October 30, 2020

Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived

November 5, 2008 by · 11 Comments 

I’m currently finishing up my second book, “It Ain’t So: An Alternative History of the Chicago Black Sox,” but I’d like to contribute something to the site, so here’s an article I wrote about Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams last year.

Ted Williams’ dream was to walk down the street and hear passersby say “there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” On the streets of Boston no one would dare say otherwise. In New York it’s Babe Ruth, who not only hit them far and often but occasionally would tell you when. Elsewhere, historians would argue for Ty Cobb and his gaudy career average of .366. Recently Barry Bonds, warts and all, has staked a claim to the title. Red Sox fans cite the fact that “Teddy Ballgame” missed five prime years of his career to fly planes in two wars and his statistics pale in comparison to what he might have done had he had those years to further terrorize pitchers.

I had often wondered the same thing myself. How would Ted Williams have done had he not missed those years? With the help of a computer and a baseball simulation program* I have simulated the 1943-45 and 1952-53 seasons. The following article was written as if Williams had actually played those seasons. Some of the content is pure fiction based on the results of the simulation. My intent was to, once and for all, answer the age-old question “who was the greatest hitter who ever lived?” The answer, undoubtedly, is Ted Williams.

At six foot four and 172 pounds the cocky, rail-thin outfielder looked like anything but a power hitter when he joined Boston in 1939, despite having blasted 43 home runs for Minneapolis a year earlier. Williams was handed the starting right field job when Ben Chapman was traded to Cleveland for Denny Galehouse and he would make the best of it.

The lanky outfielder began his incredible run with a rookie season that set standards by which all rookies have since been measured. He finished with a .327 average, 31 home runs and 145 runs batted in, setting modern-day rookie records for RBISs and walks that still stand. Setting records would become a habit for the young man from San Diego.

Nineteen-forty held high hopes for Ted as the Red Sox moved the bullpens in right field, cutting the distance from home plate to 304 feet in right and 380 in right center. The Sox had hoped this would add at least another 10 home runs to his total. He was also moved from right field to left field, widely regarded as easier to play than the notorious sun field in right. Surprisingly the fans, who felt that Ted was receiving special treatment, began to boo him. Sportswriters chastised him in an effort to sell more newspapers. Williams blasted back and his relationship with the media was forever tarnished. He ended the 1940 season with a .344 average, but had only 23 home runs and 113 RBIs. Only a handful of his home runs came at Fenway Park with a mere four landing in the bullpens. But finishing only eight points behind DiMaggio in the batting race gave him the confidence he needed to begin what would be the most awesome display of hitting in baseball history.

At the start of the 1941 season Williams predicted that no one could stop him and no one did. The “Splendid Splinter” went on a five-year tear that rivaled any five-year stretch of Babe Ruth’s career. Nursing a swollen ankle, which he had injured in spring training, Ted could only pinch hit for most of April. When he entered the starting lineup for good on April 29th he was hitting an even .400. On May 15th one of the greatest battles in baseball history would begin. New York’s Joe DiMaggio had a hit against Chicago, while Williams singled against Cleveland. Both men would continue to terrorize pitchers for the next two months.

While DiMaggio’s streak took center stage, Ted continued to quietly rack up hits. DiMaggio’s streak ended at 56 consecutive games on July 17th, while Williams was hovering around .400. Heading into the last three games of the season Ted was hitting .401. He finished the 1941 season going 7-for-12 and raised his average to a career best .406. He also won the home run crown with 37 round trippers and narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown, finishing five RBIs behind DiMaggio, with 120. In his first three years Williams would win each leg of the Triple Crown. Now it was time to put them all together.

1942 started a string of Triple Crown years that will never be equaled. Ted finished the year with a .356 average, 36 homers, and 137 RBIS. Despite Williams’ efforts the writers he reviled so much passed him over for league MVP honors. New York Yankee second baseman Joe Gordon took home the trophy with a season that paled in comparison to the Red Sox slugger’s.

Williams continued his onslaught in 1943. Again he walked away with the Triple Crown finishing at .362, with 43 homers, and 131 RBIs and the Red Sox began to make a move on the Yankees, finishing with an 89-65 record, nine games behind the Bronx Bombers. This would be the third year in a row that the Sox would finish behind New York and the second year in a row that Williams would be slighted for MVP honors. Yankee pitcher Spud Chandler would outdistance Ted in the voting by posting a 20-4 record for the eventual world champions.

