Last in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.
My final entry in this series more concerns odd fact than dispute. The Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams, perhaps baseball’s most polarizing figure, was no stranger to MVP controversy. Well known were his distaste for the press and running feuds with several sportswriters—which ultimately led to his one-point runner-up finish to the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio in the 1947 American League MVP race.
The Yankee Clipper had a good season by anyone’s standards but his own—and Williams’. Batting .315, scoring 97 runs, driving in another 97 and playing a near-flawless center field (only one error), DiMaggio propelled the Bronx Bombers back to the World Series after a four-year absence.
But New York sewed up the pennant by mid-July and could afford a less-than-DiMaggio DiMaggio, who had undergone surgery before the season to excise a bone spur in his left heel and experienced complications during the season.
Up the Post Road, Williams captured his second Triple Crown, leading the AL in just about everything: runs scored, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases, as well as the “big three” categories. His Red Sox scored 74 fewer runs than the pennant-winning Yankees, illustrating just how vital Williams’ run production was to their 83 wins.
More importantly, the Splendid Splinter’s offensive numbers so dwarfed DiMaggio’s that comparison seems unfair: Williams outhit DiMaggio by 28 points, outscored him by 28 runs, crashed 12 more long balls and drew nearly 100 more walks (a mind-boggling 162 total).
However, New York, which had limped to third place the previous season as Williams led Boston to its first pennant since 1918 and copped the MVP, turned the tables on the Red Sox—likely causing some voters to blame Williams, despite his Triple Crown, for Boston’s failure to repeat.
Even though, as Bill James specifies in The Politics of Glory, several voters failed to select DiMaggio on their MVP ballot, one writer with whom Williams did not get along refused to list him at all—a shamefully petulant act that cost Williams at least a tie for a well-deserved MVP.
The absent vote that robbed Williams of the 1947 award showed up six years later, when Williams tied for last place in the MVP race with teammate George Kell and White Sox shortstop Chico Carrasquel. The twist is that Williams played in only 37 games that season—which may well be the most meager track record for a non-pitching MVP vote-getter.
Recalled to active service by the Marines six games into his 1952 season, Capt. Williams did not return to the Red Sox until August 1953. His tour in Korea included 39 combat missions, experiencing several near-fatal close calls and receiving an Air Medal with two gold stars for his actions.
Williams’ claim to the title of Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived is bursting with fantastical statistics, accomplishments and anecdotes. But perhaps nothing in his Black Ink–stained batting record better illustrates his inborn talent than how he twice returned from extended tours of military service and picked up right where he left off.
After three years away from the game during World War II—an interruption that proved lethal to many baseball careers—Williams lit up the scoreboard as if he’d never been away and grabbed his first MVP award.
His batting exploits in those first half-dozen post-war years reflect astonishing continuity, certifying him perhaps even more than his mythic 1941 season as a naturaler natural than even Roy Hobbs.
Following combat in Korea, during which he served for a time as future astronaut John Glenn’s wingman, Williams returned in his mid-30s to better pitching than he had ever faced—thanks to the proliferation of integration—yet hit .340, slugged .634 and snared two more batting titles in his “declining” years.
In those first 37 games after returning from Korea—a physically draining tour of duty during which Williams often was sick and battled various ailments—he batted .407, smashed 13 home runs in a mere 91 at-bats and slugged an otherworldly .901. (Williams actually out-homered Kell, even though the AL’s top-fielding third baseman played 97 more games and set a career high in round-trippers.)
For Williams’ abbreviated wrecking of AL pitching, one writer threw him a 10th-place MVP vote—a salute to the 34-year-old Kid’s continued greatness. Debuting on August 6, in Boston’s 108th game of the season, Williams, who only pinch-hit in the late innings for his first seven games back, did not alter Red Sox fortunes.
Thirteen games off the lead and in fourth place despite a 59-49 record, Boston never mounted any kind of charge and remained an also-ran in the wake of the New York Yankees, who were en route to a record fifth consecutive World Series title. (In the slightest of moral victories, Boston took four of five from the hated Pinstripes to wrap up the season, with Williams going 6-for-12, including three doubles.)
Quirkily, in his two-month season, Williams reached base 56 times (not counting potential fielder’s choices, which are not available). Yet discounting the times in which Williams drove himself across the plate with a home run or was caught stealing, he scored a mere four runs in 42 times on base.
Boston’s paucity of offensive prowess—only the sad-sack Philadelphia A’s and the sadder-sack St. Louis Browns proved less potent at scoring runs—dramatized the struggle of a franchise that only three seasons before had scored nearly as many runs at home as it did for the entire 1953 schedule.
Gone were Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Vern Stephens, Johnny Pesky, Walt Dropo and their titanic run totals—replaced by very un-Fenway team highs of Kell’s 73 RBI, Jimmy Piersall’s 76 runs scored and Dick Gernert’s 21 home runs.
On the near side of 36 years old when the 1954 season opened, Williams began the gradual physical slowdown of all ballplayers. Yet his batting eye aged as gracefully as could be.
Suiting up for only 117 games after suffering a broken collarbone in spring training, Williams hit .345—which would have taken the batting crown under present rules. He also drew an astounding 136 walks—a league high that, projected to a full season, would have shattered Babe Ruth’s 31-year-old record.
However, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, idiotically opposed to integration, allowed his beloved franchise to sink into mediocrity as the rest of the league raced past his racism.
Boston would never finish nearer than 12 games out for the remainder of Williams’ career—and would deteriorate further in the following decade—largely because Jackie Robinson’s career was long finished by the time Yawkey consented to break the color barrier.
Fortunately, even as the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived lauded his longtime boss in his 1966 Hall of Fame induction speech, the deeply principled Williams urged a racially torn nation and its historically conservative pastime that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson be enshrined in the Hall of Fame on behalf of all those denied a place in the major leagues because of their color.