Ted Williams, who grew up dreaming of becoming the greatest hitter who ever lived and then gave the dream a stunning run for the money during a tempestuous 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox, died today at a hospital in Inverness, Fla. He was 83.
The cause was cardiac arrest, a hospital spokeswoman said. Williams, who had had a number of heart, kidney, vision and mobility ailments since suffering a stroke in 1991, was taken by ambulance to the hospital this morning from his home in Hernando, Fla., because he was having difficulty breathing, said Lt. Joe Eckstein of the Citrus County Sheriff's Department.
The last major leaguer to hit .400 or better over a season (.406 in 1941), Williams, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966 and later spent four years as manager of the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers, was also a devoted and accomplished fisherman who was as proud of being an angler as he was of his exploits in baseball.
He may not have been the greatest hitter who ever lived, and Williams, who as a child in San Diego in the 1920's and 1930's kept a picture of Babe Ruth on his bedroom wall, was the first to concede the point.
But he made an argument of it from the moment the 20-year-old rookie they never stopped calling the Kid got his first look at Fenway Park on April 22, 1939, to the chilly, overcast day he bid his Fenway fans farewell with his 521st home run in his last at-bat on Sept. 28, 1960.
Among other things, Williams, who missed three full seasons while serving as a Navy pilot in World War II and lost most of two seasons while a Marine pilot in the Korean War, did the following:
He had the American League's highest slugging average eight times, won the batting crown six times, led in runs batted in and in home runs four times and runs scored six times, captured the triple crown twice (a feat equaled only by Rogers Hornsby) and was named the league's most valuable player twice. He had 2,654 hits, and in perhaps the greatest tribute to his batting prowess, he led the league in walks eight times, finishing with a total of 2,019, second only to Ruth at the time.
While Williams could not bring himself to say he was a greater hitter than Ruth, he did manage a claim that was not necessarily less modest. As he put it in his 1969 autobiography, "My Turn at Bat," written with John Underwood and published by Simon & Schuster, "I kind of enjoy thinking I might have become in those last years the greatest old hitter who ever lived."
In 1957, at the age of 39 and while playing for a lackluster team, Williams became the oldest man to win a batting title, with a spectacular .388 average, and then won the title the next year (.328).
Then, after a preseason neck injury in 1959 led to his most dismal season and his only sub-.300 average (.254), Williams, angered that the Red Sox were urging him to retire, came back for a defiant final season in 1960, underlining the magnificence of his career by turning in his second-lowest average — a not-so-low .316.
That brought his career average to .344, sixth highest since 1900, and, like his .406 in 1941, unexcelled since.
Williams turned in memorable performances in two All-Star Games. In the 1941 game, at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, he hit a two-out, three-run homer in the ninth inning off Claude Passeau of the Chicago Cubs to give the American League a 9-7 victory. In the 1946 game, at Fenway Park, Williams hit two home runs, one a drive into the center-field bleachers and the other the first home run ever hit off the looping "eephus" pitch by Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Williams drove in five runs and scored four times, breaking two All-Star Game records, in the American League's 12-0 rout.
Nobody has brought such a studied intensity to hitting, a craft Williams once called an art but clearly saw as a science. And few have created as much excitement simply by stepping into the batter's box in the late innings of a tight game and taking a few practice cuts with baseball's closest approximation of the perfect swing.
As unyielding elsewhere as he was at the plate, Williams also created excitement when he wasn't batting. By his own account he played much of his career in a sheer rage, sometimes at his own mistakes in the field and at the predictable boos that followed, sometimes at a pitcher's effrontery in striking him out, often over what he inevitably saw as a vicious, unfair or downright fabricated blast from the Boston press.
An admittedly thin-skinned man who read his critics religiously and could pick out a single boo from a crescendo of cheers, Williams, who early on tagged Boston fans as fickle front-runners and never failed to answer their taunts, became almost as famous for his refusal to tip his cap to their cheers as he was for the home runs that brought them to their feet.
Even his severest critics had to agree he had an incredible career. But, then, he had been practicing for it a long time.