1944 saw Ted emerge as a serious power threat and possible heir to the throne of Home Run King. Taking advantage of the depleted pitching staffs of his opponents, Williams amassed 50 round trippers for the first time in his career on the strength of seven multi-homer games, including two three-homer gems. He molested the St. Louis Browns for a record 15 home runs and finished the season by hitting .408 with 10 home runs in Boston’s final 26 games.

He won his third Triple Crown in as many years with a .357 average, 50 dingers, and 137 RBIs. He also established career highs with 154 walks and 141 runs scored. More importantly, however, was that Boston finished with a record of 98-56 and was headed to its first World Series in 26 years. Although Ted set a World Series record by drawing eight walks in five games, he could only muster two singles in 14 at bats, driving in only one run, as the Sox went quietly in five games against the powerful St. Louis Cardinals. Despite losing the series, Williams finally grabbed his first MVP award, edging out Detroit ace Hal Newhouser.

Taking advantage of the weaker pitching again in 1945, Ted continued his onslaught. In what would prove to be his greatest season ever the “Splendid Splinter” challenged the home run record of 60 held by the Bambino. He began the year with a record 15 home runs in April and continued to batter pitchers while the Red Sox took an early lead in the American League. As he did the year before, he pounded Boston’s nearest competitors into submission, almost single-handedly.

Against Detroit and Washington, armed with the league’s two best pitching staffs, he belted 19 homers and drove in 51 runs in 44 games. His slugging percentage of .761 was the highest of his career and the eighth highest in history. Boston finished atop the American League for the second year in a row and for the fourth year in a row Ted Williams won the Triple Crown. He fell just one home run short of Ruth’s record, finishing with 59 to go along with a .342 average and a career high 163 RBIs. For the second consecutive year he took home MVP honors, once again defeating Hal Newhouser of the Tigers.

Appropriately, Williams went a combined 11-for-26 with four homers and 11 Runs batted in against Newhouser, the league’s best pitcher, in 1944 and 1945. During his near record-breaking home run tear, Ted tied records by belting five homers in two consecutive games, six in three games, and seven in four games. More than anything else, though, Ted wanted to atone for his poor showing in the 1944 World Series. Atone, he did. The Cubs jumped out to a two game lead by winning both games in Boston. Williams went 1-for-3 in Game 1 and homered in his first at-bat of Game 2. Chicago then walked him three straight times as Cubs pitcher Hank Wyse neutralized the rest of Boston’s offense in a 7-3 Cubs win. The Sox battled back with a run in the twelfth- inning of Game 3 to win 4-3, while Williams went 0-for-4 with two more walks.

Boston made it two in a row, winning Game Four 6-2. Again, Ted was hitless, going 0-for-3. In four games Williams was hitting a paltry .181. Then he decided to take matters into his own hands. In Game 5, Ted went 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs, leading Boston to a 7-1 victory, then added two more hits, including a triple, in Game 6 as little known hurler Clem Hausmann twirled a four-hitter for a 4-1 victory. It was Boston’s first World Championship in 27 years. Ted Williams was named World Series MVP, hitting .400 with three home runs and eight RBIs. This was to be his finest hour as a ballplayer.

1946 saw the return of the game’s stars from the war. Although the pitching became stronger, Ted continued to blister the ball. He finished the year at .342, with 38 homers, and 123 RBIs. His twenty-first homer of the year was also the three hundredth of his career. For the first time in his career he didn’t lead the league in any of the three major categories. Oddly enough, he still won the MVP award for the third time in as many years. Boston went to the series again and lost to the Cardinals in seven games. Hampered by a sore elbow, the Red Sox left fielder could manage only five hits in 25 trips to the plate. This would be his last chance in World Series play, as he finished with a .254 career post-season average.

Ted won his fifth and final Triple Crown in 1947, finishing at .343, 32 and 114. He also established a new career high with 162 walks. For the third time, Williams would win the Triple Crown and lose the MVP award, this time to New York’s Joe DiMaggio.

In 1948 and 1949 Williams continued his dominance. He finished with his highest average since 1941 at .369, with 25 homers, and 127 RBIs in 1948, and posted a .343 average, with 43 homers and 159 RBIs in 1949. Williams narrowly missed another Triple Crown when Detroit’s George Kell nipped him by percentage points in the batting race, but he would establish more milestones. He won his fourth MVP award and clubbed his four hundredth career home run.

In 1950 Ted suffered his first serious injury. He broke his elbow while chasing a fly ball in the All-Star game and was limited to only 89 games as a result. Incredibly, he still managed 28 homers and 97 RBIs while batting .317. It was the first time in 11 years that Williams was unable to break the century mark in runs batted in.

