I thought that on the eve of the Yankees first trip to Fenway this season, a good Ted Williams story was called for. Recently, a good friend of mine and a rabid Red Sox fan, Dan Gwirtzman shared this story with me about how Teddy ‘Ballgame’ got the umpires to call the strike zone the way he liked it. This is the story the way Dan told it to me. It is adapted from the original telling in the book, "The Brothers K" by David James Duncan.
When Williams came into the league he was confident and quiet, he was focused and he kept to himself. He wouldn’t sign autographs and he wouldn’t say anything much to the reporters. The Boston fans didn’t much like it. So the press and the fans booed him. But Ted didn’t care a bit. He just took it in. He accepted the resentment and the press. This made the fans complain he was arrogant. But he stuck to his game.
As Teddy’s greatness continued to grow, the tension with the fans and the press mounted. He was hitting so well, making Boston shine in the AL East, that people now simply had to know what made him tick. They still resented him, but they needed to have some substance. So now every reporter in town was after him for an interview. But Old Ted held his ground and continued to hit the ball. He also never so much as glanced at an umpire after a close pitch. The umps didn’t mind this. Also, as much as fans hate umps, umps hate fans. So the fact that the fans also booed Williams in his own stadium gave him solidarity with the umps.
All the while Ted was just waiting. And then, one summer day, out of nowhere he relaxed his public stance and decided to grant one sports journalist an interview. They met at a hotel. The journalist fired off three questions – whose your favorite director? what’s your favorite burger in Boston, how long is your noodle?"
Williams didn’t flinch. He answered the questions except the last one. Then the reporter hauled off with the question everyone wanted to ask him, "how do you hit so darn well?"
Ted sat back, took a sip of tea, folded up the paper, and relaxed his manner. He talked of high fastballs, and curveballs he had known, and bat speed, hitters with quick wrists and slow wrists, and as he got on to the subject of fast sliders, Williams suddenly sat up and leaned in.
The reporter was rapt.
"The thing is," Ted said, "I can see the ball from the moment it leaves the pitcher’s hand right to where it jumps off the bat."
The reporter took it in, delighted – he had an article. He ran home and typed it out. It was in the papers the next day. And now the message was out: Williams had perfect eyes. The umps began to figure he was right and who were they going to try and be by disagreeing with Ted Williams on a meaningful close pitch? From then on Williams had his strike zone and went on to put together two of the best seasons any man ever had, including probably the last .400 season.
Carl The Cabbie