Teddy Samuel Williams, as the birth certificate recorded it, or Theodore, as he preferred, was born in San Diego on Aug. 30, 1918.
His house was a modest bungalow on Utah Street but his home was the North Park playground a block and a half away.
After completing high school in June 1936, he began his professional career in the Pacific Coast League, accepting $150 a month to play for the new San Diego Padres franchise. The Red Sox exercised an option on Williams in December 1937, paying the Padres $35,000 and sending them two players.
Facing major league pitching for the first time in spring training, Williams was not an overpowering success. Even so, when the Red Sox, who had three .300 outfielders on the team and had never intended to put him in the 1938 major league lineup, assigned him to their Minneapolis farm club, Williams was furious.
Furious enough, anyway, that he led the American Association in batting (.366), home runs (43), runs batted in (142), runs scored (130) and zaniness. Instead of running out home runs, he would slap himself on the rump yelling "Hi Ho Silver" and gallop around the bases.
He also got the advice that was to make him famous. During a tour as a minor league batting instructor, Hornsby told Williams his secret: wait to get a good pitch to hit.
It became his credo. Williams, who never claimed he could see the individual stitches on an incoming pitch but figured he could detect a ball's position within half an inch, became notorious for never going after anything less than a perfect pitch with less than two strikes and never ever for one outside the strike zone.
Start swinging at bad balls, he figured, and you would be sure to see more of them, and Williams saw quite enough bad balls as it was.
Although he was invariably described as a natural hitter, there was very little natural about his vaunted swing. As Williams made clear in his autobiography and in his 1970 book, "The Science of Hitting," also written with John Underwood and published by Simon & Schuster, his swing and every other facet of his batting had been honed during thousands of hours of practice, including one famous incident when a mighty midnight practice swing smashed a hotel bedpost, sending a terrified Boston teammate tumbling to the floor.
Much has been made of Williams's superior eyesight, especially after Navy doctors measured it at 20-10 in 1942, and even more after Williams, completing his first batting practice at Fenway on his return from Korea in 1953, observed that home plate was a hair off line, as a surveyor's transit then confirmed that it was.
What mattered, though, Williams said, was not how good his vision was but how well he used it. "The reason I saw things was that I was so intense," he said.
He made the Red Sox in 1939, and it was an exuberant season. Williams, the darling of the Boston fans, led major league rookies with a .327 average and 31 home runs, and led the league with 145 runs batted in. There was no official designation then, but Ruth, himself, proclaimed Williams the rookie of the year. There was no argument.
Many regard the 1941 season as the greatest ever. Although Joe DiMaggio got most of the headlines during his game-by-game pursuit of what would become his 56-game hitting streak, Williams, whose average fluctuated over the months, had the nation's full attention when he entered the last doubleheader of the season, in Philadelphia, with his average at .39955, .400 by the usual rounding.
Manager Joe Cronin would have allowed him to sit out the games to protect his technical .400, but Williams, who felt he had been credited with a couple of hits that were really errors, never seriously considered it. He went 6 for 8 in the doubleheader, ending with .405702 (185 for 456).
It was an important enough achievement at the time, but it would loom even larger with each passing decade.
The last batter to hit .400 before Williams was the New York Giants' Bill Terry, who batted .401 in 1930. There was not much mystery about who was likely to do it after 1941. And he may have, too, if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Defying critics who felt he should have enlisted in the armed forces immediately, Williams played through the 1942 season, obtaining a deferment on grounds that he was the sole support of his mother, a Salvation Army worker who was separated from Williams's father. He missed .400, but won the triple crown, leading the league in batting with a .356 average, in runs batted in with 137 and in home runs with 36. Then, as the season drew to a close, he did enlist, on his terms and on his schedule, joining naval aviation. He became an officer, gained his wings and served as a stateside flight instructor. He was headed for the Pacific when Japan surrendered.
Returning to the lineup in 1946, he showed that he had lost none of his form. He hit .342 with 38 home runs and led the league in runs scored (142) and slugging average (.667) as the Red Sox ran away with the American League race.
