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Book excerpt: Ted Williams, and the question of who had the best six-year stretch in baseball history

Hornsby, Ruth, Williams, or Mays, who you got?

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Ted Williams Dies

Beyond the Box Score writer, Jim Turvey, recently finished up a five-year project that became his debut book. The book, which is available on Amazon, is entitled Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players. As the title suggests, it looks at the best player at each position for each franchise in baseball history.

The book combines baseball history with baseball statistics (and plenty of baseball nonsense) throughout its pages. The following is an excerpt from the book that shows the combination of statistics and history that flow throughout the book. (There’s no nonsense in this excerpt, but there’s definitely more than a fair share of nonsense in other parts of the book.)

Here’s the left field spot for the Boston Red Sox Starting IX:

LF Ted Williams (1939-1960)

Maybe the most stacked position for any team in history; it makes it even more impressive that Williams wins here without even needing a breakdown. Sure, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice get some credit for their dominant play in historic Fenway left field, but when you look at the numbers, it’s clear Williams gets an easy nod for the start. Williams had a career OPS+ of 190, a figure topped in only one season by Rice and Yaz combined (Yaz’s 1967 MVP season, the last Triple Crown before Miguel Cabrera won it in 2012) and only trails Babe Ruth in all of baseball history. Despite missing three years of his prime, Williams still ranks first in Red Sox history in home runs and only barely trails Yaz in runs and RBI despite playing four fewer seasons. Williams won six batting titles to Yaz’s three and Rice’s zero; he led the league in runs six times, the other two did so three times combined; he led in home runs four times, equal to the Yaz Rice combination; Williams led in RBI four times, to three combined for YazRice. The most impressive thing might be that, barring his rookie year and his final two seasons, every year Williams qualified for the on-base percentage title, he won it. His career on-base percentage is .482, or 30 points better than any season Yaz or Rice ever had, and a figure that would be good for 43rd on the all-time single-season on-base percentage list. A list that, oh by the way, contains seven of Ted Williams’ own seasons ahead of that .482 mark. In fact, only Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, Billy Hamilton, John McGraw, and Barry Bonds were able to top Williams’ career .482 mark in multiple seasons.

The only negative to “Thumper’s” career is that the Red Sox never won a World Series with Williams. They were often behind the Yankees, and with only one team making the playoffs from the American League at the time, the Sox visited the Fall Classic only once in Williams’ time with the team – their 1946 World Series loss to the Cardinals. “The Splendid Splinter” hit just .200 for the seven-game series, failing to collect a single extra base hit and tallying only three RuBIns. However, this shouldn’t take away from the career of Williams. Baseball is the ultimate team sport, so being expected to carry a team to a championship is not a fair way of assessing a career.

A much more accurate way of judging a career is by a top six-year stretch. Six years is a long enough period of dominance that the players with the best six-year stretches in their careers, are some of the all-time greats. Let’s take a look at the candidates for this breakdown. Honorable Mention: Ty Cobb 1910-1915, Stan Musial 1948-1953, Mike Trout 2012-2017, Mickey Mantle 1956-1961, Albert Pujols 2004-2009, Alex Rodriguez 2000-2005, Barry Bonds 1999-2004, Joe Morgan 1972-1977, and Honus Wagner 1904-1909. The finalists: Rogers Hornsby 1920-25, Babe Ruth 1919-24, Ted Williams 1941-49 (years missed to WWII), and Willie Mays 1960-65.

Surface Statistics

Rogers Hornsby 1920-1925 845 711 1296 153 489 692 55 .397 .467 .666
Babe Ruth 1919-1924 839 826 1048 264 551 773 66 .363 .503 .759
Ted Williams 1941-1949 891 817 1110 211 468 780 10 .359 .505 .657
Willie Mays 1960-1965 940 720 1090 255 465 693 97 .310 .386 .598

Advanced Statistics

Name Year WAR WAA OPS+ >lgBA >lgOBP >lgSLG
Name Year WAR WAA OPS+ >lgBA >lgOBP >lgSLG
Rogers Hornsby 1920-1925 58.8 47.9 201 .107 .121 .264
Babe Ruth 1919-1924 65.0 53.2 227 .070 .143 .354
Ted Williams 1941-1949 58.1 48.3 208 .084 .149 .261
Willie Mays 1960-1965 59.6 46.3 169 .048 .061 .201

