On the eve of September 28, 1941, Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams had a tough decision to make. It was the night before the final day of the season…one of the most memorable seasons in baseball history. A young Yankee star named Joe Dimaggio had gotten a hit in 56 straight games. Dick Wakefield had received an unbelievable $52,000 to play for the Tigers. Jimmie Foxx had driven in 100 runs…for the 13th consecutive year. A pitcher named Feller won 25 games. And batting helmets made their first appearance.
And then there was Williams, whose season was one for the ages. Heading into the final day of play, Williams’ average sat at .39955, which rounds to .400, quite possibly the most coveted number in all of baseball. Two hits per five official at-bats. An average not seen in more than a decade. And here was Ted, right on the cusp. His coach gave him the option to sit out the final day to protect .400, but that wasn’t really Williams’ style.
So Ted Williams took the risk and played on September 28th, which happened to be a double-header for the Red Sox. And all he did was go 6-for-8, finishing the season with a .406 batting average. And Ted did more than hit for average, he hit 37 homeruns, drove in 120 runs, and walked an astounding 147 times…at the tender age of 22. But that year’s MVP award went to Dimaggio, as his 56-game hitting streak won the day for the voters.
The magic plateau of .400 has been approached a handful of times since ’41 (George Brett’s .390 in 1980, Rod Carew’s .388 in 1977, and, more recently, Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in the strike-killed 1994 season), but it hasn’t been eclipsed. It’s hard to say whether it will ever be reached again. Baseball’s expansion in the 90’s has allowed gobs of mediocre pitching in both leagues to fatten averages and statistics of hitters who, 25 years ago, would not likely have been playing. Still, “2 hits per 5 ab’s” is (obviously) nearly impossible to maintain through a 162-game schedule.
Ted Williams said that he would like someone else to hit .400, just so people would stop bothering him about it. But Ted’s accomplishment on this day in 1941 is so special, and the game of baseball has changed so much in nearly 70 years. I just can’t see anyone duplicating Williams’ feat any time soon. And so Williams must remain alone on the batting-average pinnacle…for the time being.
Recommended Reading: The Science of Hitting – How to hit, from the man himself.