By 1951, the Red Sox had become a decent team with no real hope of ever reaching post season play again. Ted rebounded with another solid season, hitting .318, with 30 home runs, and 126 RBIs. With the Sox out of contention all Williams could do was add to his totals.

After 13 seasons, Ted Williams had clearly established himself as one of the all-time greats. In 1952 he began to reach milestones that few others had or would ever reach. With 36 more home runs he had passed the 500 plateau for his career, finishing the 1952 season tied on the all-time list with Mel Ott at 511. He ranked seventh on the RBIs list and his .346 average was tied for fifth.

1953 was the last year Williams would hit at least 40 home runs. He finished at .323, with 40 homers and 121 RBIs and passed Jimmie Foxx with his 535th home run, putting him in second place with only one more obstacle in his way—the great Babe Ruth.

Williams suffered through illness and injury in both 1954 and 1955, but continued his approach to what were considered unbreakable records. With his 89 RBIs in 1954 he passed Lou Gehrig into second place behind the Babe. He hit 57 more homers and drove in 172 runs over the two seasons. His 20th home run of 1955 was the 600th of his career as he became only the second man ever to reach the 600 mark. He was also only the second man to drive in 2,000 runs.

Heading into the 1956 season, Ted had more walks than any man in history, breaking Ruth’s record, was second in homers and runs batted in, had the seventh highest batting average at .344 and needed only 85 more hits to reach 3,000. His playing time had been reduced and he would not reach 500 at-bats in a season again, but he continued to put up superstar numbers. He maintained his career mark by hitting .345 in 1956, he spanked his 3,000th hit, hit his 632nd homer, drove in his 2,169th run and added to his walk total with another 102 free passes.

Williams enjoyed one last hurrah in 1957, enjoying perhaps the greatest season a 38 year-old ballplayer will ever have. He finished five hits shy of .400, finishing with a .388 average. He added 38 more home runs to bring his total to 670 and he passed Babe Ruth into first place on the all-time list with 2,256 RBIs. His 600th double made him only the sixth man ever to amass that many in a career. There was only one more milestone left for him to achieve the status of all-time greatest hitter.

Ted’s quest for the home run crown came up short in 1958 as he crashed 26 home runs to give him 696 for his career. He needed only 18 more to tie and 19 to claim the title. But he surpassed yet another milestone, jumping over Ty Cobb into first place, when he scored his 2,246th run. He finished the season at 2,268. He had now scored more runs, driven in more runs and walked more than any batter in the history of the game.

A pinched nerve in 1959 caused Williams to slump miserably as he suffered through his worst season ever. He could manage only 10 home runs, leaving him nine shy of the record, and his .254 average was the first and only time he would fail to hit .300. Although he was only the second man in history to reach 700 home runs in a career, several doubted that he could continue at the age of 41. Especially after having suffered a broken collar bone, a pinched nerve, an injury to the arch of his foot and a bad back over the last five years. But he returned for one last season.

1960 would be the year the greatest hitter in baseball history would step up to the plate for the last time and hang up his spikes. He began the season by smacking homers 707 and 708 in the first two games of the campaign. After pulling a muscle, Ted struggled to hit his next five homers. On June 17th Ted hit the 714th home run of his career off Cleveland’s Wynn Hawkins to tie Babe Ruth for first place on the all-time list. Two nights later, on June 19th in Cleveland, Ted belted the 715th, and tie-breaking homer in the seventh inning off Jim Perry. He would go on to hit 20 more homers, including one in his final major league at bat, to finish with 735.

When Ted Williams retired at the end of the 1960 season he ranked first in runs scored, RBIs, home runs, walks and on base percentage. He was second in hits and slugging percentage, fourth in doubles and tied for seventh with a .342 career batting average. No other player had more extra base hits or total bases. He won nine batting titles, 13 slugging titles, seven home run crowns and seven RBI crowns. He led the American League in every offensive category, except stolen bases, at least once in his career. He set over 70 individual batting records, many of which still stand. His All-Star Game heroics are legendary as he won the 1941 game with a ninth inning homer in Detroit and went 4-for-4 with two homers and five RBIs in 1946 in Boston. He is one of two players to win at least four MVP awards and his five Triple Crowns will stand as the greatest achievement ever accomplished by a major league baseball player.

Ted Williams is truly the greatest hitter who ever lived.

Williams’ Career Stats

* The simulation was performed about 10 years ago using Micro League Baseball. 

