The Kid and the Babe
Matinee-idol good looks; a lithe, powerful frame; offhand, unaffected charm; blistering intensity—that was the catalog of Ted Williams you formed in the first minute you met him. But there was more to the man, far more, so much of it visible beneath the thin skin that we were tempted to think we knew him, really knew what made him tick. We didn’t.
Once he was gone, the knights of the keyboard (Ted’s memorably derisive term for sportswriters) recalled his heroics and his frailties and tried to assign him his place in the history of baseball. Yet even in death Ted resists categorization: Was he our last classic American hero, in the style of John Wayne (who once said to Ted, “I only play the hero; you live it”)? Did he live the life he wanted, his way, without regret? How did he transform himself from Terrible Ted, the pincushion of the Boston scribes, to become patron saint of the game and paterfamilias to a new generation of stars? Did Ted mellow in his later years, or did he remain the same, always True North, while our compass needles slowly swung around to him?
Inevitably, the question baseball fans will wish to argue is this: Was Ted Williams the greatest hitter who ever lived, or was it Babe Ruth? Both may be challenged by Barry Bonds or Ty Cobb, but today, nearly 15 years after Ted’s passing, it seems to most observers that he and Ruth have the field to themselves.
To choose between them is a statistical, historical, and philosophical conundrum. We cannot know what numbers Ruth would have compiled had he not missed so many at bats in the five years in which he was principally a pitcher; nor can we know what prodigious figures Williams would have amassed if we could restore to him the nearly five years he was serving his country; and so on. Then there are the differences in the state of the baseball world in 1914-35 (the 22-year period of Ruth’s ascendancy) and 1939-60 (the 22-year tenure, with interruptions, of Williams), and the level of competition and the quality of the pitching in those respective eras.
The Babe and The Kid: not only their nicknames but also their life stories make them better suited as companions than combatants. Though neither was an orphan, both wandered the streets (of Baltimore for Ruth, San Diego for Williams) as their parents allowed them to raise themselves. The Ruths had their saloon to manage; May Williams had the Salvation Army, which she joined in 1904 and made her single-minded mission until she died in 1961. (“Ted is a wonderful son,” she said in 1948. “He loves baseball just like I love my Salvation Army work.”)
At the age of seven Ruth was incarcerated in the St. Mary’s juvenile home for orphans and incorrigible youth, where he stayed until he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles at age nineteen; Williams made a home of the North Park playground, often coming back to his nominal home long after dark to find that no one was there. It was during these years that Ted recalled looking up at the night sky and wishing to the stars that he could become the greatest hitter who ever lived, greater even than Babe Ruth. Baseball turned out to be the one thing each of these lost boys would love that could give love back.
In 1935, as Ruth’s career was winding down, Ted was the star pitcher and slugger of San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School. In 1935, as a junior, he batted .586 and the pro scouts took notice. When he reported to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1936, Ted had reached his full height of 6’3”, but he weighed only 150 pounds. (His appearance was so ghastly that Detroit Tiger scout Marty Krug declined to sign him, saying that a year of professional ball would kill him.) Where did the power come from? Not from the physique, although that would become impressive over time, but from technique: God-given talent harnessed with hard, hard work. Amid the swirl of accusations about steroid use in baseball, it is worthwhile to reflect that the basic formula for success has not changed.
When the splintery youth first reported to the Red Sox spring-training camp in 1938, after two years of methodically stuffing himself with eggs, milkshakes, bananas, and ice cream, his reputation had preceded him. It wasn’t his statistics that set him apart from mere mortals—in two years in the Pacific Coast League he posted modest batting averages of .271 and .291. It was The Swing. His first day in camp, when he stepped into the batting cage, everything stopped. Even the most veteran players interrupted their drills to watch the Kid strut his stuff: take the wide, erect stance that made him look even taller than he was; extend his bat across the plate, as if taking its measure; wiggle his hips and rock his shoulders as if he were searching for solid ground beneath his feet; twist his hands on the bat handle with bad intent. Then, the turn of the hips, the snap of the wrists, the fluid follow-through, and the crack of bat on ball. No student of baseball who saw The Swing will ever forget it.
When Ruth had come to Boston after a brief minor-league career in Baltimore and Providence, teammates were amazed at what a “green pea” he was. He knew his baseball, all right, but he knew nothing about the wide world, from table manners, to courteous talk with women, to managing money. He was utterly if sometimes charmingly without self-control. After all, Ruth had spent more than a decade in an orphanage, without a single visit from either of his parents. The world was a wading pool for him, and he joyously splashed about with few civilizing restraints.
