Ted Williams, 83, the legendary Boston Red Sox outfielder whose burning ambition and determination and extraordinary talents made him into the player often hailed as the greatest pure hitter in the history of baseball, died yesterday at a hospital in Inverness, Fla.
He had heart and kidney ailments and had a series of strokes.
Williams, a slim, almost gaunt figure, wore No. 9 on his back and used extraordinary hand-eye coordination and lightning-quick wrists to compile hitting totals that carried him easily into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His profile, batting stance and the grace of his near-perfect left-handed swing were unforgettable.
Over the years, he was known by a plethora of nicknames: "The Splendid Splinter," "The Thumper," "Teddy Ballgame" or, simply, "The Kid." None really caught this supremely gifted yet troubled man who could be explosively arrogant. His near-maniacal devotion to hitting made him unpopular with many teammates, as well as some of the Boston press and fans.
Many writers focused on his eyesight, which the Navy once measured at 20/10, as the key to his success. Williams maintained not only that he could easily follow the flight of a baseball toward the catcher but also that he could pick up the ball's spin and even see individual stitches on it. He also said he followed the ball until the moment it collided with his bat.
It was often said that he lived for his next at-bat and that his passion for the science and art of hitting never left him. He traveled south in the offseason to pick out the lumber used to make his bats. He insisted that the Red Sox secure him a postal scale, so he could weigh each new bat, and developed a resin-olive oil concoction to polish them.
This was all to secure his ultimate goal: "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "
Joe DiMaggio, the Hall of Fame New York Yankees center fielder, was the slugger Williams was most often compared to. After they retired, the "Yankee Clipper" said of Williams that "he was the best pure hitter I ever saw. He was feared."
In addition to being a great hitter, Williams was a thoughtful and gifted student of the game of baseball. He wrote a classic book on hitting -- "The Science of Hitting" (1970) -- and gave a more than competent turn as a manager of the Washington Senators-Texas Rangers franchise from 1969 through 1972.
He played in the big leagues for 19 seasons, all with the Red Sox, and was selected to 18 American League all-star teams. He broke into the major leagues in 1939 and retired with a flourish in 1960. He missed almost five seasons when he was at the height of his baseball powers while serving with the Marines in World War II and again in the Korean War.
Williams ended his career with 2,654 hits, including 525 doubles and 71 triples. He drove in 1,839 runs, scored 1,798 runs and had the astronomical career batting average of .344. His .634 slugging percentage -- a tool for measuring power as well as average -- and his 2,019 walks placed him second only to Babe Ruth as the highest in the game's history. At the time of his retirement, his 521 home runs placed him third on the all-time list.
Along the way, he won four home run titles and six batting titles. He missed a seventh batting title by two-tenths of a percentage point and an eighth one because the huge number of walks he received caused him to fall short of the needed number of official at-bats to qualify for the title. He hit better than .300 in all but one season and drove in and scored more than 100 runs nine times each.
He was twice named the American League's most valuable player. He also won two "triple crowns," that is, leading the league in home runs, batting average and runs batted in during the same season. No one has won three, and Babe Ruth never won it at all.
He broke into the big leagues with a bang in 1939, ending his rookie year with 44 doubles, 11 triples, 31 home runs, 145 RBI and a .327 batting average.
In 1941, Williams achieved a feat that has not been equaled since: He hit .400. Actually, he hit .406, along with 37 home runs and 120 RBI and a slugging average of .735. A measure of the confidence, which often in his life passed the line to arrogance, occurred on the last day of the 1941 season.
The Red Sox were scheduled to play a doubleheader that day, and Williams was taking a batting average of .39955 into the game. Red Sox Manager Joe Cronin pointed out that Williams could sit out the final day and the year's average would be rounded up to .400. Williams refused to end the race that way. He played both games and went 6 for 8, ending with an average of .405702.
He became the youngest player, at 23, to hit .400. He also managed the feat with a sacrifice fly rule that counted the fly as an out. Now, it is not scored as an official at-bat.
