You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we'll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.
ON THIS DATE IN 1960, Ted Williams hit his 500th home run.
That 500th home run would have been 600, and maybe closer to 700, if not for nearly five seasons that Williams lost to military service as a Marine pilot during two wars. But the Boston Red Sox legend never regretted the missed time because he was serving his country. Jerry Coleman, a former Yankee and fellow Marine, said, "Ted was the one of the best pilots I've ever seen."
I heard all the Ted stories from my father, who grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts. And in 1982, while covering the Texas Rangers, I had a career and personal highlight: Old-Timers' Day at Fenway Park. Former Red Sox greats were all over the field when Williams came out of the dugout to take batting practice. The whole ballpark stopped and watched him step into the cage. He was 63 years old, but he dug in, just as my dad had told me, his stance the same as it was in 1941. The first pitch Williams saw, he hit a line drive that bounced into the bullpen in right-center field on one hop. I was 10 feet away from the cage.
I called my dad later that day.
"Pop!'' I said. "I just saw Ted Williams hit!'
Williams loved to hit, to talk about hitting, more than anyone. He is, for me, the second-best hitter of all time, after Babe Ruth. Williams won two MVPs and finished second in the voting four times; twice he won the Triple Crown, and he didn't win the MVP in either of those seasons. He played in 19 All-Star Games. His career on-base percentage was .482, the highest of all time. Williams' career batting average was .344. He is the last man to hit .400 in a season (.406 in 1941) and he batted .388 at age 38. He had an OPS of 1.096 in his final season in 1960. He led the American League in OPS 10 times, including six seasons in a row. And his career OPS of 1.116 is higher than the best single-season OPS of any active player.
Williams was such a great hitter in part because of his intelligence, observant nature and analytical mind. He was fascinated by the human brain and how it worked, and said he would have studied it if he hadn't played baseball. A friend, Rick Vaughn, took a long flight on a private plane with Williams, who was fascinated by Vaughn's intricate camera.
"Show me how that thing works," Williams said.
And when Williams found that Vaughn was a pitcher in college, Williams said, "Show me how you throw your curveball."
Williams was honored before the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. Most of the current All-Stars revered him so much that they were intimidated and were reluctant to speak to him. But at the urging of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, they eventually gathered around him. Williams asked Mark McGwire if he could "smell the smoke'' coming of the bat when he hit a ball perfectly. It was a wonderful gathering because those All-Stars likely knew that if Williams were still playing, he'd be the best hitter on the field.
Williams loved everything about hitting, but not all parts of the game. He managed the Washington Senators from 1969 to 1971, then the Rangers in 1972. One spring training, two of his coaches were arguing about the proper way to execute a rundown play. They called Ted off the bench to settle the argument. Williams listened to each, and quickly got agitated.
"Oh, f--- it," he said. "Let's hit!"
Other baseball notes for June 17
In 1943, Joe Cronin hit a pinch-hit home run in both games of a doubleheader. He was the player/manager for the Red Sox at the time.
In 1987, Dick Howser died at age 51. He was the manager of the World Series champion Royals in 1985. I haven't met too many better people in the game better than Dick Howser.
In 1978, the Yankees' Ron Guidry struck out 18 in a 4-0 victory over the Angels. Guidry weighed roughly 160 pounds, threw in the mid-90s with a wipeout slider. He was Louisiana Lightning. He would go 25-3 that season. The pitchers of record in his three losses were all named Mike: the Orioles' Mike Flanagan, the Brewers' Mike Caldwell and the Blue Jays' Mike Willis.