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Ted Williams dies at 83

Kurkjian: The game's best hitter

Classic Ted Williams: From his first game to the Hall

Friday, July 5, 2002
The artistry of Ted Williams
By John McCollister
Special to

I was fortunate enough to experience Ted Williams twice in my life -- once when I were young and again in the later stages of life. These events frame my memories of Williams as hitter and a man.

Portrait of the artist from a young man
I was 16 years old when my father got me a box seat ticket to an exhibition game between the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates at old Forbes Field back in 1951.

The Pirates, at that time, were perennial basement dwellers. The only focus of excitement was the hitting prowess of home run king Ralph Kiner.

Prior to the game, Mr. Kiner was pitted against the legendary Ted Williams in a home-run hitting contest.

Following a few practice swings at the plate, Williams dug into the batter's box. He held high his bat; he bent his right knee slightly so that only the left half of his shoe touched the ground. The batting-practice pitcher threw a medium-speed fastball belt-high. "The Thumper" took a powerful swing. It must have been powerful; the ball sailed deep into the second deck of the right-field bleachers.

From my vantage point three rows behind first base, however, it did not look like he swung that hard. His motion was smooth. Very smooth. Hips rotating first . . . bat moving downward, then on an upward arc in line with the trajectory of the ball . . . shoulders squaring toward the pitcher . . . wrists snapping at the precise moment . . . eyes glued to the ball as it hit the bat . . . the follow-through . . . all with the grace of a ballet dancer.

The ball had no chance. It took off for the right field stands as if it belonged there even before the pitch.

"Wow!" I said out loud. "What a hit."

At that precise moment, a seasoned fan sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder. "Watch that swing, son. Remember this picture. You'll never see anything like it again."

I never did.

In my 65 years on this planet, I've been fortunate to see some of the all-time home-run greats. Mantle, Maris, Kiner, Killebrew, Musial, Mays, Aaron, Mathews, Bonds, and the list goes on. But, never have I seen a swing that revealed such artistry.

Had Michelangelo decided to be a baseball player, he would have developed the swing of Ted Williams.

Even a 16-year-old kid from Pittsburgh could tell that.

Lessons from the "The Kid"
It was a baseball fan's dream.

My all-time idol, Ralph Kiner, invited me to join baseball's elite in attending the induction ceremonies at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in July, 1999.

For four days I stayed at the Otesaga Hotel, sharing meals, parties and conversations with Kiner, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Lou Brock, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Palmer and other greats of the game.

Heaven, I felt, is only a lateral transfer.

On our second evening together, 50 of us gathered for a lawn party hosted by one of the local supporters of the Hall. Suddenly, the group parted. Rolling up in his wheelchair came none other than Ted Williams.

A victim of two strokes and tunnel vision, the "Splendid Splinter" could no longer powder the ball as he once did when he terrorized American League pitchers. Yet he still was the game's most articulate teacher of hitting. And he loved talking about it.

Mr. Williams maneuvered his wheelchair in my direction. For some reason or another, he picked me out of the crowd and asked: "What do you know about hitting?"

I stood there in shock. The great Ted Williams not only spoke to me, but asked me what I knew about hitting.

Before I could answer, Ralph Kiner, with an impish smile on his face, whispered in my ear: "Don't argue hitting with Ted Williams."

I wouldn't dare do that. All I could say was: "I know you were one of the few people in the world who could smell the horsehide on the baseball when you fouled it off."

"You got that right," said Williams as he poked my chest for emphasis. He then gave to me and to the others hanging on his every word, a graduate-school lecture on hitting. He explained, for example, that a level swing is not one that's parallel to the ground; instead, it's in line with the trajectory of the ball. He bemoaned the fact that many of today's hitters fail to follow the ball until it makes contact with the bat. Williams accompanied each of his main points with another poke to my chest.

After 10 minutes, the bus rolled up to take us to the garden party.

Nobody wanted to leave, but we had to.

That night, as I was preparing for bed, I noticed a red bruise on my chest as a result of Mr. Williams' pokes. I looked at the bruise as a badge of honor.

The next morning at breakfast, Williams came into the hotel dining room. He wheeled his chair up to my table.

"Mr. Williams," I said, "that lecture on hitting you gave last night was the most fantastic I've ever heard."

With a straight face, Williams looked me directly in the eye and, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone, said, "Hell, you still can't hit!"

Everyone within hearing distance laughed and applauded.

I was the brunt of a joke, I know. But I didn't mind one bit. After all, how many people do you know have had an opportunity to discuss hitting with the greatest hitter ever to put on a uniform?

John McCollister is a noted writer and biographer.

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