|Monday, July 1
Updated: July 6, 3:16 AM ET
Teddy Ballgame left his imprint on many people
By Jim Caple
This is the best Ted Williams story I know.
"It's spring training with the Washington Senators, 1970, Pompano Beach, Florida,'' Twins bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek said. "We're running fundamentals drills. TW is the manager over there working with the outfielders. We're going over baserunning. We're going through the rundown.
"Now, Joe Camacho, who ran Ted Williams' summer camps in New England, got in an argument over rundowns with Nellie Fox, who played 21 seasons in the majors. They get into a heated argument. I mean heated. I thought it was going to come to blows. They're arguing like two little kids. And you've got all the pitchers, the infielders, the catchers standing around watching them.
"So here comes Big Ted. 'WHAT'S UP? WHAT'S UP?'
"'He wants to run it that way.'"
"'He wants to run it that way.'"
"'Screw that, Eddie Stanky told me to do it this way.'''
"So, Big Ted takes a look at the two of them, sizes up the situation and says, 'F*&%@ it! LET'S HIT!'
"And we never had another fundamental drill that spring.''
Stelmaszek has told me that story at least half a dozen times and when he told it to me again Friday, I still laughed. To me, no story better sums up Teddy Ballgame, who said his goal in life was to walk down the street and hear people say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.''
If the statistics don't prove he accomplished his goal, it is only because Ted missed three seasons due to World War II and another two seasons to the Korean War (nor did he spend his war years playing ball on army bases as many stars did -- he risked his life as a Marine flyer and was John Glenn's wingman in Korea). The last player to hit .400, Ted won six batting titles, two triple crowns, batted .344 for his career and hit 521 home runs despite the missing war years.
The stats, however, don't begin to capture Ted, a bigger-than-life, loud, vain, foul-mouthed and strongly opinionated man who spoke in capital letters and exclamation marks and felt there was only one way to do things. His way.
"You would go out to dinner and he would order for everyone,'' Stelmazsek said. "He'd go out with four guys and he'd say, 'We're going to have STEAK and we're going to have it cooked MEDIUM at so-so DEGREES.' Everything was his way.''
And that meant everything. St. Paul Saints coach Wayne Terwilliger says that Ted once asked him what sort of aftershave he wore, then told him to get rid of it. "I wear BRITISH STERLING. You should wear BRITISH STERLING!''
That was three decades ago. Twig still wears British Sterling.
There are so many great Ted stories. How his eyesight was so keen that he could read the label on a phonograph while it was revolving. How he claimed he could smell the smoke off a baseball's seams when it hit the bat. How he could have protected his .400 average by not playing the final day of the 1941 season but instead played both games and went 6-for-8. How he homered in his last career at-bat and went right into the dugout without bothering for a curtain call or a tip of the cap. (John Updike wrote of that finale, "Gods do not answer letters.'')
I will never forget the night in Boston at the 1999 All-Star Game when Ted rode onto the field at the end of the All-Century Team ceremony. None of the active All-Stars had ever seen Ted play. They only knew him from stories. But his stature in the game was such that his mere presence on the field reduced these millionaire players to little kids begging for an autograph. In a completely spontaneous response, the players swarmed Ted, pushing their way to the great man just to be able to touch him, just to be in the presence of true greatness.
It couldn't have been a more emotional moment had Ted walked onto the field from out of a cornfield.
Not many active players know their baseball history very well. If you aren't on Playstation's Triple Play baseball, they probably haven't heard of you.
But they knew and respected Ted.
"He was one of the players I always wanted to meet but I didn't think it was going to happen because of his health,'' said Ichiro, perhaps the only active player with a chance to match Ted's .400 season. "I was sad to learn that he died.''
We all are. He was the biggest remaining legend from the WWII era of baseball, an American icon, a true giant of the game. As Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris wrote about him in "The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book":
"In 1955, there were 77,263,127 male American human beings. And every one of them in his heart of hearts would have given two arms, a leg and his collection of Davy Crockett iron-ons to be Teddy Ballgame.''
Ted Williams died Friday at age 83.
There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org