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The Case for the Kid

In response to:

Good Sports & Bad from the March 2, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould’s essay-review on the “post-Boutonian” era of baseball journalism, where sociology replaces hagiography and warts are sometimes all [NYR, March 2]. Thanks to Mr. Gould, Satchel Paige’s “Bases on balls is the curse of the nation” now joins Frankie Frisch’s managerial cri de coeur, “Oh, those bases on balls!”

But I can’t agree with Gould’s somewhat cavalier gloss on Ted Williams as “at least an adequate hero for our times.” The Splendid Splinter was far more than that and, as a longtime Yankee fan like Mr. Gould, I can be fairly objective about The Kid We Loved To Hate.

To start with, no other baseball star fought in both World War II and Korea; Williams returned to service in 1950 as a skilled jet fighter-pilot. A wing-mate, John Glenn, later recalled his famous 20/100 eyesight and eye-hand coordination. Shortly after his second return to civic employment, Williams played in the All Star Game and, in this exhibition, went-for-broke chasing a fly ball—and broke his shoulder, costing him another half-season. Not that he ever complained about all of those lost years. The Splinter was the fellow who, embarrassed by hitting “only” about .300 (sic) one year, demanded, and got, a pay … cut. In contrast, Daryl Strawberry demanded, and got, a huge pay hike after hitting .238 (sic) one year.

The Kid was also the man who ignored manager Joe Cronin’s kindly advice to sit out a meaningless, season-ending double-header to preserve a .401 batting average, in what Gould rightly calls the “banner season of 1941.” Williams, instead, went six-for-eight the next day, for the famous .406 finale. In contrast, Wade Boggs recently sat out several Yankee games at the season’s end to maintain an average just over .300 (sic), in a blatant statistics-cum-salary ploy.

Gould also cites that famous example of supposed Splinterial arrogance: how Williams didn’t tip his cap to the fans, after hitting that homer in his last-time-ever-at-bat, in Fenway Park. Arrogance? Dignity and pride, from an age of same. As John Updike explained, in his famous account of that Homeric homer and untipped cap, “Gods don’t answer fan mail.” A year later, after hitting a more famous, 61st homer, Roger Maris had to be man-hauled from the dugout by Mickey Mantle and other Yankees, before taking a quick, reluctant “bow” to the fans—then rushing back to the company of his mates, his team. Today, a journeyman whose bunt wins a game on a squeeze play can draw a “curtain call,” as the phrase goes, in this era of baseballtainment, with its rock music blared between innings, instant replay scoreboards and paid autographs (an oxymoron in my and Gould’s Fifties youth…).

The Kid, The Splinter—he deserved two nicknames—was from a truly golden age. After Curt Flood’s even-more heroic, unrewarded fight against the reserve clause, baseball degenerated into its post-diluvian era of greed. Thus the eight work stoppages in the past 24 years, including the one that recently threatened to give us “replacement ball,” average player salaries being only $1,200,000—eight times what Ted Williams made in his best year.

Michael C. D. Macdonald
New York City

Stephen Jay Gould replies:

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Macdonald. I would add only that the calculations made by my statistical friends suggest that Williams would have hit more career home runs than Babe Ruth if he had played during the years lost to war.

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