Monday, September 26, 2011

Ted Williams and the .400 Club

Seventy years ago, on September 27th 1941, Ted Williams achieved something in baseball no one has accomplished since - a season batting average over .400. Actually, Williams could have sat out the final day of the season - a double header in Philadelphia. At .39955, he was statistically at .400, and there was a strong likelihood that the eight or more at bats Williams would see in the two games would cause his average to dip below the .400 mark. The Bosox, already long out of the running, faced two meaningless games against the lowly Athletics, and player-manager Joe Cronin had given his permission for Williams (in only his third year with Boston) to skip the twin bill and preserve his .400. But Williams was not that kind of player, saying "If I'm going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line." The man who would become known as Teddy Ballgame went 6-for-8 on the day and finished the year at .406. (Perhaps emphasizing his point, hist last hit of the day was lined off the speaker in right-center field for a double). In seven decades, nobody has come closer than ten points to this phenomenal mark. (Williams also led the American League in home runs that year with 37, but it still wasn't enough to snag the MVP, which went to the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio).

That sweet, sweet swing...

The interesting thing is how little the Splendid Splinter's accomplishment was noted at the time. Only 10,268 souls bothered to show up at Shibe Park that late September afternoon, and most of the major newspapers failed to make much of the story. Why? In the four decades of the modern era up until that time, the .400 barrier had been broken eleven times by seven different players. Five of those times had occurred in the previous twenty years, so .400 was not considered the insurmountable achievement it would later be perceived to be. Also, another equally astonishing feat had been achieved that same season - Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, and with the New Yorkers running away with the pennant that year, DiMaggio was the bigger story.

Who are the other members of the modern-era .400 club? The first was Nap Lajoie, who hit .426 for the Athletics in 1901. (In one of those delicious twists that occur in baseball, Connie Mack was Lajoie's manager for the A's in 1901, and was still the Athletics' skipper forty years later when Williams topped .400 in Philadelphia).

Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie, bitter rivals and fellow .400 hitters.

Future member of the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox", Shoeless Joe Jackson, hit .408 in 1911, for Cleveland.

Ty Cobb is one of three players to hit .400 twice or more. He did it in 1911 and 1912, and would have had a .401 average in 1922 if the American League had not determined that he was wrongly awarded and extra hit by the scorekeeper in a May 15th game. (As it was Cobb finished the season with an official .399 average).

Next was St. Louis Browns first-sacker George Sisler, who hit .407 in 1920 and .420 in 1922. Sisler was never the same after an attack of sinusitis in 1923, but had a long career with the Browns, Boston Braves, and Washington Senators.

Harry Heilmann (at left in a San Francisco Seals uniform) hit .403 in 1923 while winning one of his four American League batting titles as a member of the Detroit Tigers.

Turning to the National League, the only man who broke the .400 mark three times was the Cardinals' Rogers "The Rajah" Hornsby, who hit .401 in 1922, .424 in 1924 (the live ball era record) and .403 in 1925, the same year he won the Triple Crown and incidentally, managed the Cardinals.

Rogers Hornsby was a hitting coach for Casey Stengel's expansion New York Mets in 1962. Supposedly, when asked how he thought he would fare against current pitching he said "I guess I'd hit .280 or .290". Asked why so low he replied "Well, I'm 66 years old!". Hornsby died of a heart attack in 1963.

That leaves Giants first baseman Bill Terry as the last man before Williams to reach the .400 plateau, with his .401 mark for the 1930 season. It has been eight decades and counting since a hitter from the senior circuit has hit .400.

Many factors have conspired to prevent anyone from reaching a .400 average in the last seventy years. The switch to a 162-game season is one. More games, more chances. The law of averages just works against a hitter as the at bats pile up. The evolution in relief pitching is another huge reason. A starting pitcher in 1941 was expected to go the distance. Relief pitchers were mainly for emergencies. When a hitter got a fourth or fifth look at a tiring starter, it was a huge advantage. There were no Mariano Riveras to contend with in the eight or ninth inning.

After 1941 Williams was always convinced that someone else would come along and hit .400, but it still hasn't happened. George Brett hit .390 in 1980 for Kansas City. Tony Gwynn was at .394 on August 11, 1994 before the players went on strike. In 1993 John Olerud took a .400 average into August, but ended the year at .363. And Teddy? He never hit .400 again, but he did lead the league with .388 in 1957 at the ripe old age of 39, and hit .316 in 1960, his last season, when he was 42 years old, 19 long years after he become possibly baseball's last .400 hitter.

Our Flannel Of The Month is, of course, Ted Williams's 1937 San Diego Padres jersey, bearing the young slugger's #19.