Jewish World Review July 15, 2002 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | There are two kinds of people in the world and never the twain shall meet: Chocolate or vanilla. Scotch or bourbon. Mountains or beach. Name your own great division of the species.
In the Baseball Nation, it's Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. Art or science. You pays your money and takes your choice at the nearest sports bar. Or just the office water cooler. When news came that Ted Williams had proved mortal at 83, the debate started again.
On paper, it's no contest. Did you see Ted Williams' stats in Saturday's paper? Fifth highest all-time batting average, 12th in RBIs, 12th in home runs, third in walks, second only to Babe Ruth in slugging percentage … .
But not even in baseball, where numbers have the power words do in literature, do they tell the whole story or even the most important part of it. DiMaggio had something beyond the numerical: an indefinable grace. Ted Williams said it: "DiMaggio even looks good striking out." As in literature, style is all. And you can't put a number on it.
Besides, there's one impossible number that belongs, surely forever, to DiMaggio: 56. The number of consecutive games in which he hit in the magnificent summer of '41. Ted Williams may have the numbers, but DiMaggio has The number.
Ted Williams was a magnetic figure, too, but his effect was wholly different. I remember seeing him play, almost at the end of his career, a legend in the flesh. It was a night game at Comiskey Park, I remember the foul ball I almost snagged, the blonde I was with, and Ted Williams. But the only recollection that has remained vivid is the one of Williams. Even the way he waited on deck, not quite resting on one knee, wholly concentrated on what he was about to do.
It was as if for him the fans, the ballpark, the universe didn't exist. I remember the way he swung, from far back in the box, straight and slightly up like a rifle shot to right field. Or beyond it.
Ted Williams' pride went all the way through, which is one definition of honor. He was within a hair of hitting .400 his third year with Boston, and could have sat out the last double-header of the season to preserve that high-water mark. (His average would have been rounded up to .400.) But he insisted on doing it right. He wound up hitting 6 for 8, which gave him .406 for the season. It was his finest hour, a case of honor rewarded.
Ted Williams was no mystic. Indeed, he demystified hitting, the way a scholar would a poem, a physicist an atom, breaking it down into its constituent parts: "From then on, I always used lighter bats, usually thirty-three or four ounces, sometimes as light as thirty-one. In the earlier part of the year, I'd go for the heavier ones. … Weight tolerance can be a big thing with me."
Williams turned hitting into a science. Much as he did fishing. Or flying a fighter jet in Korea, where for a time he was John Glenn's wing man. He explained things. Systematically. When he had a mind to. For he did not suffer fools or fandom gladly.
Joe DiMaggio would no more explain himself than a Greek statue would. Maybe he couldn't. Any more than the vessel can explain the wine. When he wrote his as-told-to book, "Lucky to Be a Yankee," he made a point of not explaining. ("It has always been a theory of mine that hitting is a God-given gift, like being able to run fast, or throw hard.")
Years later, when a young catcher named Berra asked him how to handle a certain pitcher, DiMaggio non-explained: "Just walk up to the plate and hit the ball."
Ted Williams, who never minded being rude, was always the perfect gentleman about DiMaggio, his great rival. Science doesn't have anything against art; it wishes only to understand, dissect, appreciate it, unaware that it is destroying what it admires.
DiMaggio, to whom grace meant never showing the struggle it took to be a natural, resented Williams -- as art will resent science. DiMaggio wanted the mysteries kept intact, and not just those on the field but off.
"All I want out of life," Ted Williams once told a friend, "is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.'"
All Joe DiMaggio sought, on and off the field, though he was never open enough to admit it, was perfection.
Each fulfilled his ambition in his own, still fascinating way. They were two different species of players, and maybe of men. And they gave baseball the best of both.
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