Performers are remembered by how they exit the stage.
In the history of major league baseball, no one left the game in grander fashion than legendary hitter Ted Williams, who blasted a home run – his 521st – on his final at-bat, in front of a sparse crowd at Fenway Park, 50 years ago today. It was a moment that was immortalized by a young John Updike in his New Yorker essay entitled Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.
Williams, who was blessed with exceptional eyesight and hand-eye coordination coupled with an obsessive approach to hitting, had one of the most amazing careers in baseball history. The skinny left-fielder made an immediate impact after joining the Red Sox in 1939, placing fourth in the MVP voting as a rookie. Two years later he had one of the greatest seasons ever when he became the last man to bat .400, while setting the record for on-base percentage at .551 (since broken by a juiced-up Barry Bonds in 2002). That same year he won the All-Star Game for the American League with a walk-off three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. (Unbelievably, Williams didn’t win the Most Valuable Player award in 1941, because his accomplishments were overshadowed by Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak that same year.)
Williams’ production remained steady throughout his entire career, and he actually led the league in hitting as a 40-year-old. He ended up playing twenty-one seasons for Boston, winning two MVP awards, despite missing most of five seasons during his prime to military service in World War II and Korea, where he was a decorated Marine Corps pilot. His absence prevented him from reaching 3,000 hits or challenging Babe Ruth for the home run title, two legitimate possibilities. As it was, he retired with a career batting average of .344, the highest for any player with over 500 home runs.
Williams had a contentious relationship with Boston’s media and fans who often found him to be tactless and high-strung. This situation undoubtedly cost him additional accolades, as he twice won baseball’s Triple Crown (highest batting average, most home runs, most runs batted in), yet was passed over for the MVP award both seasons!
After his dramatic final home run on September 28, 1960 off of Baltimore’s Jack Fisher, Williams left his playing career behind. He later managed the Washington Senators for three seasons (earning the Manager of the Year Award in 1969), along with an additional season in Texas, where the Senators relocated in 1972 to become the Texas Rangers. In retirement he became an accomplished sport fisherman and was inducted into the IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, his success in these various endeavors didn’t come home with him. His family life was a shambles, with three failed marriages producing children who sullied their father’s reputation after his death in 2002 by having his body cryogenically frozen instead of cremated as he wished, making him the butt of countless late-night monologue jokes.
In my opinion, Ted Williams hit one final home run in his baseball career after his final plate appearance. It came in 1966 during his induction ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame, when he called on Hall of Fame voters to include former Negro Leagues players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Leigh Montville of the Boston Globe later wrote that this powerful statement from one of the greatest white players of all time was “a first crack in the door that ultimately would open and include Paige and Gibson and other Negro League stars in the shrine.” Largely because of Williams’ endorsement, Satchel Paige (who I wrote about yesterday in “Deadwrite’s Dailies”) became the first Negro Leaguer inducted into the Hall in 1971.