So long, Splendid Splinter

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 7, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. -- To everyone who met him, Ted Williams was larger than life. And he had the numbers to back it up.

Baseball's last .400 season. Two Triple Crowns. A pair of MVP awards. A .344 lifetime average and 521 home runs for the Boston Red Sox -- all despite missing nearly five years while serving as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War.

''Ted was like John Wayne,'' Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said. ''He was a man's man.''

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Williams wanted to be called the greatest hitter ever, and he was. ''The Splendid Splinter,'' who homered in his final big league at-bat, died Friday at 83.

The Hall of Famer was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:49 a.m. at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, spokeswoman Rebecca Martin said. He had suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years.

Combining a powerful left-handed swing, a burning intensity and an intellectual study of hitting's science, Williams was bound for Cooperstown.

As a Red Sox rookie in 1939, Williams had 145 RBIs. His flair for the dramatic continued until the end in 1960, closing his career with a home run at Fenway Park on his final swing.

But even that farewell was touched by controversy, as the 42-year-old Williams refused to acknowledge the home crowd's ovation. As author John Updike remarked in a classic profile of Williams, ''Gods do not answer letters.''

Williams' greatest achievement came in 1941 when he batted .406, getting six hits in a doubleheader on the final day of the season when he could've sat out and still been credited with a .400 mark.

As word of his death spread, baseball paused to remember one of its true heroes.

Groundskeepers at Fenway Park shaved his No. 9 into the left-field spot where he used to play.

Also, a single rose was placed on a distant seat in the stadium's bleachers where he once blasted a homer. That seat will remain empty for the remainder of the season.

The American flag in center field was lowered to half-staff in Boston, at other major-league parks and at The Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla.

At the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., a wreath was placed around his plaque and a flower arrangement was put around his statue.

''With the passing of Ted Williams, America has lost a baseball legend,'' said President Bush, a former baseball owner. ''Whether serving the country in the armed forces or excelling on the baseball diamond, Ted Williams demonstrated unique talent and love of country.''

Former senator and astronaut John Glenn had Williams as his wingman on combat missions in Korea.

''There was no one more dedicated to this country and more proud to serve his country than Ted Williams,'' Glenn said.

Williams contended his eyesight was so keen he could pick up individual stitches on a pitched ball and could see the exact moment his bat connected with it. He also asserted he could smell the burning wood of his bat when he fouled a ball straight back, just missing solid contact.

''When Ted was a young man, he often said it was his goal that people would say of him: 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' Ted fulfilled that dream,'' baseball commissioner Bud Selig said.

Tall and thin, gaunt almost, Williams hardly possessed the traditional profile of a slugger. Often involved in feuds both public and private during his career, Williams mellowed later in life.

The best example came in his reaction to an emotional ovation from the crowd at the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway Park, Williams' longtime playground.

After a roster of Hall of Famers was introduced, Williams rode a golf cart to the pitcher's mound, where he threw out the first ball. Suddenly, he was surrounded by a panorama of stars, past and present, who reacted like a bunch of youngsters crowding their idol for an autograph.

For a long time, they just hovered around him, many with tears in their eyes.

Then, San Diego's Tony Gwynn gently helped a misty-eyed Williams to his feet and steadied him as Williams threw to Carlton Fisk, another Boston star.

The crowd roared.

''Wasn't it great!'' Williams said. ''I can only describe it as great. It didn't surprise me all that much because I know how these fans are here in Boston. They love this game as much as any players and Boston's lucky to have the faithful Red Sox fans. They're the best.''

Along with hitting .406 in 1941, Williams also led the league with 37 homers, 145 bases on balls and a .735 slugging percentage that season. Despite all those gaudy statistics, the American League MVP award went to Joe DiMaggio, who had a record 56-game hitting streak.

The next year, Williams won the Triple Crown, leading the league with 36 home runs, 137 RBIs and a .356 average. But the MVP award went to Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon (.322, 18, 103).

The same thing happened in 1947, when Williams won his second Triple Crown by hitting .343 with 32 homers and 114 RBIs, but lost the MVP vote again to DiMaggio (.315, 20, 97).

By then, Williams' relationship with the writers, particularly in Boston, had deteriorated badly. One writer left him off the MVP ballot entirely in 1947, costing him the award.

Williams and DiMaggio were fierce competitors. Once in the fog of a cocktail party, they were nearly traded for each other. The next morning, clearer heads prevailed and the deal was called off.

''He was the best pure hitter I ever saw. He was feared,'' DiMaggio said in 1991, the 50th anniversary of Williams' .406 season and DiMaggio's hitting streak.

When DiMaggio died, in March 1999, Williams said there was no one he ''admired, respected and envied more than Joe DiMaggio.''

Williams led the league in hitting six times, the last in 1958, when, at age 40, he became the oldest batting champ in major league history.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966, his first year of eligibility.

Williams was only 20 when he joined the Red Sox in 1939, beginning a tempestuous, colorful career. He had several nicknames: Thumpin' Ted, Teddy Ballgame and The Kid. But none stuck like ''The Splendid Splinter,'' a reference to his skinny, 6-foot-3 physique.

Williams managed the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers in 1969-72 and maintained lifetime connections with the Red Sox. In 1984, the team retired his number 9.

In 1995, Boston dedicated a $2.3 billion harbor tunnel bearing Williams' name.

Williams underwent open-heart surgery in January 2001 and had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000. He still did occasional public appearances in his wheelchair, and remained quick-witted and an avid fan.

Theodore Samuel Williams was born Aug. 30, 1918, in San Diego. Married three times, he had three children: Bobbie Jo, Claudia and John Henry Williams.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced. The Associated Press