He seemed to shrug off the achievement, telling reporters, "If I was being paid $30,000 a year, the least I could do was hit .400."
The next year, Williams won the first of his triple crowns, with 36 home runs, 137 RBI and a .356 average.
Interestingly enough, he failed to win the MVP award either year. Both seasons, it went to members of the pennant-winning New York Yankees -- in 1941, to DiMaggio, who hit safely in a record-setting 56 straight games, and in 1942, to second baseman Joe Gordon.
Williams missed the 1943, 1944 and 1945 seasons to World War II. He was a Marine Corps pilot in the war, then spent another two years as a Marine pilot during the Korean War, when his baseball skills were at their highest. He flew 49 missions over Korea.
Upon returning to the Red Sox in 1946, he said it would probably take him a couple of years to regain his stroke. But he hit a 400-foot home run on his first at-bat on Opening Day. By season's end, he had set the AL pace in slugging (.667), walks (156), total bases (343) and runs (142). His .342 was second in the league, as were his 38 homers and 123 RBI.
In the 1946 All-Star Game, he went 4 for 4 with a pair of singles and a pair of homers, including one on the famous Rip Sewell "blooper," or "ephus," pitch. Sewell would throw the ball high in the air and it would lazily plunge through the strike zone.
That season also was noted for the birth of the "Williams" or "Boudreau" shift, a maneuver originated by Cleveland Indians shortstop and Manager Lou Boudreau, who, when Williams came to bat, shifted all the fielders except the left fielder to the right side of the field.
As other teams began using it, the tactic seemed to slow Williams. He hit just .250 in September and lost his triple crown lead. But he did hit an opposite-field inside-the-park home run to clinch the pennant for the Red Sox. In the 1946 World Series, Williams, who had a severly bruised right elbow, hit just .200 and had no extra-base hits. Boston lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
Williams never played in another World Series. He took enormous criticism from the press and fans who noted that the seemingly jinxed Red Sox often came close, then fell just short in games in which Williams supposedly did not distinguish himself. In 1948, he was shut down as the Red Sox lost a one-game playoff to Cleveland to decide the American League pennant.
Yet, he did distinguish himself. He won the 1949 triple crown with 43 home runs, 159 RBI and a .343 batting average.
During his war-shortened 1953 season, he appeared in 37 games, hitting 13 home runs, driving in 34 runs and batting .407. His slugging average was .901.
As his career wound down, he did not. In 1957, he won the batting title with a .388 average, while hitting 38 home runs, then won his last batting title the next year, at age 40. In his final season, in 1960, with only 310 at-bats, he hit 29 home runs and hit .316. His last at-bat became one of the sport's most unforgettable moments, as on a crisp, fall afternoon in Boston's Fenway Park, he said goodbye with a storybook home run against the Baltimore Orioles and pitcher Jack Fisher.
Writer John Updike, who was at the game by mere chance, wrote a classic sports story about Williams, the game and the home run, which was published in the New Yorker and widely reprinted. He told how a rapturous crowd gave Williams a standing ovation as he circled the bases. He told how Williams circled the bases with his head down, never looking at the crowd, and entered the dugout, refusing to emerge and acknowledge the crowd or the extraordinary moment. Finally, Updike told how the Boston manager, before the first pitch of the next inning was thrown, called time and sent a replacement in for Williams. As the crowd stood and roared again, Williams left the field, alone, a last time.
Despite Updike's piece and glowing tributes from all corners of the nation, Williams kept his detractors even as he hung up his uniform for the last time.
Boston American sportswriter Huck Finnegan's less than glowing sendoff, published before Updike's, compared Williams's career to that of Ruth. He wrote: "Williams' career in contrast [to Ruth's] has been a series of failures except for his averages. He flopped in the only World Series he ever played in when he batted only .200. He flopped in the playoff game with Cleveland in 1948. He flopped in the final game of the 1949 season with the pennant hinging on the outcome. . . . It has always been Williams's records first, the team second, and the Sox non-winning record is proof of that."
