Seasons in Boston: 1939-1960
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, 2x American League MVP, 2x American League Triple Crown, 19x All-Star, 6x American League Batting Title, 5x Major League Player of the Year
Red Sox Numbers: .344/.482/.634, 521 HR, 1798 R, 1839 RBI, 24 SB, 188 wRC+, 130.4 fWAR
Signature Season (1941): .406/.553/.735, 37 HR, 135 R, 120 RBI, 2 SB, 221 wRC+, 11.0 fWAR
“A man has to have goals — for a day, for a lifetime — and that was mine, to have people say, ‘There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’” That quote is from Ted Williams himself about his goal when he was a young ballplayer. He achieved that. Generations of players have awed at what he was able to do with a bat in his hands. Players and managers from baseball’s earliest days marveled at his greatness. Legendary manager Connie Mack even preferred Williams and his peers to greats of his era, saying “An outfield composed of (Ty) Cobb, (Tris) Speaker and (Babe) Ruth, even with Ruth, lacks the combined power of (Joe) DiMaggio, (Stan) Musial and (Ted) Williams.” To bring it full circle, Stan Musial said, “Ted (Williams) was the greatest hitter of our era. He won six batting titles and served his country for five years, so he would have won more. He loved talking about hitting and was a great student of hitting and pitchers.”
When Williams entered the league as a rookie right fielder in 1939 he finished the year fourth in FanGraphs fWAR behind Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize, and teammate Jimmie Foxx, all Hall of Famers. Foxx began his career in Babe Ruth’s heyday and Williams’s early days overlapped with some of that era’s best including pitchers Lefty Grove, also a teammate, and Carl Hubbell. The Hall of Fame careers of Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri closed the same year as Williams was beginning his. During Williams’s best seasons he would battle fellow Hall of Famers DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Lou Boudreu, and Yogi Berra for the MVP. In 1957, the twilight of his career at age 38, he finished second in the AL MVP to Mickey Mantle, finishing ahead of young stars in their primes like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks. He might have lost the MVP, and deservedly so, but an aging Williams still posted a higher wRC+ than any of those young stars with a whopping 223 — good for the seventh best all-time.
Williams’s greatness with the bat spanned generations of great players and handfuls of first ballot Hall of Famers. He was great against the legends of the 20’s, he was great against the legends of the 60’s, and he dominated everyone in between. He was great pre-integration and post-integration and openly advocated for Negro League players to be added to the Hall of Fame in his Cooperstown induction speech. He literally wrote the book on hitting, his “The Science of Hitting,” which still sells well today and as I wrote previously was influential in Wade Boggs’s Cooperstown career. His philosophy was simple: Swing at pitches in the strike zone. More than that, only swing at the pitches in the strike zone that you know you can drive. Easier said than done. Williams honed his supernatural abilities through years of hard work and dedication and with the natural gift of 20/15 vision.
For as great as Williams’s career was there were many what if’s that could have made it even better. In his legendary 1941 season when he batted .406, Williams finished first in fWAR, but lost the MVP award to DiMaggio, who had completed his amazing 56-game hit streak that same year. As Joe Posnanksi points out Williams’s batting line of .406/.553/.735 for the season was better than what DiMaggio was able to muster up during the streak .408/.463/.717. The next season, in 1942, Williams again led the league in fWAR posting an even higher mark than he did in 1941, winning his first American League Triple Crown. This time he would lose out on the MVP award to a different Yankee, Joe Gordon. Gordon had a fine season, but it was nowhere close to what Williams did.
Williams would lead the league in fWAR three more times, giving him a total of five seasons atop the fWAR leaderboard. He would win the MVP in two of those years, 1946 and 1949, but lose it to DiMaggio again in 1947, the second time he hit his way to the Triple Crown. It should be mentioned he missed a third Triple Crown in 1949 when he and George Kell both batted .343 but Kell had the edge by a fraction of a point.
Winning two MVP awards and two Triple Crowns is a remarkable accomplishment for anyone but I can’t help but think it’s light for a player who was so far and away the best hitter in baseball in the three seasons he lost the award while winning the fWAR crown. This doesn’t even bring into question the fact that Williams missed nearly five whole seasons during his prime fighting in two wars—World War II and the Korean War.
Williams missed his age 24-26 seasons for WWII and the bulk of his age 33-34 seasons for the Korean War. If we consider what he was able to accomplish in 1941 and 1942 as well as what he was able to do in 1957, well past his physical prime, then it isn’t hard to imagine a reality where Williams retires with many significant hitting records and likely as the all-time leader in fWAR. Posnanski ran some numbers as to what Williams’s career would have looked like without the military service, they were astounding. The line Posnanski came up with was .346/.486/.641 with 3,447 hits, 688 doubles, 94 triples, 687 homers, 2,385 runs, 2,423 RBIs. This would’ve made him the all-time leader in runs and RBI and top five in nearly everything else. I personally found them a little conservative because that estimate assumes no extreme home run or RBI totals. His trajectory after his 1942 season suggests there were some real outlier seasons to be had there. Personally, I’d expect closer to Ruth’s home run mark of 714.
Williams was also worth 11 and 11.6 wins before going to World War II and was worth 11.8 in 1946 when he returned. His two full-seasons before the Korean War were worth 9.9 and 7.1. Now let’s be conservative and add three more 11 win seasons and two more 8 win seasons to his career — and this is conservative considering he was worth 9.7 wins in the aforementioned 1957 season. This would bring his total career fWAR to 179.4, well ahead of Ruth’s total of 168.4. We can assume that a few more MVP and Triple Crown seasons could have happened during that time as well. It’s not reality, but it shows just how much time he missed and what could have been with the talent. After all, few in baseball missed so large an amount of time due to the wars.
Reality was still pretty good though. Williams never did win a World Series, losing to the Cardinals in seven games during his only appearance, but he goes down as easily the best Red Sox player of all-time and one of the best in the history of the game. Williams is the Red Sox all-time leader in home runs and batting average. He ranks second behind Carl Yastrzemski in both RBI and runs, trailing him by five and 18 respectively despite playing in 1016 fewer games. He’s first in baseball history in OBP, getting on base over 48% of the time. He’s second to Babe Ruth in slugging and fourth all-time in walks. He’s the only person in baseball history to post a walk to strikeout ratio better than 2:1 — his was 2.85 — while slugging over .600.
I could be here all day going through impressive Williams facts and figures, but I think his place in baseball is best summed up by the reception he got at Fenway at the 1999 All-Star Game. That night belonged to “The Kid”, and the adoration he received from players and fans proved it. They all wanted to get close to the game’s biggest living legend to experience even a brush with true greatness.