Comments

11 Responses to “Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived”
  1. Mark says:

    It’s fine if you want to project his stats for the time he missed, but be realistic, especially in HR’s. His career high is 43, which was the only time he hit over 40. You have him hitting 43 again, 50, then 59. It just wouldn’t happen. You can’t just assume he has his best years in his career when he actually didn’t play. I know your point is to say he is the best ever, but the argument gets lost being so optimistic. If you put in conservative data, (which is still great) you will present a stronger case since people just won’t disregard what your saying.

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for the feedback. I didn’t assign arbitrary home run numbers to Williams, nor did I project them, I ran a computer simulation that split them out. Granted I had to enter his statistics into the computer that were used during the 1943-1945 seasons and I had to make a guess as to what they would have been. I ran this simulation about eight years ago and I no longer have the program that I used, but I’m pretty sure I assigned about 35 homers to him in 1943 and went from there. I based his numbers on his averages from the seasons that sandwiched 1943-1945. Secondly, and I should have explained this better, Williams was the only player I “brought back” from WWII, so he was facing depleted pitching staffs, which surely helped his numbers. I could have pretended there was no war and entered stats for all the players, but frankly, I didn’t want to go to that length. Lastly, authors and historians Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout projected his stats filling in the numbers from the 727 games he missed and the numbers my computer simulation spit out are very similar to their projections. Runs differed by only 55, hits by only 20, and doubles, triples, walks, and strikeouts were almost identical. Homers differed by 49 (Johnson and Stout projected those to 686) and RBIs by 214, so your point about his 50-homer seasons is well taken. I may try running the simulation again with Out Of The Park Baseball, which has a career feature that will adjust Williams’ ratings based on his career to the point he went into the service. That may be more accurate and less optimistic, but I’m pretty happy with Micro League Baseball’s results.

  3. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  4. al read says:

    What if he never joined the military…Great numbers and probably not that far fetched

  5. william russo says:

    I have been following baseball since the late 1940’s and during that time, no one has come close to matching Ted’s combination of High power and high average.

    His homer total for the five missed years certainly would be at least 150 and perhaps as many as 200. There’s a good chance that he would have finished with nore than 714.

  6. Mike Hoban says:

    Mike,

    Interesting. And not bad as far as speculation goes. Ted missed some serious years in the military. But why not try your simulation on the years that the Babe “missed” as a pitcher? You will come to the same conclusion that all serious students of the game must.

    Babe Ruth was the greatest hitter of all time.

    Mike

  7. gerryt says:

    A highly readable description of what might have been. The Boston media made Ted’s life miserable during his entire career, else he might have done even better, and been more content. Interesting point Re: Babe’s time as a pitcher, during which he hit very well.

    I like the Babe and Ted as the two greatest hitters who ever lived, and that they both played in Red Sox uniforms at Fenway, with Chicago, the last great American Cathedral now that the Steinbrenners have replaced the House that Babe Built. I also like that instead of steroids they smoked and drank in the dugout. These two stand alone.

  8. MIKESOWELL says:

    Babe Ruth is the greatest hitter of all time STATISTICALLY. Had he been a Batter full time instead of a Pitcher from 1914-18 even during the dead ball era, you have to give the Bambino at least 60 extra homeruns.

  9. MIKESOWELL says:

    Hey. Sorry it took so long to respond. No I am not the Author Mike Sowell. In fact, if you saw me in person, you may be quite surprised, but I digress. To me, Williams stood a great chance had he not had his career interrupted by war service. I think an underrated statistic that is not followed enough is Homerun/At Bat Ratio. I think people would be shocked to find out that Williams ratio (14.8) is lower than Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx,Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and countless others. In fact, he ranks ninth all time. As you noted, he would be facing inferior pitching. Now he probably would be walked more, but his percentage of good pitches per at bat would be higher to offset this. All in all, I see Williams, barring injuries with at least 175 more Home Runs.

  10. mike b says:

    the way that i figured ted williams home runs totals for the missing years was easy,i added up the total homers for the 40, 41 ,42 and the 46, 47, 48 seasons, i took that total and divided it by 6 and i came up with a safe average of 31 homers that i used to fill in those 3 missing years….i then added his homers for the 50,51 and the 54, 55 seasons and came up with 28 homers averaged and got a total of 28 that i filled in the 52,53 seasons with…”i hope i’m not confusing anyone”…so now we have to add 31×3 with 28×2, which is 151 homers added to his 521 total…and now its safe to say that had he stayed “in the game” those missing years, he would have had “at least” a total of 672 !!! so he would be 4th!!! instead of tied for 18th!!!…surely he was in his prime those missing years and probably would have hit a little higher than the numbers i came up with “and” he wouldnt have been emotionally changed by “war”, which would and should somehow also factor in !!!…maybe we could say he “might” have hit 700 home runs…….

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