By Phil Ellenbecker
Former Kansas City Royals general manager John Schuerholz once said, “George Brett could roll out of bed on Christmas morning and hit a line drive.”
With my limited Googling skills I couldn’t find any other citations, but I’d venture to say similar quotes have been uttered about other outstanding hitters. And in 1957, Ted Williams figuratively rolled out of bed and started hitting home runs, or taking a walk, or throwing in a single here or there. Whatever he did when he took his turn at bat, pitchers weren’t getting him out.
When Williams stepped up to the plate on Sept. 17, he hadn’t seen action in a game since Sept. 1, having been plagued by a chest cold that kept him in bed until Sept. 9.
“He went back to the Somerset Hotel and rested and stoked himself with vitamin pills and prescriptions and some potions of his own choosing, and browsed through his baseball and fishing literature, and tied a few fishing lines,” Edwin Pope wrote of Ted’s confinement in “Ted Williams: The Golden Year 1957.”
Williams returned to workouts Sept. 12 and suffered a slight relapse before recovering enough to pronounce himself ready to pinch hit five days later against the Kansas City A’s at Fenway Park.
Red Sox manager Pinky Higgins called on Williams to bat for pitcher Murray Wall leading off the eighth inning. Williams slugged his 34th homer of the season.
Thus began a string in which Williams reached base 16 consecutive times, including homers in his first four official at-bats.
Among many heroic feats in Williams’ career on and off the baseball diamond — including crash-landing a fighter jet as a Marine during the Korean War — this has to rank right up there and was a fitting climax to a stupendous season in which Williams became the oldest batting champion of all time — with an average of .388, which is the third-highest to lead a league since Williams became the last player to hit .400 at .406 in 1941. He’s tied with Rod Carew in 1977, behind Brett (.390, 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394, strike-shortened 1994.)
The four homers in four straight at-bats ties with several other players for the major league record. His 16 consecutive times on base falls one short of the record set by Earl Averill Jr. in 1962 and Piggy Ward in 1893.
But we know Averill wasn’t out for a spell before beginning his streak and have to suspect Ward wasn’t, although we have no records to show it. Nevertheless, neither one accomplished their streaks at the ripe old age of 39 as Williams did, having turned that age on Aug. 30.
(And Averill did benefit by reaching on an error and a fielder’s choice, to go with seven hits and eight walks. Ward reached on eight hits, eight walks and one hit by pitch, while Williams’ streak included six hits, nine walks and a hit by pitch.)
Here’s the rundown on Williams’ streak appearance by appearance:
Sept. 17: Williams deposited a 2-1 pitch from Tom Morgan into the seats to tie the game at 8-8, and the Red Sox went on to win 9-8.
Sept. 18: Summoned off the bench again in the eighth, Williams batted for pitcher Frank Sullivan and was intentionally walked with a runner on first, two out and the A’s leading 2-1. Billy Consolo then ran for Williams. Boston didn’t score, and Kansas City’s lead held up as the final.
(The A’s flip-flopped consonants on pitchers of record this day, as a day after Tom Morgan was the losing pitcher for K.C., Tom Gorman was the winning pitcher this day, throwing a complete game. The pitching firm of Morgan and Gorman was together for this one year in Kansas City, and both were members of the New York Yankees during 1952-54. And according to LinkedIn there’s a nonprofit organization management professional named Morgan Gorman in Evansville, Wisconsin.)
Sept. 20: After the Red Sox had the day off and then traveled to Yankee Stadium, this time Williams came off the bench leading off the ninth, again batting for Wall, and he homered off Hall of Famer Whitey Ford. Williams sat on a 2-2 high fastball for his second pinch hit homer in three trips to the plate since coming back. It started a four-run inning that was too little, too late in a 7-4 loss.
“It was the only one he ever gave me,” Williams said of the pitch he received from the 5-feet-10 Ford, who usually kept the ball low and away from Ted. “And the only reason he put that pitch there at all was because he was tired and had lost a good deal of his control.”
It was the only homer Williams had off Ford in 45 at-bats against him over his career, although Ted did have a .378 average.
Sept. 21: Inserted into the starting lineup in left field for the first time since Aug. 31, Williams reached the seats in right off Bob Turley for a grand slam his second time up, after being intentionally walked in the first. Williams connected in a six-run second on a 2-0 pitch for his 15th career grand slam. Williams had two more grand slams in his career and is tied for seventh all time with 17.
So that made two homers in two straight at-bats off the Yankees’ prime hurlers. Turley was 34-13 with a 2.86 ERA in 1957 and 1958 and was the major leagues’ Cy Young Award winner (only one winner in both leagues at that time) in 1958.
Williams walked his next two times up and then left for a pinch runner in Boston’s 8-3 win.
Sept. 22: After drawing yet another walk in the first, Williams made it four homers in four straight at-bats with a shot off Tom Sturvidant in the fourth that gave the Red Sox a 1-0 lead. But that was it as the Yankees prevailed 5-1.
