THE DAY IT WAS TED WILLIAMS VS. THE TIGERS
The New York Times put it aptly last Saturday when it referred to the great Ted Williams’ passing as “coming close to concluding an era of larger-than-life baseball stars.”
The Williams biographical capsules of the past few days include references to such outstanding feats as his hitting two home runs in the 1946 All-Star Game (including the one off Rip Sewell’s ephus pitch) and his completing a phenomenal .388 season at age 39. But perhaps one of the most truly dramatic Williams moments is recalled far less often.
It was Sunday, May 16, 1954. The Red Sox were about to start a short series at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Although he had already become a living and playing legend, “The Thumper” would be the main attraction that day for several additional reasons:
The only active player who owned a .400 season, he was now 35, likely on the downslope side of his prime. He had had five years taken out of that prime because of military service in two wars, the latest being a stint as a combat pilot in Korea. A year earlier he had played in only 37 games after his return from service and the fresh experience of barely escaping death in the crash-landing of his fighter aircraft.
The anticipation of his return to a full baseball season left the public wanting in the spring of 1954 because he had fractured his left collarbone at the start of the exhibition season.
It wasn’t until May 16, then, that he would return in earnest full time to the starting lineup. The Sox were scheduled to play a doubleheader in Detroit that day, and the baseball world was focused on the return of the “Splendid Splinter.”
Expectations were not high. The layoff, in effect, had been since his previous year’s abbreviated season; this hitting machine might need a few games to get back into his groove.
Nevertheless, he was a draw, his return was a story, so this Yankee fan from New York — who at the time was finishing his freshman year at the University of Michigan — joined a handful of friends and took a break during exam week, driving the 40 miles from Ann Arbor to Detroit to witness the return of Ted Williams.
Yankee fans were natural Red Sox haters (and vice versa), but this was not to be a Yankees-Red Sox battle. Artistry with a bat was coming back on stage in a Boston uniform, and for this reason, as well as a reaction to the pomposity of the “local” Tiger fans in his entourage, this writer was pulling for Williams and the Red Sox!
There was little to disappoint.
In the first game he hit three singles in four plate appearances and knocked in one run. Leading 6 to 3 in the seventh inning, the Sox took him out “for defensive purposes.” With Williams out of the lineup, Boston failed to produce again. Detroit then proceeded to score three in the bottom of the seventh and one in the eighth and won the game 7 to 6.
Evidently the first game was just a Williams warmup. By the time seven innings of the nightcap were complete, Williams had gone 4 for 4, homered once and batted in three runs. That brought him to 7 for 8 on his first full day back. But the Tigers broke a 6-6 tie in the seventh with one run, setting the stage for Ted’s next turn in the top of the eighth.
With one on and Boston trailing 7-6, Williams stepped to the plate to face Ray Herbert. Weaving his weapon back and forth, he waited for the Tiger right-hander to deliver.
But Herbert wasn’t ready. He stepped off the rubber. Williams stepped out of the batter’s box, then back in. Herbert stretched, set again, waited, waited — too long, and Williams stepped out again. So again Herbert stepped off the mound. Yet again, Williams stepped back in and Herbert set again. But before he would throw a pitch, he stepped off the rubber again.
One of my friends exclaimed, “He really doesn’t want to pitch to him!” This on-again-off-again cat-and-mouse game continued for about a minute before the drama came to an end.
Herbert stretched and set one more time, delivered and Williams cracked his left-handed swing, and pow! The ball rose in a truly majestic arc: not just a home run, but a two-run, 8-to-7-lead-producing blast to the top of the right-field upper deck pavilion roof. It was one of the most legendary displays ever seen in the former Tiger Stadium.
There’s a postscript to this anecdote. Williams was removed yet again “for defensive purposes.” Sure enough, with their star back on the bench and no further offense, the Detroit hosts tied the game in the bottom of the ninth inning and won it in the 14th, 9 to 8, almost seven hours after the start of one of the most momentous days in the history of Theodore Williams.
Notes: By the way, the pitcher off whom the Splinter hit his first home run that day was none other than Ralph Branca, the same hurler who as a Brooklyn Dodger almost three years earlier threw the pitch to Bobby Thomson for the historic “shot heard ’round the world” when the New York Giants won the National League playoff at the Polo Grounds.
— Michael Zucker is a resident of South Lake Tahoe and a stockbroker with Brookstreet Securities Corporation.
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