For all aspirants to baseball's Hall of Fame, there is one certain, direct path. Simply hit .400 and in due time report to Cooperstown. The plaque and the niche are yoours. You have joined the most exalted society in the major leagues. You are now the batsman extraordinaire. There have been only eight of your breed since 1901. And none at all in the 36 years since Ted Williams did it.
But for Hall of Fame dreamers, there is an admonition. Keep your nose clean. Joe Jackson didn't and the .408 he hit in 1911 was in vain. Jackson, the blackguard, became a member of the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox. Baseball voted a pox on their memory so one .400 hitter is missing from Cooperstown, rejected for perpetual veneration.
So hark now to the bat of Rod Carew. The next .400 hitter may be among us. As yesterday dawned in Minnesota country, Carew was at a fascinating .408, and climbing. It is true that only the fool-happy would predict a final .400 for anybody with more than half a season to play.But if it is to happen this year, nobody in either league is more likely than Carew to break the 36-year barrier.
The .400 average is a definite thing as honored by the names of those who failed to attain it as by those giants of the game who did. And who were the achievers? Their names are Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb (three times), Jackson and George Sisler (twice), Rogers Hornsby (thrice) and Harry Heilmann, Bill Terry and Williams.
They built baseball tradition. They all served notice they could be .400 hitters by producing high-average seasons before they moved into the near-forbidden circle. Williams did it in merely his third season with the Red Sox, with his rousing .406 in 1941. But Ted The Kid was already showing precocity. He hit .327 his rookie year and .344 the next, alerting admirers to the wonders in store by him.
Carew, too, has also served notice his may not be an empty bid. He already has notched five AL batting titles, with a lofty .364 to his credit a couple of years ago. Can he hunch it all the way to .400 this year? It merits strict attention.
He has the most admired bat control in the majors, even better than Pete Rose's or Joe Morgan's. He is a left-hander who goes to al fields. He's a problem child for pitchers, infielders and outfielders. He can leg out hits and sometimes he hits homers. In nine years they've never learned how to pitch to him, and he's danger with a bat in his hand.
It isn't easy to hit .400. Babe Ruth couldn't and Joe DiMaggio didn't. Nor Honus Wagner, who is sometimes rated a greater player than Ty Cobb nor Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker. Jimmy Foxx or Al Simmons in their years of dedication to the job.
For the .400 hitters, there has been no standard batting style. Lajoie, they tell me, was a stand-up hitter.
Cobb was a croucher with a choke grip. Jackson and Sisler were classic plate crowders. Heilmann and Terry were tall men who crouched a bit. Hornsby took his outlandish stance as far away from the plate and as deep the batter's box as the umpires would allow. Williams was stand-up, fidgety and loose.
Were they lefthanders or righthanders? Half of them batted left and the other four right, so nothing is to be made of that. But only two were National Leaguers, Hornsby and Terry, which perhaps affirms that the NL for a decade was known as a pitcher's league.
Of the lot, Williams was the only big numbers home run hitter, which is perhaps a special tribute to him. All of them were disadvantaged compared to the modern batters who have more opportunity to leg out ground hits on the artificial infields that were unknown in Williams' time and before.
On that score, Carew's average is to be the more admired because he plays in a league that numbers fewer artificial fields than in the NL, where most of the playing surfaces make blue darters of ordinary ground balls. The small company of 400 hitters makes Cobb's three-time achievement all the more glorious. He hit .400 for the third time 11 years after the first time. His.420 ties George Sisler as the best average ever in the AL; Hornsby 's .424 for the Cardinals in 1924 tops them all.
How would you like to hit .359 and lose the American League batting title by 47 points? That is what happened to Cecil Travis of the Senators in 1941, when he finished second to a Williams, who was putting on his .406 show for the Red Sox. The fact that Williams is the only .400 hitter of the last 47 years tells something of the difficulty quotient of the task.
Perhaps this is why Williams has a special place in baseball. His friend and business manager, the late Fred Corcoran used to say, "Put a camera on Ted, and he rises to the occasion."
The cameras went on Williams in that last week of the 1941 season when, with his average at .406, Boston manager Joe Cronin offered to bench him to protect it.
"If I'm a .400 hitter," Williams told Cronin, "I'm a .400 hitter for the whole season, not for a part of one ."
With one day of the season left, Williams' average dropped to .399. Now a doubleheader with the Athletics would be the crucible for Williams. It would finish off the year. He made four hits in five at-bats in the first game. He got two of three in the second game, for six-for-eight day that also included his 37th homer and puthim at his remembered .406