Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio

Fifty-six, Four-oh-six, Nineteen Forty-one.  These numbers define an era, when baseball was important to America in ways it can never be again.   They conjure mental pictures and a million stories of the two giants who dominated that era, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

In 1941, the last baseball season before World War II – 70 years ago — Williams, who played from 1939 to 1960, hit for a batting average of .406.  One person, Bill Terry of the NY Giants, did that in the ‘30s, and no one has hit .400 since.  Joe (1936-51) got a hit in 56 consecutive games that year.  The closest anyone has ever come to that is 44.

DiMaggio was a more complete player than Williams, but Williams was the best hitter who ever lived.

DiMaggio could hit for average and for power like Williams. He was also a great fielder, with a rifle arm, who could run like a gazelle.  Williams was decidedly average in those non-hitting elements of the game.

DiMaggio appeared to cover ground in Yankee Stadium’s vast center field effortlessly and elegantly.  The crack of the bat told him where the ball would go, and he was usually waiting for it when it arrived, no matter how hard it was hit or how far he had to run.

He spent his entire life after baseball finding ways to get paid for being Joe DiMaggio. When an earthquake rocked his San Francisco neighborhood in the 1980s, he left his house carrying two garbage bags full of cash.  But if he even suspected someone was trying to get something out of being DiMaggio’s friend (selling an autographed baseball Joe gave him as a gift, for instance), Joe cut him off completely.  He’d walk away if anyone mentioned Marilyn Monroe, the tragic love of his life.

He was an aloof, untouchable hero, movie star handsome, always elegantly coiffed and tailored, always aware of his image.  He hustled on every play because there would be people in the crowd who would only get one chance to see him, and they deserved to see his best.  His teammates lived in fear of the dead-eyed, wordless stare he would give them if they failed to hustle.  He was too great for mortals to approach without his permission, and he could withdraw his permission at any moment, and walk away.  But he was a great teammate, who always paid for them in restaurants and bars.

Joe and Ted’s top salaries were $125,000. Stars today make more than that for a week or aq month. When asked what he would make today, Joe said he would go to the owner’s office and say, “Howdy, partner.”

Williams was loud, brash, opinionated, and fun-loving, but he could sulk like Achilles over an unfriendly or unfair news story.   He really was the person John Wayne pretended to be in the movies. They sounded and swaggered alike, but Williams wasn’t acting.  His swing, and ability to see the pitch, were legendary among his fellow ballplayers.  “He won’t swing at anything bad, and don’t give him anything good,” one young pitcher was advised.

Everybody’s favorite story about Williams is that, on the last day of the 1941season, his average was exactly .3999.  His manager urged him to protect his batting average by sitting out the final day.  It would show in the records as .400.   Williams refused to show cowardice to protect a statistic.  He played both ends of a double-header, went 6-for-8, and finished the season at .406.

Since then, five players have finished as high as.388. Williams hit .388 when he was 40 years old.  On his last at-bat in the Major Leagues, he hit a home run, and true to his lifelong practice, did not tip his cap or come out for a final wave good-bye.  Fenway fans had booed him, and Red Sox writers had sliced and diced him over the years.  All those cuts and bruises, and accusations of laziness and selfishness, still hurt him, and he was not ready to forgive and forget.

The novelist John Updike was in Fenway that day, and he wrote a lyrical, widely reprinted magazine article, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” that described the event and his own conflicted feelings about Ted’s final moments.

In 1986, a writer asked Ted if he thought anyone would ever hit .400 again.  “Sure,” he said, “if they don’t swing at bad balls.”  The problem with that advice is that nobody can see a pitch as well as Ted Williams could, or decide if it was a strike, how it would break, and whether to swing, all in less than 4 tenths of a second.  Admiring friends used to say he could read the label on a spinning record.

For much of the ’41 season, people were asking strangers and co-workers if Joe had gotten his hit yet.  Nobody said, Joe who?  The scoreboard keeper in Fenway Park listened on the radio, and told Williams.  Ted passed the message to Joe’s brother Dominic, who played center field for the Red Sox. Ted said Joe was the best player he ever saw, and Joe said Ted was the best hitter.

Ted’s stormy personality calmed after a few years of marlin fishing, and he became a beloved, almost cuddly, always welcome elder statesman of baseball, especially at the Red Sox spring training camp in Florida and Fenway Park.

He made his final appearance at Fenway at an All-Star Game, when the best 100 players in baseball, who were still alive, were honored. He appeared last, introduced as “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” precisely how Ted always said he wanted to be remembered. Diminished by a series of strokes, Ted rode to the pitcher’s mound in a golf cart.  He was surrounded on the mound by the greatest players of all time, who all wanted to shake hands and talk to him.  Hard to imagine a greater tribute to anyone in any endeavor.

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