Playing with a swollen elbow after being hit with a pitch in an exhibition-game tuneup for the 1946 World Series, Williams had a miserable Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, hitting .200 (5 for 25) as Boston lost, 4 games to 3.
But he won the triple crown again in 1947, batting .343 with 114 runs batted in and 32 home runs.
Aside from photo finishes in 1948 and 1949, the Williams Red Sox were never again in serious contention, and Williams, himself, was plagued by periodic injuries, most seriously when he shattered an elbow crashing into an outfield wall in the 1950 All-Star Game.
He also missed most of two seasons while flying 39 missions in Korea as a Marine fighter pilot. His plane was hit on one early mission and he barely escaped a fiery crash landing.
Williams returned from Korea in time to finish the 1953 season, leaving two tantalizing Korean War-era lines in the record book: a .400 batting average in 1952 (in 6 games) and .407 in 1953 (37) games.
Increasingly plagued by aches and pains, he continued to pile up hits and controversy. In 1956, he celebrated his 400th home run by spitting in the direction of the press box as he crossed home plate, a gesture he repeated a couple of days later. The "great expectorations" led to a $5,000 fine, which, Williams later noted, would have been a major league record if the club had ever collected it.
His celebrated departure came on a gray day at Fenway Park on Sept. 28, 1960, his last at-bat in the eighth inning against Jack Fisher of the Baltimore Orioles. With the count one ball and one strike, Williams drove the ball to center field. It landed where the bullpen met the wall and disappeared.
After Williams left baseball, he devoted himself to his second love, fishing, which he mastered with the same devoted obsession he had brought to his hitting.
In 1969, three years after his induction to the Hall of Fame, Williams, who had long before proclaimed managing "the worst job in the world," was persuaded by the lure of a five-year, $1.25 million contract to take over the Washington Senators, the hapless successors to the original Senators, who had become the Minnesota Twins.
Williams took over a team that had finished in last place (65-96) in the 10-team league in 1968 and managed it to fourth (86-76) in the new six-team East Division, bringing him acclaim as the American League's manager of the year.
But the Senators couldn't hold their gains. Williams followed the team to Texas when it became the Rangers in 1972, then left after a last-place finish that season. He was around the .400 mark as a manager, too, with a career record of 273-364 (.429).
After that, he stuck to his fishing, writing, with Underwood, "Fishing the Big Three" (tarpon, bonefish and Atlantic salmon), which was published by Simon & Schuster in 1982.
On May 11, 1991, Williams and DiMaggio were brought together at Fenway Park at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the season that spawned their greatest feats.
The following December, Williams suffered a stroke that affected his right side and his right visual field. A few months after that, he had a smaller stroke. In February 1994, 10 days after the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame opened in Hernando, Fla., where he was living, he suffered his third stroke. This time his left side and his left visual field were impaired, and the effects were more severe than the damage incurred in his first stroke, causing him to require a wheelchair.
But in December 1995, he came back to Boston for the dedication of the Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor, and he seemed amused by the accolades. "Every place I go, they're waving at me, sending out a cheer, sending letters and notes," he said. "And I thought: `I've only seen it happen to somebody who looks like they're going to die. And I'd like to say this one thing today: `I'm a long ways from that.' "
Williams was at center stage for the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. As soon as he emerged along the center field warning track as a passenger in a green golf cart, the fans rose to salute him, and he raised his white cap.
After Williams was brought to the mound to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, the All-Stars and the players who were assembled on the field as part of the All-Century Team edged toward him.
The public-address announcer asked the players to return to their dugouts so the game could begin on time, but they wouldn't budge.
Using Tony Gwynn to support his left side, Williams tossed the ceremonial first pitch 40 feet to Carlton Fisk, the former Red Sox catcher who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame the following summer.
The Boston fans' reverence had often been intertwined with rancor. Now, as baseball's great hitters paid tribute to perhaps the greatest of them all, the crowd at Fenway Park roared once more.