League-Leading Comparison

Rogers Hornsby 1920-1925 3 2 4 6 6 6 6 4 6 1 5 4 4 1 1
Babe Ruth 1919-1924 5 5 4 1 5 6 6 5 5 4 4 XXX XXX XXX 1
Ted Williams 1941-1949 5 4 3 5 6 6 6 5 6 6 4 XXX 2 XXX 2
Willie Mays 1960-1965 1 3 XXX XXX 1 2 2 5 3 XXX 2 1 XXX XXX 1

Team/Player Postseason Success

Name Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG Pennants Rings
Name Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG Pennants Rings
Rogers Hornsby 1920-1925 XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX XXX
Babe Ruth 1919-1924 12 4 8 .269 .420 .652 3 1
Ted Williams 1941-1949 2 0 1 .200 .333 .200 1 XXX
Willie Mays 1960-1965 3 0 1 .250 .276 .321 1 XXX

The first comment of note are the unsurprising names listed in this group. Six years is a pretty good chunk of time, and while there are certainly players outside of the upper echelon who have had six outstanding years, putting them together, six in a row, is very hard for anyone but the greats.

One interesting note is the limited team success any of these players had during their dominant reigns. Ruth had the most success, winning three pennants, but he still won only one World Series (an especially low total given the dominance of the Yankees in the 1920s), and he didn’t perform that well in the single World Series he reached. It just goes as further proof that baseball is truly a sport in which more than one dominant player is needed, and an all-around good team is required to win a championship.

Willie Mays made the cut because of his excellent WAR totals for those six years, and if this were a measure of the most consistent over a six-year stretch, he would probably lead everyone else. But he didn’t have the league domination that the other three players had, and he barely led the league in any of the statistical categories listed, consequently he’s the first eliminated.

The final three players truly dominated the time in which they played. The ironic part of this is that Ruth and Hornsby had their periods of dominance at pretty much at the same time. This was a time when hitters were beginning to have more success, and these two were at the forefront at that revolution.

Of the three players, Hornsby had the lowest power numbers, but he was the best hitter by average, most notably coming just three points shy of hitting .400 for the entire six year stretch. This was not just a product of the times, as he won all six batting titles and finished with a batting average more than 100 points higher than league average during those six years.

Hornsby’s .424 batting average in 1924 is the highest post-1900 BA of all time, and only three players have been able to top that magical .400 cutoff since. One of them is the man he is going against, Ted Williams, who is the most recent to achieve the feat, all the way back in 1941. Bill Terry achieved the Triple Crown in 1930, and Hornsby, himself, did it again in 1925. Despite the batting average advantage, Hornsby trails Williams and Ruth by a decent margin in on-base percentage, thanks to Ruth and Williams both having reached base more than half the time they stepped into the batter’s box for these six-year stretches – that of itself is incredible.

An on-base percentage over .500 sounds impressive on it’s own, but here’s just how impressive it is: since 1900 only three men outside of Ruth and Williams have had that high an on-base percentage in a single year, let alone compiled over six years. The fact that Hornsby’s strongest suit was reaching base, and Ruth and Williams both topped him in doing so during their own six-year stretch, means Hornsby is eliminated.

Now it’s down to Ruth and Williams, and by the numbers, Ruth seems to hold a small advantage. He has slightly better power numbers (having hit 53 more home runs, and his slugging compared to league average is insane), and his WAR totals are a bit higher.

Two things in Williams’ favor, however: first, Ruth had a contemporary on this list who was nearly as dominant during the same exact period of time. Hornsby was destroying the National League while Ruth destroyed the American League. Williams didn’t have any contemporary players on his level of dominance. The closest was Stan Musial, but his prime was slightly after Williams and Williams’ prime was better than Musial’s. While holding Hornsby against Ruth should not be a main determining factor, it does play a role when Williams and Ruth are so close.

The second factor has more of an impact: Williams went to war during the middle of this stretch. He missed three full years to service; three seasons that were right in the middle of his prime. The 1941 MVP race is one of the most famous of all time, and even though Williams should have won, picking Joe DiMaggio wasn’t a bad choice .

The 1942 MVP award voting, however, is a joke. There is no way on earth Williams, winning the Triple Crown and reaching base every other time he went up to hit, should have lost to Joe Gordon, an All-Star caliber player, but hardly the player of Williams’ value. So basically, the two years before he left baseball, Williams was definitely the best player in the league one year, and right in the conversation the other year. He hit .400 one year, and he won a Triple Crown the other; there is no arguing he was in his prime. He missed his age-26, 27, and 28 seasons, which studies have shown to be most hitters’ prime.

