Why you should care
Laser-focused determination that leads to greatness can also make for an intolerable individual.
The first time he saw what would become known as the “Ted Wiliams shift,” the target of the unorthodox fielding alignment laughed. The gambit, designed by Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau between games of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946, was really just a question of playing the percentages — something baseball teams now do routinely.
But more than that, the configuration, in which all four Indians infielders were placed between first and second base to be in a better position to catch the balls hit by the left-handed Boston Red Sox star, was an attempt to get inside one of the most remarkable — and flawed — heads ever to play the game.
And it worked. In the first at bat against the shift, Ted Williams, an extreme pull hitter, lined a one-hopper straight at Boudreaux himself, who was standing in shallow right field. “If teams start doing that against me, I’ll start hitting right-handed,” Williams joked to reporters after the game. Still, other teams started doing exactly that, invoking the shift against the slugger for the rest of his career. But the stubborn Williams did not start batting right-handed. He hardly modified his approach at all, electing to instead hit into the teeth of the shift.
Williams’ scientific approach to hitting was unprecedented.
Baseball writer George Will once described Williams as an “alloy of innocence and arrogance.” And in his 22-year major league career, Williams accomplished things on the field — his .482 lifetime on-base percentage still ranks No. 1 of all time — that gave him legitimate claim as the greatest hitter who ever lived. But he was also a tormented perfectionist, one whose anger, pride and stubbornness left a trail of recriminations alongside his many accomplishments.
Williams’ sweet left-handed swing was not only a thing of beauty, but it was also devastating to opposing teams. He won six batting titles, including one when he was 40; he was the last batter to hit over .400; and he slugged 521 career home runs — all while missing nearly five full seasons in his prime when he served as a pilot in World War II and the Korean War. In an era well before today’s data-driven, video-watching athletes, Williams’ scientific approach to hitting was unprecedented and unrivaled: He studied pitchers like they were butterflies under glass, knew their tendencies, even quizzed teammates about the pitches they had received at the plate. He had an exceptional grasp of the strike zone, seldom swung at a bad pitch and spent hours hitting. “No one ever swung a bat more often than I did,” he once boasted. “No one practiced harder than I did.”
But Williams’ unwavering determination to be the best was fueled in large part by a chronic, simmering anger. He spit at New York Yankees fans who taunted him. After Red Sox fans booed him during a slump in his second season, he stopped tipping his hat to the crowd following a home run — and never did so again. Once, after a rare strikeout, he threw his bat in disgust, sending it sailing into the seats, where it struck an elderly woman in the head. The Red Sox managed their ornery superstar as best they could: keeping reporters out of the dugout, moving in the right-field fences and even tolerating a two-month temporary retirement so that Williams could get a better deal in his divorce proceedings.
Off the field, Williams’ anger could prove equally destructive and made it hard for him to maintain personal relationships. He was married three times and often was estranged from his three children. He famously missed his daughter’s birth because he was on a fishing trip.
The roots of Williams’ resentments likely stemmed from his own unhappy childhood. His mother, a Salvation Army missionary, and his father, an alcoholic salesman, would leave him and his brother alone for days at a time, and the playground became young Ted’s second home. His parents never watched him play a single major league baseball game, but when it came time for him to sign his first big professional contract, they materialized out of nowhere to help — and to take their cut. Williams was also ashamed of his heritage and tried throughout his career to hide his mother’s Mexican roots.
All of the above made Williams “much more mercurial throughout his life in all respects,” says Jonathan Fraser Light, author of The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. “Couple that with the drive to succeed, the constant adulation that went with that success, and you’ve got a flawed individual.”
In the latter part of his career, the “shift” became Williams’ primary opponent. He tried to hit some balls the other way, and once even bunted the ball for a single in the World Series. Still, despite complaining that the shift cost him 20 to 30 points on his lifetime batting average of .344, the stubborn slugger would not change who he had spent a lifetime becoming.
Williams, however, was not incapable of change or love. He mellowed some as he got older, patched things up with his kids, spent lots of time and money on charitable projects and even publicly shamed the Baseball Hall of Fame for failing to honor Negro League players during his own induction speech.
True to form, Williams hit a home run in his final at-bat in the big leagues in 1960. And truer still, with the crowd screaming for him to come out and wave his hat to acknowledge the occasion, Williams stayed in the dugout.
And kept his hat on.