It was 40 summers ago that Ted Williams joined one of baseball's most exclusive clubs by batting over .400. The feat was impressive at the time, though hardly earthshaking (it had been accomplished only 11 years earlier, by Bill Terry in 1930, and had been fairly common throughout the 1920s). But four decades have pased since then without any major leaguer being able to reach the magic figure -- and as the years go by, the achievement looms larger and larger.
Only three batters, in fact, have even come close during that span -- and one of them was the Splendid Splinter himself with an amazing .388 mark in 1957 at the age of 39. Rod Carew matched that average 20 years later in 1977, and of course George Brett made an exciting bid last year before tailing off to .390 at the end.
Will someone else eventually hit .400, or do today's longer seasons, frequent night games, transcontinental travel, and proliferation of relief pitchers preclude the possibility?
Williams, for one, believes it's only a matter of time. "Sure it's possible, " he says. "You have to have everything get together in one year." Both Carew and Brett are capable of reaching .400, he says; so, perhaps, is Kansas City's Willie Wilson, whose potential Williams thinks "is unlimited."
The story of Ted's own assault on the mark in 1941 is an integral part of baseball lore.
The slender left-handed hitter from San Diego, then in only the third year of his illustrious career with the Boston Red Sox, entered the final day of the season batting .39955, which rounded off to .400. The Sox were playing a doubleheader at Philadelphia against the Athletics, and Boston manager Joe Cronin offered to let Williams sit out the games to protect his average.
But the confident 23-year-old was not one to back down from a challenge. "If I couldn't hit .400 all the way," Williams said afterward, "I didn't deserve it."
He went 6-for-8 and finished the season hitting .406.
Although he devotes most of his time these days to fishing off the Florida Keys or in New Brunswick, Canada, Williams keeps his hand in the game, journeying each spring to Winter Haven, Fla., to instruct Red Sox minor leaguers in the fundamentals of hitting. He teaches the youngsters to study every pitcher and every pitch, to change their swing with two strikes, to figure out before they go up to the plate which of a particular pitcher's offerings (slider , curve, fastball) they'll look for.
Placing a huge hand at his chin, just above a neck like a steel beam, the master craftsman of the batter's box says, "Fifty percent of hitting is from here up."
He should know. During a career in whcih he lost five prime years to military service, he hit .344 with 521 home runs, and 1,839 runs batted in. The six-time american League batting champion and two-time Triple Crown winner (1942 and 1947) ranks second all-time in both slugging percentage (.634) and walks (2, 019), trailing only Babe Ruth in each case. As Williams will tell you, how often a man earns free passes is a key to evaluating his intelligence and effectiveness as a hitter. Woe to the young Red Sox who doesn't know how many walks he drew the previous season when Williams asks him.
The other aspect of hitting Williams stresses is mechanics.
As Ted talks about modern hitters his disdain for much that he sees is quickly apparent. If higher averages are attainable today, it's not because the hitters are all that good, he says, but rather because the ball "is 15 to 20 percent livelier" than in his day and gets through the infield faster on artificial turf. today's hitters "don't get cocked and they don't get their hips ahead of their hands," he complains. It is such "glaring faults" he tries to correct with young Sox players each spring.
The rest of the year Williams watches baseball from afar, following the Red Sox fortunes, rooting against their archrivals, the New York Yankees. Once the game's highest paid player at $125,000, he looks at contamporary players' salaries and admits, "I'm envious, but I'm not perturbed or jealous. If the traffic will bear it, I say more power to 'em."
Given the choice, through, Williams apparently prefers looking backward. The names of the men he played with and against roll off his tongue in a litany of the game's greats and near-greats: Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Dom and Joe DiMaggio, Don Larson, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Bill Dickey, Red Rolfe, Mel Harder, Eddie Lopat, Phil Rizzuto, Charlie Keller, Luis Aparicio ("the greatest shortstop I ever say," Williams insists).
As Williams tells his stories and demonstrates his theories, the years fall away. Twenty-one seasons removed from the playing field he remains a star, an almost mythic figure. The physical power and emotional intensity that made him probably the greatest all-around hitter of his generation still eanble him to command a room, a conversation, just as he once commanded home plate.
That his batting feat of 40 years ago yet commands a special, exalted place in the record books seems only appropriate.