As baseball’s annual All-Star game gets under way for the 78th time in 2011, I feel compelled to redirect my thoughts and from the ills of the world to America’s sport and all the heroes and legends that it brings to mind.
All-star games are supposed to comprise the very best players in the game into one field, regardless of the team or city they play for. Yes, it’s a commercial enterprise, but the fans love it, and it’s worth seeing players like Pujols and Halladay and Fielder and Bautista and Jeter all together at one time, one place, one team, one game, even if the end result means nothing.
Baseball is a game Ddominated by statistics. Player contracts, team performance and entry into the fabled Hall of Fame are all based on the numbers. But numbers can be deceiving.
Pitcher Nolan Ryan had almost as many losing seasons as he had winning. That was because he drew the short straw in playing with losing teams who couldn’t swing bats and score runs. Nevertheless, he amassed 324 lifetime wins with four teams which would have easily totaled over 400 had he played for the Yankees or the Dodgers. In one year, the power pitcher won only eight games and lost sixteen, but led the league with the best earned-run average at 2.76. You figure. Clearly, Ryan was the most gifted pitcher in history. No one comes close to his seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts, records that will likely never be broken. Fortunately, Ryan retired in 1993 which means he averted the taint of the steroid era.
Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and so many more are often touted as the best of all time. Wholly fascinated as a boy, I watched a segment of a game on an oaken television set with a screen no bigger than four inches, a magnifier mounted to its front. That was 1948. Joe DiMaggio came to bat slammed a ball the left field. The fans screamed. I was hooked.
In 1951, I listened on radio as the baseball announcer shouted, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant.” Bobby Thomson, a relative nobody, had just hit a 9th inning homer to beat the dodgers and propel the Giants into the World Series. No matter whose side you were on, it defined “excitement.” Hooked again.
In terms of nature’s gift and sheer talent, no player could compare to Boston’s Ted Williams.
Many biographies have been written about his modest beginnings and his rise into the majors. General manager Eddie Collins discovered Williams, a 19 year-old athlete, in 1937 and remarked, “He stood out like a brown cow in a field of white cows.”
No batter, before or since, ever had the eye-hand coordination of Ted Williams. Writers and players alike all marveled at his bionic-like skill at watching the ball, no matter its speed, actually connect with the swinging bat.
Statistically, Williams was deprived of many lifetime records by World War II and the Korean War in which he served as a Marine fighter pilot a total of five years and dozens of combat missions. Though not known as a power slugger, like Ruth, Aaron and Bonds, his lifetime 521 home runs would likely have topped 720 had he not missed the prime of his playing years in which he averaged 35-40 homers a year. That would have been second to Babe Ruth.
He easily would have topped the 3,000 hit mark, and even approached Ty Cobb’s then record of 4,189, had it not been for serving in the military.
Most uncanny, was Williams’ ability to hit. Until his waning years before retirement, Williams never batted under .317, and managed a lifetime average of .344, seventh all-time, and first among players in the modern era. Today’s players would be paid $15 million a year if they could hit .344 in only one season, yet a lifetime.
Most notable, Ted Williams was the last player to bat over .400, a mark now standing for 70 years. A remarkable story goes with it.
In 1941, Williams was batting an even .400 when the last day of the season called for a double-header. The pennant had already gone to the Yankees and the games inconsequential, so the Red Sox manager offered Williams a chance to sit out the game and secure his coveted, very rare batting average. Williams declined. He did not want the milestone average to stand by default, he wanted to earn it, or lose it. Williams played two games that day, and managed six hits in two games, raising the final average to .406. Class act.
No one has come close since. Such is the case with many of his records, too numerous to outline in a short blog.
So, with the annual All-Star bash about to start, we should honor the All-Star of all the All-Stars, Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, great American, war hero, avid fisherman, and arguably, the greatest baseball player of all time.
Who said, “They don’t make ‘em like that any more?”
There’s more to the story, but that’s enough for now.