bill Terry, who batted .401 back in 1930 for the New York Giants.
Williams, who's just 23 and looks like he has a few more .400 seasons ahead of him, provided more drama in getting this .400 than he would have liked. He was hitting as high as .438 in June and .414 in mid-August, and people were wondering if he'd break Hugh Duffy's record of .440, set before the turn of the century. That was the big question.
When all was said and done today, Williams broke no records and made little news—not like Joe DiMaggio did with his 56-game hitting streak earlier this season. But we've been watching the Kid three years now, and the boys knew Williams would hit .400 before DiMaggio. Hey, even during the Yankee Clipper's great streak, Williams outhit him .412 to .408.
But the Kid cooled with the weather, and in a recent 10-day stretch he dropped nearly a point a day. With only the final three games in Philadelphia left to play, he stood at .401. That meant he'd need to go 5 for 12 to finish at .400. That's just the way things stood. Trust us. Some of the boys figured it out.
The two off days before the last series gave all of us too much time to think. Some of the writers played with the numbers, and within a day one of them had discovered that Williams would dip below .400 as soon as he went 0 for 2. Decimal points were being carried out so many places that the sports page looked like a science journal. Even Joe Cronin, the Red Sox manager, was agonizing. The pennant race, of course, ended weeks ago as the Yankees ran away with it, and Boston had already clinched second. So Cronin thought about not playing Williams at all in Philly. In fact, he approached the Kid on Friday and offered to sit him out, to protect that .401. But Williams told Cronin to pass the word that he wouldn't take any mollycoddling.
Still, the skipper was in a dither. Cronin gathered some of us in the lobby before Saturday's game and announced his plans. He said, "You've got to admire the kid for being so courageous, but if he gets his hits, I may yank him in the second game Sunday."
On Friday, Williams went with a catcher and a coach to Shibe Park and took extra batting practice, experimenting with the placement of his right foot, pointing the toe toward second base one time and more toward third another. A Phill writer thought that was a sign of desperation and wrote, "He's worried, though you can't get him to say so. He must be a little on the panic side."
But the rest of us knew, that's just Ted. He's always been nuts for batting practice, and he told us recently that one of the keys to his hitting this season was Boston's trade for Joe Dobson last December. Dobson hasn't pitched much for the team, but he's become Williams's personal BP pitcher. This season, if you got to the park early, you'd see the two of them out there, Williams saying, "O.K., Joe, ninth inning in Detroit, bases loaded, two out." Williams is never casual about his hitting.
Anyway, what the Philly writer forgot to write was that the Kid was ripping shot after shot off the rightfield wall (probably trying to locate some stadium accessory he could destroy, come to think of it). "I want to hit over .400," Williams told some of the boys afterward. "But I'm going to play all three games here even if I don't hit a ball out of the infield. The record's no good unless it's made in all the games." Some of the boys, knowing the skipper's plans, had to stifle smiles.
Down the stretch, most people have been rooting for the Kid. In Yankee Stadium three weeks ago, the fans booed Yank pitcher Lefty Gomez when he walked Williams with the bases loaded. In Detroit in late August, Harry Heilmann (who hit .403 for the Tigers in 1923) came down on the field from the Tiger radio booth, took Williams aside and said, "Now, forget about that short fence. Just hit the ball where you want it."
In Philadelphia there was at least one guy rooting against Williams: A's coach Al Simmons. Simmons hit .390 one year with the A's, and that apparently was as high as he felt anyone should bat. "How much do you want to bet you don't hit .400?" he groused to Williams before Saturday's game.
Sure enough, the Kid got only one hit in four at bats Saturday, and his average fell—we were back to doing high-level arithmetic again—to .39955. A lot of people might be inclined to round that off to .400, and maybe with any other average you would. But the papers had it right on Sunday morning: WILLIAMS DROPS BELOW .400. There was no getting around that. You could stretch .3995555 all the way under the masthead, and it still wouldn't amount to .400. All the same, the boys ganged up on Cronin, wondering whether he'd bench Williams and try to save the day on a technicality. But everybody knew—and Cronin did too—that it was too late now.
Saturday night Williams walked the streets of Philly with the clubhouse boy, Johnny Orlando. Williams loves to walk, and he tends to take his strolls with unlikely folks. His best friends are policemen, theater managers and, of course, Johnny. According to Johnny, the two of them walked about 10 miles; every now and then Johnny would slip into a tavern for a quick Scotch while the Kid would stop in a malt shop for a milk shake. You knew something was up because Ted didn't get back to the hotel until 10:30. He's usually in bed by 10.
So it all came down to the last day. Never mind the Kid's terrific year; never mind his game-winning homer in the All-Star Game in Detroit or even the 374-pound tuna he caught on an off day earlier this summer. If he missed .400, it was going to feel like a failed season.
Williams was scheduled to face one of Mr. Mack's rookies, Dick Fowler, and Ted says that facing a rookie is always at least one lost at bat until you figure him out. Williams was greeted at the plate by A's catcher Frankie Hayes, who told him, "Mr. Mack says we have to go right after you and pitch to you." That was good news: In earlier games this season Mr. Mack's particular idea of putting the shift on Williams was to relocate the strike zone to Delaware County. In their last eight games with Boston, the A's pitchers had walked Williams 14 times.
So his first time up against Fowler, Williams greeted a strike like a gift and rifled a drive in the hole between first and second for a single. That may or may not have lifted him over .400. Before we could calculate it, the Kid homered and then singled two more times. In the ninth inning he reached first on an error.
It was a wild game, with the Red Sox winning 12-11, but the only numbers anyone paid attention to were 4 for 5. Williams was up to .404. He'd have to go hitless (one of the boys figured it out between games) in his next five at bats to drop below .400. Anyway, in the Kid's first at bat in the second game, against another rookie, Pied Caligiuri, he singled to right. And then, in the fourth inning, he locked on that loudspeaker at the top of the wall and had to settle for a double, while Mr. Mack tallied the damages in his notebook. Williams finally popped up in the seventh inning, the first time all day he made an out, just before the game was called on account of darkness. Final: Athletics 7, Red Sox 1, Williams .4057.
"Can you imagine that kid?" Cronin said after the game. "Four singles, a double and a homer when the chips were down." Cronin wasn't the only happy fellow. The boys breathed their own sigh of relief at not having to figure any more decimal places.
Afterward one of the writers congratulated Williams on the feat and mentioned the Most Valuable Player Award to him. "Do you think there's a chance I could win it?" Williams asked. But even he knows there is none, not with what the Clipper has done. "Even if I don't," the Kid said, "I'll be satisfied with this. What, a thrill! I wasn't saying much about it before the game, but I never wanted anything harder in my life."
Some of us who were wise to the 10:30 milk shake nodded to each other. The thing is, we all know we're going to be down this pike again. The Kid is just 23, getting to know the pitchers, approaching his prime. Mark these words: By the time Ted Williams is done, .400 won't be such a magic number.
Cronin (left) enjoyed the Kid's big day, but Mr. Mack suffered some damage.