But probably more representative of most people's feelings were those expressed by sportswriter Ed Linn, who wrote, "And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India."
The general feeling was that nobody could replace the Splendid Splinter in left field, even the 22-year-old kid the Red Sox started the 1961 season, Carl Yastrzemski.
After retiring, Williams never really seemed to leave the game. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1966. Two books he wrote, one on the science of hitting and the other, "My Turn at Bat," his autobiography, are continuing to sell.
He had always disdained managing. In 1968, he said, "All managers are losers; they are the most expendable pieces of furniture on earth."
But he signed on to manage the Washington Senators beginning in 1969. He was a sometimes imperious, sometimes fiery leader with deep-seated opinions on hitting. At one point in the season, he told reporters: "The Washington players need years of coaching, not days. The Washington boys need to be reborn -- not remade."
That first season, he led the Senators from 10th place to fourth in the AL East and was named manager of the year. He continued to manage the franchise through the 1972 season, its first as the Texas Rangers. He ended his managerial career with 273 victories and 364 defeats.
After that experience, he allowed that he did not want to manage again. But an aging, somewhat mellowed, Hall of Famer kept showing up for Red Sox spring training sessions, tutoring favored students on the arcane science of hitting.
He also devoted time to his beloved pastimes of fishing and golf, even while he often belittled golf as a real sport. To reporters wishing to compare hitting a golf ball with hitting a baseball, he laconically pointed out that golf balls had very little movement on them compared with most baseballs. However, when asked about pro golf, he said, "The pay is great, and the only way you can get hurt is by getting struck by lightning."
Theodore Samuel Williams was born in San Diego on Aug. 30, 1918. His father was what some described as a wanderer, his mother a militant Salvation Army worker. The young Williams hated his home and fell in love with baseball. After graduating from high school in 1937, he signed with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
By spring of 1938, he was in Florida, the property of the Boston Red Sox. His skill with the bat was never in question. His fiery arrogance and lack of skill in the outfield counted against him, however.
Williams was sent to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association for seasoning. In Minneapolis, he had enormous trouble controlling his temper and showed obvious disdain for learning the finer points of fielding or base running. In the outfield during games, he was seen practicing his swing with an imaginary bat. But he proved he could hit, winning the league's triple crown with 43 home runs, 130 RBI and a batting average of .366.
Williams never doubted his ability. One oft-told story from his first spring training with the Red Sox featured a lanky youth standing next to a veteran near the batting cage. The great first baseman Jimmie Foxx was about to take some practice swings when the veteran told Williams, "Just wait until you see Jimmie Foxx hit."
Williams replied, "Wait until Jimmie Foxx sees me hit."
Since retiring from managing, Williams had taken on the mantle of one of baseball's respected elders, seemingly ending feuds with the press and some baseball fans.
He maintained a longtime affiliation with the Red Sox, serving for a time as a vice president, consultant and spring training hitting instructor. In 1984, the team retired his No. 9. In 1995, the city of Boston named its $2.3 billion harbor tunnel for the slugger.
In 1999, Williams threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in Boston's Fenway Park. After several Hall of Famers were introduced, a stunning ovation erupted as Williams took the mound in a golf cart. San Diego outfielder Tony Gwynn helped him to his feet, and Williams threw out the first pitch to another former Red Sox hero, Carlton Fisk. After the pitch, Williams was surrounded by all-star players, Hall of Famers and fans, all seeking his autograph.
"Wasn't it great!" Williams said. "It didn't surprise me all that much because I know how these fans are here in Boston. They love this game as much as any players, and Boston's lucky to have the faithful Red Sox fans. They're the best."
Williams was married and divorced three times. Survivors include three children, Bobbie Jo, Claudia and John Henry Williams, who plays on a Red Sox minor league team.