This summer on a swing through Boston, I took the Fenway Park tour. Along the way, our guide pointed out the retired Red Sox numbers hanging over the grandstands: No. 1 Bobby Doerr, No. 6 Johnny Pesky, No. 8 Yaz and others that included David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk, even though he played more years for the Chicago White Sox than the Bosox.
When the guide announced No. 9 Ted Williams, I broke out in spontaneous applause, but absolutely no one joined me. Immediately, the reality struck me. Williams’ prestigious batting feats live on, but his gutsy service as a U.S. Marine Corp fighter pilot who flew 39 missions during World War II and the Korean War with a stint as Major John Glenn’s wingman – the events that prompted my respectful ovation – are long forgotten. The Kid, a two-time Triple Crown winner, the last .400 hitter and possibly the most prodigious hitter for average and power, lives on. But as America’s fearless defender, Captain Ted Williams’ memory has faded among all except baseball historians.
Let Williams’ pilot buddies describe his flying skills. In 1952, after heavy enemy fire hit Williams’ F-9 Panther, his aircraft was ablaze, and the hydraulics and radio were gone. But worried that broken legs would end his baseball days, Williams refused to parachute to safety. Instead, Williams made a spectacular daredevil belly landing. Anxiously awaiting Williams near the runway, his combat pilot friend Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Coleman, the slick fielding New York Yankees World Series champion’s second baseman and later San Diego Padres announcer who flew 120 missions in World War II and Korea, kidded Williams that he landed a lot faster than he ran the bases. Despite his close brush with death, Williams took off on another mission at 8:08 the next morning.
Before he died in 2002, astronaut, former U.S. Senator and senior citizen Glenn, who returned to space at age 77, said that Williams was an “excellent pilot” who may have batted .400 for the Red Sox, but “he hit one thousand as a U.S. Marine.” And Williams, perhaps unknowingly, acknowledged Glenn’s praise when he said that of all his baseball accomplishments – the 19 All-Star Games and two-time MVP awards that he garnered – the honor which he most valued was being Captain Ted Williams.
The great “what if” among the baseball bugs’ hot stove league discussions often centers on what Williams’ lifetime batting achievements would have been had he not lost five prime-time years during World War II and Korea. Williams stands in baseball’s record books as having finished his career with a .344 average, 2,654 hits, 521 home runs and 1,839 RBI. Sabermetricians calculate that had Williams played during his five years serving in wartime, his career totals would have been .342 with 3,452 hits, 663 home runs and 2,380 RBI.
Opinions about who baseball’s greatest hitter is always include Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. But getting on base is what baseball is about, and in that category Williams has no equal. In .482 or nearly half his at bats, Williams successfully got on base or touched home.
But somehow, Williams, the great American defender, is rarely discussed, an oversight that puzzled Coleman. Late in his life, Coleman commented that Williams and he knew one thing for sure. America was and always will be bigger and more important than baseball.
Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the American Internet Baseball Writers Association.