Where Have You Gone, Ted Williams?
A Fastball Down the Middle
When I was a boy, and just getting interested in baseball, I was told that batting 1.000 (“a thousand”) was impossible. Although the person who told me that may not have had in mind the literal meaning of the word, it is true that it’s never been done—for long, anyway. That is to say, nobody with more than a few plate appearances has ever gone an entire season without making an out. John Paciorek has a lifetime batting average of 1.000, but he only played in one game, going 3 for 3 and walking twice (walks, sacrifice flies and bunts, and getting on base as the result of an error do not factor into the computing of batting averages).
For a regular player to bat 1.000 for an entire career (or even a season) is not literally impossible, but the likelihood of it ever happening can be categorized with the likelihood that gophers will give up trespassing. Of all those born in the 20th century or later, the person who came closest was Ted Williams; and even then, his career batting average was “only” .344, with a season high of .406, in 1941.
Although .344 is not the highest career batting average (Nap Lajoie, who played from 1896 to 1916, lays claim to that, at .426), Williams’ .482 OBP (On-Base Percentage) is the best of all time. So the chances of “The Splendid Splinter” getting on base were practically even whenever he stepped to the plate.
You may be aware that before baseball teams play each other, the pitching coach, pitchers, and catchers meet to go over the batting proclivities of the opposing players. They may choose to throw sliders to one batter, curves to another, move others off the plate by throwing high and tight to them, or low and away to those who have a hard time reaching those pitches, etc. In the case of Williams, though, there were no “holes in his swing”—no weaknesses to exploit.
So, on one occasion before a game, when they were discussing what to do with Ted, the pitching coach, in effect, threw up his hands and told his starting pitcher and catcher, “There’s nothing we can do against Williams. He’ll hit whatever we throw him. Just give him whatever he wants.”
So when Williams first stepped to the plate, the catcher greeted him, “Hello, Ted. What do you want?”
“What kind of pitch do you want?”
Ted was dumbfounded. “What do you mean?”
“We’re going to give you whatever you want. Whatever we throw, you’re going to hit it, anyway.”
“OK; fastball down the middle, then.”
But Ted didn’t think they would really throw the fastball. He figured they were trying to trick him—get him to think a fastball was coming, but in actuality throw him a (literal) curve ball, or maybe a slowball (called a “changeup” in baseball terminology).
It was, though, a fastball that the pitcher threw, right down the middle of the plate. Ted watched it go by.
“Strike one!” the umpire said.
That happened three straight times. “What do you want?” “Fastball down the middle.” He got what he called for each time, and watched it go by each time. “The Thumper” (another of Ted’s nicknames) struck out looking, never believing they were really going to give him such an opportunity.
That was possibly the greatest “psych job” of all time, even if unintentional. It shows, though, just how respected (feared, some may say) Williams was as a hitter. Every team would have loved to have him in their lineup. With a career slugging percentage of .634 (second only to Babe Ruth’s .690), he could have easily “taken his act elsewhere” once his contract came up for renewal. Williams could have held the Red Sox hostage and written his own ticket, but he didn’t.
In his penultimate season as a player (1959), Williams had a down year, batting a pedestrian .254. He was offered a certain amount of money to play the next season. He turned it down. Was he holding out for a more lucrative offer? On the contrary. He insisted on taking a 30% pay cut, due to not having played up to his standards the previous year. He went out on his terms, and performed well above his pay grade, batting .316 in 1960, his final season as a player, which he concluded with a homerun in his last at bat.
The $60,000 Williams made in 1960 is roughly equivalent to $500,000 today. That is chickenfeed compared to what many players are paid now. There are players who rake in many millions per year now, on multi-year contracts. For example, not long ago, Manny Machado inked a $300 million, 10-year contract ($30 million per year) with the Padres, who play in Ted Williams’ hometown of San Diego. The average MLB player is now compensated at a rate of more than $4 million per year ($25,000 for each of the 162 games, some of which they probably don’t even play in, especially if they are pitchers).
On that note, The ‘mazin’, ‘mazin’, ‘mazin’ (in more ways than one) Mets just gave starting pitcher Max Scherzer 130 million smackers for a three-year contract. That's $43 million per year (plus a measly $333,000 or so). With starters typically pitching once in five games now, that equates to 32 starts (not all of which he will make complete games out of). How much will he rake into this bosom for each game he pitches? 1.3 million bucks. If he averages seven innings per outing, that's $200,000 per inning, or $67,000 per out. Yowza. Bonkers.
How does all this affect the fans? In Ted Williams’ time, ticket prices averaged $1.76, the equivalent of around $14 or $15 today. Yet the cost of tickets is now double that: they will cost you an average of $34. And that’s not counting the $5 a pop you’ll shell out for pop. Hot dogs are also $5, and beer is $6. Can you even get peanuts and Cracker Jacks at any price when you take yourself out to a ball game, anymore? I don’t know; I haven’t been to a baseball game in decades. The outlay is too rich for my blood.
When Hollywood is called on the carpet for the unimaginative, insipid, vapid drivel they inundate viewers with, the ivory tower boys blame it on the public, saying they’re just giving the lowbrow masses what they want: cheap thrills galore. The people counter that they only watch the claptrap provided because that’s all there is to choose from—that’s what Hollywood produces, so that’s what they watch.
Somewhat similarly, the high price of baseball tickets, pricing out many working-class families, is defended by the price gougers/setters as being necessary due to the exorbitant salaries they must dole out to the prima donna athletes.
If Ted Williams were alive and in his prime today, he would doubtless attract suitors who would be more than willing to part with upwards of $10 million per year for his services—which is probably ten times as much as the Hall of Famer earned playing baseball in his entire 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox. Would he accept such unfathomable riches? Or would he demand a cessation of hostilities against the fans and families, and an end to the fiscal lunacy?
After all, why are hundreds of household “Who?”s getting upwards of $5,000 each time they come to the plate while first responders, nurses, teachers, et al, earn far less for their truly important contributions to society?
Does the lockout have anything to do with the outrageous contracts players have been getting recently? Is there some material advantage for the owners to give out these contracts just prior to locking out the players?
It’s all beyond ridiculous. I love baseball, but I hate what it has become. A pox on both their houses, especially the owners’.