Like I say, he was difficult, but maybe all geniuses are, and he was, as a hitter, a genius, a wonder. It was our game, and Ted was royalty.
Ted Williams hit one-hoppers that would explode off the dirt and dehorn you, literally. He’s the only hitter I ever faced where I was concerned with how hard he hit a groundball at me, because he could embarrass you.
1956 Topps Baseball Card
Baseball’s greatest hitter puts out his hand to a young prospect
By Dell Franklin
As a little kid, whose mind was on nothing but baseball and its lore, and having the advantage of a father who’d played in the big leagues before the war and later played in the Pacific Coast League for the Hollywood Stars and L.A. Angels, I was forever pestering him for stories about the guys he played against. DiMaggio. Lefty Grove. Jimmy Foxx. Bob Feller. Satchel Paige. And, of course, the greatest hitter of all time, and a notoriously difficult character, Ted Williams.
“When I was at second base, I used to play him in short right field,” dad said. “Toward the line. Our first baseman, Hank Greenberg, played him deep and along the line. He hit the ball so hard that if you were a yard off the line and he hit one over the bag, you couldn’t get it. He hit groundballs with an overspin that ate up infielders.
“He hit one-hoppers that would explode off the dirt and dehorn you, literally. He’s the only hitter I ever faced where I was concerned with how hard he hit a groundball at me, because he could embarrass you. He had a bitter feud with the Boston sportswriters that spread throughout the league. He called them the ‘Knights of the Keyboard.’ He hated them. If he was in the hotel bar with his teammates, and a sportswriter came in, he’d be drinking milk, and he’d pour it on their heads. Whenever he hit a rope that was knocked down in the infield at Fenway Park, and he beat it out, he’d look up at the scoreboard and wait for the error to go up, and then he’d glare up at the pressbox and spit. So they nicknamed him the ‘Splendid Spitter.’
“Look, the players, we liked him, despite the fact he could be an arrogant sonofabitch. He was a standup guy. He was who the hell he was. Like Feller, his political popping off was full of bullshit, a real crackpot, but God, could he hit. He was so good that, as an opponent, where you were supposed to bear down against him, you could do nothing but admire him, almost in awe. He was a perfect hitter, never swung at a bad pitch. Incredible eyesight. The umpires respected his eye. He didn’t show umpires up if they made a bad call at the plate he didn’t like. He’d wait until his next at bat and quietly tell them that he wore his socks low, and they understood. His swing was quick and fluid. He seldom struck out. That swing, it was a thing of beauty. He was born with it, and then he worked on it, perfected it, started his own strengthening program—ahead of his time. Like I say, he was difficult, but maybe all geniuses are, and he was, as a hitter, a genius, a wonder. It was our game, and Ted was royalty.”
Later, as a high school player in L.A., and a prospect, I worked out with the L.A. Angels of the American League before a game at Wrigley Field, and dad came to pick me up later at the ball park, and watched the game with me. He was 47; I was 17. The Angels were playing the Red Sox. There was a rumor Williams was somewhere in the park. It was 1961, and he’d retired the year before. Around the eighth inning we decided to leave. In the great dank cavernous confines beneath the stadium seats, the concession stands were closing and there was nary a soul. As we walked along, headed for the exit ramp, I spotted a tall tieless man in a sportcoat talking on a pay phone attached to a post beside a concession stand. I stopped, grabbed my dad by the arm. I pointed at the man.
“Dad!” I exclaimed. “That’s Ted Williams!”
He paused to stare, nodded. “Damn, that’s him.”
“He’s big, real big.”
“He’s put on a few pounds, but that’s him.”
“I gotta meet him, dad. You know him. Let’s go!”
“Dell, the man’s difficult, a real pain in the ass.”
“I gotta meet him, dad. I gotta!”
“OK, we’ll give it a try.”
We walked up to him as he talked on the phone. He spotted us and became immediately edgy, like a nocturnal animal caught in daylight. Paranoid. With obvious resignation, he signed off on the phone and faced us, uneasy, looking cross as a bear in his den. Dad stepped forward.
“Ted,” he said. “I don’t know if you remember me, Murray Franklin. I played against you with Detroit before the war.”
His entire demeanor and expression changed. His body relaxed, and his face softened, and he offered his hand. “Hell yes,” he said. “I remember you, Franklin. Line drive pull hitter. I played you on the line. Good level stroke. How you doing…?”
Dad told him he’d jumped the big leagues after the war to play in Mexico and Cuba and then finished out his career on the Coast League and now had his own business. They made a little small talk, and then Williams glanced at me briefly, nodded toward me, winked, and said to my dad, “Who’s the kid, Franklin?”
“That’s MY kid, Ted…”
“He a ballplayer?”
“Oh yeah. Good prospect. Worked out with the Angels before the game. A shortstop, got a great pair of hands…”
“Hands!” Williams exclaimed sourly, as if he’d swallowed something bitter. “Who gives a damn about the hands. Can the kid hit?”
“Helluva hitter, Ted. Got a double, triple, homerun yesterday and drove in six runs.”
Williams, whose obsession with hitting made him a bit of a defensive liability, turned to me, offered a glimmer of a grudging smile, and put out his hand. I shook it. He didn’t give me much of a grip. This was a guy who reportedly had such hand strength he could rip a phone book in half.
“Thatta boy,” he said. “Hell with the hands. Keep swingin’ that bat, kid.”
With that, he dismissed me, turned to my dad, shook his hand, wished him luck, and like a phantom in the night, took off and dis-appeared into the murky shadows of the ballpark.
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.