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Jewish World Review July 12, 2002 / 3 Menachem-Av, 5762

Seth Gitell

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Ancient rivalry: Williams vs. DiMaggio | When your office is just two blocks away from Fenway Park, it's hard to escape the memory of Ted Williams. One of the best local stories about Williams involves the time police stopped the slugger as he drove a convertible up Comm Ave. The local police were concerned because they knew the vehicle belonged to Frank Kennedy, who pulled the stick at the Dugout - a famous ballplayer hangout (described in the summer issue of Boston University's Bostonia) located halfway between Fenway Park and Braves Field. Dugout regulars would likely have debated the eternal question: who was the better player, Williams or Joe DiMaggio?

To get a sense of the Williams-DiMaggio rivalry, I called author Richard Ben Cramer, who penned both a 546-page biography of DiMaggio (Free Press, 2000) and a 13-page Esquire profile, in June 1986. I couldn't pin Cramer down on whom he considered the better player, but the author did tell me who he thought handled the rivalry better: Williams.

" He was always large toward Joe, " says Cramer. " In 1941, when Ted hit .406 and got edged out for the MVP [by DiMaggio], he said, 'It took the big guy to beat me.' " DiMaggio had, after all, hit successfully in 56 consecutive games.

Much has been made of the fact that DiMaggio -- not Williams -- won the MVP in 1941 and again in 1947, when Williams had enjoyed perhaps an even better year. Williams lost that year only because Boston Globe sportswriter Mel Webb omitted the Splendid Splinter from his ballot altogether. (Note: in its over-3000-word obituary, the Globe reported that Williams " lost the 1947 MVP race to the Yankee Clipper by a single vote, " but failed to mention the role its own columnist played in the outcome.)

Where Williams was gracious to DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper was spiteful toward the Kid. " It galled him that when they thought of hitting .400, they thought of Ted and not Joe, " says Cramer. Asked what he thought of Williams as a player, DiMaggio said Williams was " the best left-handed hitter I've ever seen, " Cramer recalls. The author notes that DiMaggio was even meaner in private, saying of Williams, " He throws like a broad and runs like a ruptured duck. "

Interestingly, when asked by Bob Lobel of Boston's WBZ-TV's Sports Final if he would have ever left Boston, Williams said he would have; on the same show, both Bruin Bobbie Orr and Celtic Larry Bird said they were happy to have played their whole careers here. Tellingly, Williams did not mention DiMaggio, but he did invoke Babe Ruth, the former Red Sox player who became a Yankee. The Big Apple publicity machine had helped establish Ruth as the dominant player of his youth, Williams said. Left unsaid - but probably not unconsidered - was what Williams believed the world would have thought of him if he had played in New York and DiMaggio in Boston. That he didn't say it is why writers like Cramer put Williams ahead of DiMaggio in the contest of class.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Seth Gitell