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Jewish World Review July 8, 2002 / 28 Tamuz, 5762

George Will

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Our greatest hitter ever | There is no joy in Red Sox nation, aka New England, or in any heart where baseball matters. When Ted Williams arrived in Boston at age 20 in 1939, a spindly 6-foot-3, the Splendid Splinter said, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.' " When he died Friday at age 83, many people did say that, and no one said they were foolish.

When, as a 12-year-old in San Diego in 1930, he heard that the Giants' Bill Terry had batted .401, "I got my little bat, ran out to our little back yard, and began to swing." His swing became baseball's gold standard.

In 1939, a golden moment on the eve of dark years, Bob Feller, Williams and Joe DiMaggio were 20, 21 and 24 respectively. "I can't stand it, I'm so good," Williams used to exclaim in his youthful ebullience.

In 1941, when DiMaggio mesmerized the nation with his still unmatched 56-game hitting streak, Williams did what has not been done in six decades since -- batted over .400. Batting .3995 going into the season's last day, a doubleheader in Philadelphia against the Athletics, he went 6 for 8, finishing at .406.

There was no sacrifice fly rule in effect that year (today a batter is not charged with an at-bat if he hits a fly that scores a runner). Had there been, his average would have been about 10 points higher. Biographer Ed Linn says that had Williams not lost the 4 1/2 years he spent as an aviator in the Second World War and Korea, he probably would rank first or second in runs, runs batted in, total bases, extra-base hits and perhaps home runs.

An alloy of innocence and arrogance, young Williams came to Boston when it had four morning and four evening local newspapers engaged in perpetual circulation wars. He became grist for their mills, and his wars with the sportswriters brought out the worst in him, and cost him. He won two most valuable player awards and finished second four times. Several of those times he would have won had he not had such poisonous relations with the voting press. A writer said that when Williams retired, Boston knew how Britain felt when it lost India -- diminished but relieved.

He is one of only two players (the other was Rogers Hornsby) to win a triple crown (highest batting average, most home runs and runs batted in) twice, and he would have won a third if the Tigers' George Kell had not beaten him for the 1949 batting title .3429 to .34275. If the sacrifice fly rule had been in effect that year, Williams would have beaten Kell, who would have had one fewer sacrifice fly. Williams won six batting titles, including one hitting .388 in 1957, when his 38-year-old legs surely cost him five infield hits, enough to put him over .400 again.

He used a postal scale to check that humidity had not added an ounce to the weight of his bats. Challenged to find from among six bats the one that was half an ounce heavier than the others, he quickly did. He once returned to the maker a batch of his Louisville Sluggers because he sensed that the handles were not quite right. The handles were off by five-thousandths of an inch.

Like many great players, he remembered, obsessively. That grand slam home run in Minneapolis before coming to the big leagues? "Fifth inning, three-and-two count, low fastball."

He hit a home run in his last time at bat -- twice. He assumed his career was over -- and he homered -- when the Marine Corps called him to Korea (where No. 9 flew an F-9 jet as wingman for a squadron commander named John Glenn). And on Sept. 26, 1960, in the final at-bat of his final game, in Boston's gray autumnal gloom, he homered. Among the only 10,454 fans was John Updike, who wrote "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu": "For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

Never, not even after that farewell home run, did Williams tip his hat to the cheering fans. "Gods," wrote Updike, "do not answer letters."

Late in life Williams said that often he fell asleep hearing in his head three songs -- "The Star-Spangled Banner," "The Marines' Hymn" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." An American life.

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