Williams finally kept the ball in the park after his fourth-inning homer with a single to right in the sixth, then walked in the eighth.
Sept. 23: In the opening game of a series in Washington, Williams singled to left field in the first and scored on a Dick Gernert’s single, giving the Red Sox a 2-0 lead on their way to a 9-4 win. He walked his next three times up, scoring twice, and was hit by a pitch before leaving for a pinch runner.
Sept. 24: The Senators’ Hal Griggs finally got Ted out, retiring him on a grounder to second in a 1-2-3 first inning. But Williams homered his next time up, leading off the fourth inning for his 38th and final homer of the season, to give the Red Sox a 2-0 lead. That proved to be the difference in a 2-1 win. Williams was called out on strikes and walked his final two times up.
Besides stopping his streak, the fact Griggs was able to get Williams looking in the sixth appears quite notable considering the number of walks Ted had been drawing and the respect he had from umpires on ball and strike calls (or perhaps how much he had said umps bamboozled). This was Griggs’ first start of the year after a September call-up. With a final 6-26 four-year record and 5.50 ERA, his face-downs with Williams this day, homer aside, might rank as a career highlight besides a two-hit shutout he had in 1959. (Williams was 5 for 11 off Griggs lifetime for a .455 average.)
Williams went 2 for 3 the next day and was 3 for 6 over Boston’s next three and final games, giving Ted his final mark of .388. He was 6 for 6 during his streak and 6 for 12 after that, giving him an average of .667 from Sept. 17 on.
Williams had been at .376 on Sept. 1, one point behind Mickey Mantle. With his time off and hot hitting once he came back, Ted was able to finish 23 points ahead of Mantle in the batting race. Besides winning his fifth batting title, Williams, who played in 132 games, also won his ninth slugging average crown (.731) and was second in homers,
It wasn’t enough to win him the MVP, though. Mantle took the honors, his second straight MVP and second of three, with six first-place votes and 233 balloting points to five first-place votes and 209 points for Williams. Two of the voting writers (neither one from Boston) placed Williams ninth and10th on their ballots.
The results met with disparagement from Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and others, but this wasn’t the first time Williams might have been robbed of an MVP. He finished second to Joe DiMaggio in his 1941 .406 season and also was runner-up to DiMaggio after winning the Triple Crown in 1947. In the latter year one Boston elector didn’t even include Williams in his top 10.
The fact was, Williams’ strained relationship with writers probably cost him more than a couple MVPs. Six times he was the league leader in WAR (wins above replacement), the modern metric meant to measure a player’s overall value (and this includes defensive ability, for which Ted was not noted).
Williams was named the Sporting News’ player of the year for 1957, and MVP or not, the season was a remarkable one by his or anybody else’s standards, coming at ages 38-39 and just three years removed from the end of his career in 1960.
And it was more than Ted bargained for.
“His thoughts centered on making this his last year,” Pope wrote in “Golden Year.” “‘I hope I can just start 100 games,’ Ted was quoted, ‘and maybe play in 125, and hit .325 or a little higher.
“‘If anybody had even asked me three years ago if I would be in uniform in 1957, I’d have to say no. Sometimes, I guess, when you think you’re beginning to slip, you feel like packing up your bag and saying the hell with it. But when you get older, you think better of the game.”
Ah, the hell with it Ted, why not just go out and hit .388?
As you can see, besides my usual sources — retrosheet.org and baseballreference.com — I relied on Edwin Pope‘s “Ted Williams, The Golden Year 1957” to flesh out this account. I had this sitting around because I was flipping through some early 1970s issues of The Sporting News a couple years ago when I came across an ad for the book. I thought, “That looks like it would be a good book, I wouldn’t mind having it.”
I remember when I used to look through old issues of magazines and coming across stuff I’d like to order and thinking I could actually order it. But of course I couldn’t because THE MAGAZINE WAS 15 OR 20 YEARS OLD.
But that’s not the case anymore, thanks to the miracle of the internet and Amazon. If I wanted that book, by golly I could have it, right Amazon? Yes, they did have it. And it looks like they still do.
And for those of you who think you’ve read everything there is worth reading about Ted Williams, you might want to add this to your list. Pope seems to be one of those writers who did have a good relationship with Ted, and this gives the book some insight you might be missing elsewhere. And Pope, a Miami Herald legend who just died in January at age 88, did pick a heck of a season to write about, besides giving you a good overall view of Williams’ career and persona.
For consecutive times on base streaks: http://www.gammonsdaily.com/earl-averill-jr-the-batter-who-reached-base-17-straight-times/; http://bleacherreport.com/articles/934773-ranking-the-most-unbreakable-mlb-player-streaks-and-consecutive-game-records
For general information: retrosheet.org and baseball reference.com
For information on Ted Williams’ 1957 season: “Ted Williams, The Golden Year 1957,” Edwin Pope, Prentice-Hall, 1970 (available at amazon.com)