What I’m Reading: My Turn at Bat

My Turn at Bat is the 1969 autobiography of Ted Williams (with writing help from Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood), who as a kid wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived, and largely achieved his goal. Notice, he did not want to be the greatest player who ever lived. In the book, he suggests that Joe DiMaggio holds that title, able to hit, run, and field, and all done with consummate style. Ted freely concedes his shortcomings as a left fielder, especially in his early years, and that he didn’t always have the speed to turn weakly hit balls into base hits. But as a pure hitter, he asserts that over his twenty-two years with the Boston Red Sox, he was the best, and it’s hard to dispute him.

Not only was he the last player to have a batting average over .400 for a full season, in 1941 (George Brett has come closest since, hitting .390 in 1980), but he is among the all-time career leaders in runs, runs batted in, and home runs, and led the American League in those categories many seasons. Nor was he one of those players you sometimes see who have lots of hits because they swing at anything–he was patient at the plate, always waiting for the pitch he wanted to see, as proved by his career record of 2021 walks, still fourth on the all-time list.

Ted attributes his success as a hitter to one thing–practice. From a young age he never missed a chance to practice batting, whether in sandlot games in the neighborhood where he grew up in San Diego, on the field in Little League and high school teams, or simply finding someone willing to pitch a ball to him for half an hour. He claims that probably no one else in history had as much batting practice as he did. He pooh-poohs claims that he had extraordinary vision or any other special gifts. It was simply getting outside and swinging the bat over and over, until he could do it better than anyone else.

One of the most amazing things about Ted Williams’s records are that he is so high on the all-time leader board despite missing the 1943-45 seasons to service in World War II, and much of the 1952 and 1953 seasons to service in the Korean War. His 1941 and 1946 seasons were the best of his career, suggesting that if he had been able to play those three lost seasons in between he might have passed Babe Ruth in all-time runs and RBIs (probably not home runs, though).

In the wars, he was a true hero (he denies in the book that he did anything special, by the way, but he then goes on to describe some of the most incredible things). He served in Marine Corps Naval Aviation, and was nearly shot down in Korea, barely landing his plane back at the airfield and only realizing when he got out of the cockpit and saw practically the whole plane had burned up that he really should have ejected. His Korea service was cut short by a respiratory infection that he had to be flown back to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland for, after which the Marine Corps decided it wouldn’t be worth the expense to send him back to the front, and gave him an early honorable discharge. He even made it back to Boston in time to play the final quarter of the season, when he batted .407 and hit thirteen home runs.

Like Reggie Jackson, a player whose autobiography I read and reviewed a few years ago, Ted Williams had a rocky relationship with the press. He points out that there were individual sports journalists he got along with (often in cities other than Boston), but he disliked the Boston press corps on the whole, and held a special contempt for one Dave “The Colonel” Egan of the Boston Record. If the things he says about Egan are true, you can’t blame him. He says that the day before he was to leave for the Korean War, the Red Sox held a “Ted Williams” day and Egan wrote, “Why are we having a special day for this guy?” He claims Egan wrote about manager Casey Stengel when he was managing the Boston Braves and broke his leg, requiring him to stay in the hospital for a matter of weeks, that “it was the luckiest break Boston baseball ever had.”

Yet, also like Reggie Jackson, Ted expresses regret at some of his own behavior towards the press, especially a period in the early 1950s when he took to spitting every time he passed the press box. He also admits that he was probably overly sensitive in his early playing years, and wishes he had had a mentor or someone in the Red Sox organization who could have helped him in his press dealings. It does sound like he had an especially difficult group of journalists to work with, however.

One oddity about the book, and I think this must be ascribed to John Underwood, is that it’s divided into four long, untitled parts. Although the information is presented in more or less in chronological order, there’s a certain stream-of-consciousness effect that I think might have been ameliorated by dividing the material into, say, a dozen chapters with titles. This is especially evident in the first of the four parts, when Ted is describing his childhood growing up in San Diego. The final three parts are perhaps disciplined a bit by the natural progression of a baseball season. It’s not as if it’s hard to read or anything, but more chapters would have been a nice aid for readers.

Still, for baseball fans, My Turn at Bat is highly recommended. It’s a truly honest book from one of the biggest legends in the game, and doesn’t skimp on any aspect of the game, including how Ted approached an at-bat, his judgments of other players (on and off the field), and his opinion of nearly any subject that occurs to him. For non-baseball fans, though, I’m not sure there’s quite enough of Ted’s time in WWII and Korea and other non-baseball material to make this a worthwhile read.

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