Williams missed those years due to WWII, and he was even a standout overseas, receiving praise throughout the troops for his excellence as a fighter pilot. He returned to win the MVP in his first year back, and as dangerous as it is to play the “What-If” game: what if there hadn’t been a war? Potentially, he could have had his 1941-1946 stretch as his six years. He had a WAR over 10.0 in 1941, 1942, and 1946, and he might have been the only player ever to have six straight seasons with a WAR over 10.0.

This is a lot of projecting and guessing, but with an all-timer like Williams, this seems a little safer than with unproven players. (See: the previous stat on winning every OBP title he ever qualified for.)

Tossing around some fun hypotheticals, we can estimate the five years he missed to WWII and the Korean War, which place Williams with incredibly impressive “new career” numbers: .346/.482/.641 slashes with 2,395 runs, 693 home runs, and 2,425 RBI making him the all-time leader in runs, RBI, extra-base hits, walks and the most, or tied for the most, times leading the league in runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and walks.

Even with the time he missed due to service, Williams had one of the best careers of any baseball player. His eyesight was described by one doctor as being “one in one hundred thousand,” which allowed him to pick up pitches better than almost anyone the game has seen. Williams didn’t just rely on his natural ability, though, as he was also one of the premier students of the game. At the Baseball Hall of Fame, there is an exhibit with Williams’ own described strike zones. It contains 77 baseballs labeled with the averages he thought he would hit if the pitch was located there, and it is my personal favorite exhibit at the Hall.

In the end, it’s reality that matters more than estimation, and Ruth has to take this award for best six-year stretch for a hitter by a hair. This time however, I think it might be Ruth, and not Roger Maris or Barry Bonds, who has a tiny asterisk by his name.

An interesting and important aside on Williams:Williams used his Hall of Fame acceptance speech to lobby for Negro Leaguers to be inducted into the Hall, and he often lobbied for Joe Jackson to earn a spot in Cooperstown. This may surprise some, as he is often portrayed as a curmudgeon, but really, enigma is a more accurate depiction for the Splendid Splinter.

Williams was truly a one-of-a-kind. He is one of the most complex individuals to ever play the sport, and his story is one of the most interesting to tell. Because of that, two of the most fascinating baseball articles ever written focus on Williams. John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is the best sports article I have ever read. It was published in The New Yorker in 1960, just after Updike had attended Williams last professional game.

The article is the perfect unity of one of the century’s most talented writers, and one the centuries most interesting men. That Updike grew up an admirer of Williams only makes the piece ring true on an even more innocent and childlike nature. (The prose is anything but childlike.) Though not quite on Updike’s level, Richard Cramer’s profile of Williams in Esquire in 1986 is another must-read for people who love baseball, are interested in Ted Williams, or even just like a good read. It is more of a personal profile, as Cramer is actually able to meet and talk to Williams (no small feat given Williams’ secluded nature when dealing with the media), and the result is just as much an enigma as one would expect. The line that is nearly universally quoted when it comes to Williams, and deservedly so, sums up Williams to a T. “He wanted fame… but he could not stand celebrity,” Cramer wrote. “This is a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust.”

Williams was a man competitive enough that when he was sitting on a .400 batting average on the final day of the 1941 season, he decided to play instead of take the seat on the bench that his manager offered him. Of course he started both ends of double-header, went 6-for-8, and ended season at .406. After the game, he said he didn’t deserve .400 if he couldn’t finish off the season. However, he was also a man too stubborn to adjust to the shifts implemented against him, insisting on hitting through the shift, a fact that caused Rogers Hornsby to call out Ted on not going opposite field more to defeat the shift. For a man whose lone calling was to be considered the greatest hitter of all time, this didn’t make much sense – but nothing about Williams makes much sense.

This was a man who brought up how much he hated the press in his final game, going out of his way to say that he would like to forget those slights, but he just couldn’t. At the same time, he was also an immense champion of The Jimmy Fund and helped raise millions of dollars for the cause during his lifetime. Then again, this was the man who, out of spite, refused to come out for a curtain call after hitting a homer in his last Fenway at bat. He even refused to tip his cap to the crowd because of all the slights he remembered from the Boston crowds over the years.

Speaking of those Boston fans, Williams had possibly the most intriguing relationship with his fan base of any superstar, with Mike Schmidt being his only real competition.

In his New Yorker piece, John Updike wrote of Ted Williams’s relationship with Boston: “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, towards the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories.” Eddie Collins said of Williams, “If he’d just tip his cap once, he could be elected Mayor of Boston in five minutes.”

