When asked how he wanted people to remember him, Ted Williams said he wanted to be remembered as “the greatest hitter that ever lived.” While such a title is subjective, Williams’ resume may have earned him the honor.
The Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer is the last MLB player to hit .400 in a season (.406 in 1941), one of only two players to win multiple batting Triple Crowns (Rogers Hornsby), and the all-time leader in on-base percentage (.482).
Williams’ lightning-quick swing and keen eye at the plate brought him six batting championships and four home run titles in his 19 Major League seasons. He also led the league in OBP 12 times, OPS 10 times and slugging percentage nine times.
The most astonishing part of Williams’ career is that he accomplished these feats while missing nearly five full seasons to military duty, three during World War II and two in the Korean War.
Williams began his baseball journey in his hometown of San Diego, where he starred as both a hitter and pitcher at Herbert Hoover High School. His first professional experience came for the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
Williams became a member of the Red Sox organization on December 7, 1937 when Boston traded three players and cash for the future Hall of Famer. After hitting .366 with 46 home runs and 142 RBIs for the minor league Minneapolis Millers in 1938, Williams made his Major League debut with the big club in 1939.
The 20-year-old was a hit in his rookie year, batting .327 with 31 home runs while leading the American League with 145 RBIs and 344 total bases. In his second season, Williams hit .344 with 23 home runs, 113 RBIs, and led the AL with 134 runs scored and a .442 OBP. He was also selected to his first of 19 All-Star Games.
At 22, Williams was already established as one of baseball’s best hitters, but 1941 put him in the history books. The Red Sox slugger entered the final day of the season hitting .3995, which would have been rounded up to .400, making him the first AL player to achieve the feat since 1923.
Instead of sitting out to protect his average, Williams chose to play both games of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s. He proceeded to go 6 for 8 to finish the season at .406. Eighty years later, he is still the last player to hit .400 in a full MLB season. In addition to winning his first batting title, Williams led the AL with 37 home runs, 135 runs, a .553 OBP, .735 slugging and 1.287 OPS.
Williams followed up his historic 1941 season with another stellar year in 1942. He won the AL batting Triple Crown with a .356 average, 36 home runs and 137 RBIs. He also led the league with 141 runs, 338 total bases, a .499 OBP, .648 slugging and 1.147 OPS.
Williams was at the top of the baseball world following the 1942 season, but real world events would take him out of the Red Sox lineup for the next three seasons. After being called to active duty in 1943, Williams served as a pilot instructor during World War II, training young pilots to fly fighter planes for both the Navy and Marines.
Following three years away from the game, it would have been understandable for the now 27-year-old Williams to show some rust. This was far from the case, as the Red Sox slugger hit .342 with 38 home runs, 123 RBIs, and led the league with 142 runs, 343 total bases, a .497 OBP, .667 slugging and 1.164 OPS en route to winning the 1946 AL MVP.
The 1946 season also marked Williams’ first and only trip to the postseason, as the Red Sox won 104 games and their first AL pennant since 1918. Unfortunately, the Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals with Williams hitting a disappointing .200 with no extra base hits.
In 1947, Williams became only the second MLB player to win two batting Triple Crowns, as he led the AL with a .343 average, 32 home runs and 114 RBIs. He followed that up by winning a fourth career batting title in 1948 after hitting .369 with 25 home runs and 127 RBIs.
In 1949, Williams celebrated his 30th birthday by setting career highs with 43 home runs, 159 RBIs and 150 runs, all of which led the AL. He also led the league in OBP (.490), slugging (.650) and OPS (1.141) for the fourth consecutive season, and the sixth straight year in which he played, going back before his military duty in WWII. The game’s greatest hitter was rightly rewarded with his second AL MVP.
The 1950 season brought the first major injury of Williams’ career after he broke his left arm after running into the Comiskey Park scoreboard at the All-Star Game. The injury was significant enough that the Red Sox star considered retirement during the offseason.
Fortunately Williams was able to bounce back, hitting .318 with 30 home runs and 126 RBIs in 1951. He once again led the AL in total bases (295), OBP (.464), slugging (.556) and OPS (1.019).
With Williams fully recovered from his arm injury, the 1952-53 seasons brought a different but familiar reason for the future Hall of Famer to miss playing time.
On January 9, 1952, Williams was called to active duty for the Korean War. Instead of serving as a pilot instructor, this time he would fly combat missions in a Marine fighter jet. Williams’ service caused him to miss all but 43 games of the 1952-53 seasons, meaning baseball’s best hitter had now missed nearly five full seasons in the prime of his career.
Even though he missed a combined 93 games after returning to baseball for the 1954-55 seasons, the 35-year-old Williams showed he was still one of the majors’ top hitters. He hit .345 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs in 117 games in 1954, and .356 with 28 home runs and 83 RBIs in 98 games in 1955. Williams would have won the batting title each year, but he fell short of the required number of at-bats.
In 1957, Williams made history by becoming the oldest player to win a batting title after leading the AL with a .388 average at the age of 38. He also hit 38 home runs, and led the league with a .526 OBP, .731 slugging and 1.257 OPS. All three marks were the second highest of Williams’ career, trailing only his iconic 1941 season.
Williams broke his own record by winning another batting title in 1958, leading the AL with a .328 average at age 39. It was the sixth batting championship of his career.
The 1959 season would not be as productive for the now 40-year-old Williams, as he hit only .254 with 10 home runs. It marked the first and only time in his career that he hit less than .300 and had an OPS under 1.000.
Despite his struggles in 1959, Williams refused to go out on a low note, hitting .316 with 29 home runs, 72 RBIs and a 1.096 OPS in 113 games in his final season in 1960. On September 28, he hit a home run in his final at-bat in a 5-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles in Fenway Park. It was a fitting end for arguably the greatest hitter in Major League history.
Williams finished his career with a .344 average, 521 home runs, 1,839 RBIs and 1,798 runs in 19 MLB seasons. His .482 OBP ranks first all time, and his .634 slugging and 1.116 OPS rank second.
“The Splendid Splinter” was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1966. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented Williams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. government.