There’s nothing wrong with mythology growing up around a great figure, especially a mythical figure like Ted Williams. But in the wake of the Red Sox great’s death Friday at 83, it looks like an idea that Williams put forward is gaining status as received wisdom, and it shouldn’t.
The myth is that if he hadn’t lost five seasons to military service in World War II and Korea, Williams would have broken Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Williams missed the 1943-45 seasons, all but six games of 1952 and all but 37 games of 1953, and he finished his career in 1960 with 521 home runs, 193 short of the Babe’s 714 and third on the all-time list, behind Ruth and Jimmy Foxx, who hit 534. He’s now tied for 12th.
Williams used to say that he never regretted his lost baseball years — they were spent, after all, fighting for his country as a pilot in the Marines — but that if he hadn’t been away, he’d have broken Ruth’s record, and several of the tributes I’ve read have accepted this claim. But the thing is, it was no slam dunk at all, if I may mix my sports metaphors. On the other hand, if the Most Valuable Player award went to the best player — as opposed to the best player on a winning team who hasn’t pissed off the baseball writers — Williams would have won it at least six times, and maybe as many as nine. Either would have been the most ever.
Williams would have had to average 39 home runs a year in the five years he missed to break Ruth’s record. And remember, he played in 37 games in one of those years, which was about a quarter of a season. So in the remaining four and three-quarters years, he would have had to average more than 40 homers a year. Williams hit 40 home runs once, in 1949, when he hit 43.
But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and look at what he probably would have done, based on what he did just before and after his absences. In the two years before his three-year World War II service, 1941 and ’42, he hit 37 and 36 home runs. In his first two years back, he hit 38 and 32. Pretty consistent. That’s an average of 36 a year, so let’s give him 36 for each of his missed seasons, or 108 home runs. In the two years before and after his Korea service in 1952-53, he hit 28, 30, 29 and 28. Again, pretty steady. That’s an average of 29 a year. Let’s give him his 29 for 1952, in addition to the one he hit in the six games he played in, and three-fourths of 29, which we’ll call 22, for the three-fourths of ’53 he missed. (He hit 13 in the 37 games he played in.) That adds another 51 home runs, for a total of 159 homers “missed” because of war service.
That would have given Williams 680 home runs lifetime, which would have put him second on the all-time list, ahead of Foxx but still 34 short of Ruth. He’d be third today, behind only Ruth and Hank Aaron, who surpassed Ruth and hit 755. Williams was still pretty good when he retired at the age of 41. He hit .316 with 29 home runs in his last year. Sot it’s conceivable that with two more reasonably healthy years, he could have broken Ruth’s record at the age of 43. (Aaron was a few days shy of 40 when he broke it.) But that’s only if he’d stayed healthy in the five years he was away, and hit home runs the way he did in the years before and after his absences. And it’s only if he continued to stay in the lineup and produce at 42 and 43, which is asking a lot, though Teddy Ballgame was capable of delivering a lot.
It’s certainly conceivable that Ted Williams could have retired as the all-time home run champ, and it’s certainly intriguing, but it’s no sure thing.
On the other hand, when you read in the post-mortem tributes that Williams, who won two MVP awards, might have lost out on one or two others because of his contentious relationship with the writers, who vote on the award, remember that the Splendid Splinter is being damned with faint praise.
Williams was absolutely straight-up robbed of the MVP award four times.
In 1941, he hit .406 and led the league in hitting, home runs, slugging, on-base percentage, runs and walks. Joe DiMaggio, who led the league in RBIs and had his 56-game hitting streak — a statistical anomaly, however magnificent it was — won the MVP. Williams’ batting average was 49 points higher, his on-base percentage 113 points higher, his slugging percentage 92 points higher. DiMaggio had five more RBIs.
The next year, Williams won the Triple Crown and Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon won the MVP, presumably for his .322 batting average and 103 RBIs. Williams hit .356 and drove in 137. Call the cops.
In 1947, Williams won the Triple Crown again, and again lost out to Joltin’ Joe, who wasn’t even as close to him as he had been in ’41, which wasn’t very close.
And in 1957, Williams lost to DiMaggio’s successor, Mickey Mantle. Williams led the league in hitting (he hit .388 at the age of 38), on-base percentage and slugging. Mantle was second in all three. Williams was second in home runs. Mantle was third. Mantle did lead the league in runs scored. Oh, and he stole 16 bases. Chalk this one up as a fourth MVP robbed from Williams.
That means that if there were justice in the baseball world, Williams would have won at least six MVP awards. You could also make a good argument for him in 1948, when Cleveland shortstop Lou Boudreau won it; 1951, when Yankees catcher Yogi Berra won it; and 1958, when Red Sox outfielder Jackie Jensen won it. But you could make arguments for others as well. Boudreau and Berra had big offensive years (not as big as Williams’, but big) while playing important defensive positions for pennant winners. Jensen — I hate to say this because he was a Cal man, like yours truly — shouldn’t have won in ’58. He got the nod because of the writers’ infatuation with RBIs, which you need help from your teammates to amass. But that doesn’t mean the award necessarily should have gone to Williams. Mantle and Indians outfielder Rocky Colavito would also have been worthy winners.
Was Ted Williams the greatest hitter who ever lived? I don’t know. My stablemate Allen Barra makes an intriguing argument in his new book, “Clearing the Bases,” that that title should go to … Mike Schmidt! I’ll leave it to others.
But if you’re looking for ammunition to make the argument — aside from all of his tremendous numbers and the awe of his peers — forget that business about how he would have broken the Babe’s home run record and talk about how he should have been the MVP at least six times, and maybe as many as nine.