On baseball, and being the best at anything


Part of what makes baseball such a wonderful game is that it supplies answers in an uncertain world. Ask a group of people to identify the best novel, most delicious dessert or smartest president and you’ll invite a debate that ultimately fizzles in a lack of measurable comparisons. No one can prove that Willa Cather used adjectives more efficiently than Philip Roth, or that chocolate cake is more satisfying than pecan pie.

But who is the greatest hitter to ever play in the major leagues?

Here we get help, because as much as baseball features drama and intensity, it’s also a game of precision and repetition, which lends itself to statistical analysis. And therefore, this conclusion: Ted Williams, who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939-60, is the best-ever hitter.

In the 1941 season, Williams -- an irascible perfectionist known as the Kid, the Splendid Splinter and Teddy Ballgame -- had a .406 batting average. That loosely translates into getting a base hit (including home runs) four out of every 10 times he faced a pitcher -- not counting walks. Hitting a major league baseball is a notoriously difficult act. Williams is the last big leaguer to break .400. Judged by today’s depth of pitching talent, love of home runs and commensurately high strikeout totals, perhaps his feat will never be duplicated. Current stars struggle over the course of a long season to stay above .320, or even .300, while the entirety of the league hits about .250.

Williams was a gifted athlete with lightning-fast wrists, better than 20/20 vision and a graceful left-handed swing. “He was like a metronome,” one biographer marveled. The Splinter was an imperfect person, quick to anger, who seemed to take out his frustrations on the little white ball. But he was also an obsessive who contemplated issues of technique and strategy so much that he wrote a revered book, “The Science of Hitting.”

None of us will ever be able to hit a curve ball, so we won’t rush to the library for a copy. What fascinates us is the recent PBS documentary’s character study of a proven perfectionist.

In terms of personality, Williams was generous away from the game but picked fights with sports reporters and had such a tempestuous relationship with fans he swore off tipping his cap after home runs. Williams refused to acknowledge the cheers at Boston’s Fenway Park. “Gods do not answer letters,” is how the writer John Updike explained Williams’ stubborn aloofness in a famous New Yorker magazine article.

He was simply the best.


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