Williams was less naïve, but just as needy; without praise at home, he praised himself, inspiring scorn and laughter from teammates, management, and writers. His unvarnished directness and unyielding intensity didn’t seem to fit in Boston. Whatever Ted did: talk, hit, fish—all were done with that characteristic, magnetic force. Fly-tying was always a way for him to relax, but Ted even relaxed intensely. He used to laugh when people attributed his prowess to a natural hitting ability, or to exceptional eyesight. Ted knew that his greatness was inseparable from his intensity, that it was in fact a product of it, as it had been for Ty Cobb or Jackie Robinson, if not Babe Ruth.
Baseball in the 1940s belonged to Ted. Starting out, he wrote in My Turn at Bat, “I had been a fresh kid. I did a lot of yakking, partly to hide a rather large inferiority complex.” By mid-decade, feeling spurned and still no more comfortable with himself at the core, he stopped pursuing acclaim as if it were love and substituted the solitary pleasure that comes with achievement. He withdrew from the fans, which seemed only to heighten their ardor for him (as it had with Joe DiMaggio). Although he bade farewell to baseball repeatedly in the 1950s, each closing of the curtain proved only a curtain call.
Returning from Korea to play his first full season in three years, the Kid broke his shoulder in spring training of 1954 and missed the early going, but showed he had not lost his zest or his eye by hitting .345 with 136 walks in 117 games. (The walks cost him the 400 at bats then required to qualify for the batting title, which Bobby Avila won with a mark of .341.) Critics complained that he would have been more valuable to his team had he gone after the bad balls. By the time that same “failing” attached to Barry Bonds, the value of reaching base had been broadly accepted and the critics were easily dismissed. In Williams’ day, this charge was difficult to refute. The concept of on-base average was understood by only a few in baseball, and the statistical congruency of on-base percentage and slugging percentage to team run-scoring was altogether unknown. Indeed, when Williams retired after the 1960 season, with the all-time record for on-base percentage of .482, no one, including Williams himself, knew it.
Ruth ranks second in lifetime on-base percentage (.474) but the roles reverse when it comes to slugging percentage, the other key measure of offensive prowess, with Ruth’s .690 mark comparing to Williams’ .634. When you combine the two statistics to produce the now ubiquitous On Base Plus Slugging (OPS), and then refine the comparison by adjusting each record for the era in which it was achieved (measuring against league average performance) and even for the home parks of each, Ruth still stands above Williams. There are other measures of Ruth’s dominance—his 60 homers in 1927 when no other team in the American League (besides his own Yankees) hit that many; his leading the league in slugging percentage 13 years out of 14, and more. In terms of dominance, Williams can’t match Ruth.
Yet that is precisely why we ought to evaluate Williams’ record more highly. Ruth’s dominance was not only the measure of Ruth; it was also the measure of the competition he faced. To the extent that the league performs at a low level, a colossus may so far outdistance his peers as to create records that are unapproachable for all time. When Williams retired, it was beyond comprehension that we could reasonably compare batters of one era against batters of another simply by measuring the extent to which they surpassed the league average; now it is commonplace.
But the large question that remains unanswered, and is perhaps unanswerable, is: how to compare the average level of play of one era to that of another. In swimming, track, basketball, football, hockey, golf—any sport you can name—the presumption is that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, better trained, and, on average, more proficient. A star in one era would probably be outstanding, if not equally dominant, in another, if he could be magically transported in time and enjoy the benefits of enhanced training and nutrition. But the average baseball player of 1876 or 1920 might well find it difficult to make a big-league roster today.
In the case of Williams and Ruth, reflecting on the distinctions between their eras does provide a strong guide. Reflect that Ruth faced pitchers who threw complete games about half the time (today it is barely 2 percent), and thus faced the same delivery through four to six plate appearances (not to mention that he faced no relievers as we understand them today, dominant closers). Reflect that Ruth never had to hit at night. Reflect that African Americans never graced the same field as Ruth; had they done so, many white players would have lost their positions and the overall level of competition would have risen. One could add that Ruth never faced a slider or a split-fingered fastball; rarely faced a pitcher who would throw a breaking ball when behind in the count; and on. Ruth may have been greater than any baseball player ever was or will be (though I for one don’t believe so); however, it defies reason to claim that Ruth’s opposition was likewise better.
Baseball was better in Williams’ day than it was in Ruth’s; it is better yet today. Ted did succeed in precisely the goal he established for himself as a skinny, lonely San Diego teenager: he became the greatest hitter who ever lived.
And when that title passes on some kid who is now playing tee-ball with a strange and wonderful intensity, that’s just as Ted would have had it.