Of course, Williams was not a man to show outward gratitude, and he certainly wasn’t a man to forgive and forget or let a grudge fade away. One night in Boston, the crowd was really getting on him. The level of vitriol towards their star had been super-charged by allegations from his ex-wife that Williams was just the sort of husband you would expect this grudge-holding perfectionist to be. After making an error, the whole crowd got on his case, and for a man who would pick out a single fan’s heckling in a sea of cheers, the whole stadium riding him was just too much. His inner rage boiled over and he spit left, right, and just about anywhere he could, giving the fans exactly what they wanted – a classic Williams’ response. Of course, the next night was Family Night, and after paying his $5,000 fine from the spitting incident, there were the Boston fans giving Williams an immense ovation – the bipolar nature of the Boston/Williams relationship could well have been the third lead in Silver Linings Playbook.

It wasn’t just the fans, though. Williams was just as up and down with the writers. His relationship with the Boston media went as far as to cost him an MVP in his epic 1941 season. Williams was in such bad standing with the Boston media that one writer, from Boston, refused to put Williams anywhere in the top ten on his ballot, and this was the difference in the vote (Joe DiMaggio won in his 56-game hit streak season). This animosity continued throughout his career, and when Williams hit his 400th home run, he spit towards the press box as a big “eff you” to the writers of Boston he battled with so often. Williams called the Boston sportswriters the “Knights of the Keyboard.” I can taste the disdain from here.

However, to blame Williams’ not-so-sweet disposition on a long battle with the media or fans of Boston would not necessarily be accurate. He was a bit of a prick – or at least very self-confident with a touch of cocky – even at a young age. In 1938 spring training (when he was a precocious 19 years of age), some of the veteran outfields were giving young Williams a hard time. His response: “I’ll be back, and make more money than the three of you combined.” Of course, he was correct, but the man definitely wasn’t a cuddly guy. Certainly the media made him more grizzled in his nature – winning two Triple Crowns and going without an MVP in either season will do that to a guy – but as the saying goes: “It takes two to tango.”

One criticism that Williams did not bring upon himself, and was a totally unfair one, was the perception that he was not a clutch player. Incredibly enough, truth-sayer John Updike pointed to this criticism in his piece in 1960 on Williams,

“There are answers to all this, of course. The fatal weakness of the great Sox slugging teams was not-quite-good-enough pitching rather than Williams’ failure to hit a homerun every time he came to bat. Again, Williams’ depressing effect on his teammates has never been proved. Despite ample coaching to the contrary, most insisted that they liked him. He has been generous with advice to any player who asked for it. In an increasingly combative baseball atmosphere, he continued to duck beanballs docilely. With umpires he was gracious to a fault. This courtesy itself annoyed his critics, whom there was no pleasing. And against the ten crucial games (the seven World Series games with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 1948 playoff with Cleveland, and the two-game series with the Yankees at the end of the 1949 season, winning either one of which would have given the Red Sox the pennant) that make up the Achilles’ heel of Williams’ record, a mass of statistics can be set showing that day in and day out he was no slouch in the clutch. The correspondence columns of the Boston papers now and then suffer a sharp flurry of arithmetic on this score; indeed, for Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.”

To conclude, let’s move back to Williams’ feats on the diamond: he’s the only man in MLB history with 25 home runs in a season in four different decades and, as we saw above, could have been even higher up the all-time home run list if he hadn’t served in multiple wars.

My favorite Williams’ stat: Williams would have to fail to reach base 2,000 straight times right now to drop his on-base percentage below .400. The driving force behind that crazy OBP was a batting eye rivaled by none. Williams is the only player in baseball history with 2,000 walks and fewer than 1,300 strikeouts; and fewer than 1,200 strikeouts; ditto 1,100; and yep even 1,000. In fact, in the history of baseball, when no other player with at least 2,000 walks had fewer than 1,330 strikeouts (Babe Ruth); Williams had a measly 709 career strikeouts. His career ratio of 2,021 walks to 709 strikeouts simplifies to about 2.85 walks per strikeout. Of players with at least 5,000 plate appearances in MLB history, only 10 other players have as strong a walk to strikeout ratio. The next highest walk total is Tris Speaker, more than 600 walks away from Williams. And none of them could compete with Williams’ power. Of the previously mentioned 10, none had more than 184 career home runs; Williams had 521. If the criteria are switched to players with as many plate appearances as Williams, there are only five players joining Williams with a walk to strikeout ratio of 2.85, and Williams has more home runs than all of them combined. He was truly one of a kind.

Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.