Ted Williams the perfectionist, trained military pilot and gunner, and perhaps the game’s greatest all-around hitter, did not enjoy similar success in his brief managerial career. Williams was the last man to hit .400 in the majors, hitting .406 in 1941, and captured two Triple Crowns and six batting titles, retiring in 1960 with a .344 lifetime batting average and 521 home runs.
In 1969 the Washington Senators, a long time loser known by the motto “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League”, hired Williams as their skipper. The Splendid Splinter had some success prior to the Sentors’ gig working with Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski on his hitting. But as a manager Williams could never get his head around the inability of his players not being able to perform in the batters’ box the way a Yaz, or he, could. He was amazed when a hitter was jammed on a 2-0 or 3-1 fastball. “How’d you let that ball get in on you? You weren’t ready” he’d scream.
Still, the 1969 club had some talent, and the fanatical hitting theorist got career years out of most of his lineup, featuring long-time masher Frank Howard (aka “The Capital Punisher”) who crushed 48 homers with 111 RBI; first baseman Mike Epstein, who would be Williams’ long-time hitting protégé and smacked 30 round trippers; third baseman Ken McMullen who hit 19 home runs while driving in a career high 87 runs; and centerfielder Del Unser, who batted .286 with 8 triples. The club finished in 4th place, 23 games behind Baltimore in the stacked American League East, but at 86-76, it was by far the best season in franchise history. Williams received Manager of the Year honors for guiding the 21 game turnaround.
1970 was not nearly as kind. Washington floundered to a 70-92 mark, finishing in familiar last place. The team batting average slumped to .238, down from .251 the year prior, and they scored just 626 runs, ranking last in the American League in both categories. Only Howard (44 HR, 126 RBI) remained a real threat in the Senator lineup. Epstein tailed off to 20 homers, and McMullan was traded to the Angels for promising youngster Aurelio Rodriguez. Ace Dick Bosman turned in a 16-12 year, one of the few bright spots on a beleaguered staff. They received so little support that closer Darold Knowles managed to go 2-14 despite pitching to a 2.04 ERA in 71 appearances.
Many felt the club’s defense and pitching was being neglected under Williams. Fundamentals were not stressed, and he once remarked that pitchers were basically outfielders throwing batting practice, non-athletes who usually don’t last beyond 5 innings. With no real knowledge about handling pitchers, he would not hesitate to use the same relief pitcher five or six consecutive days.
The following year was a bigger disaster, as Washington hit only .230 and lost 96 games. Bosman could only manage a 12-16 record, but he was by far not the worst train wreck of the year. That distinction went to Denny McLain, the one-time 31-game winner and back-to-back Cy Young Award recipient acquired in the off-season, who suffered through a miserable 10-22 campaign, and a humbling lesson. One day the 52-year-old Williams took his team on the field and challenged McLain to pitch to him. “I don’t care what you throw, I’ll hit you where ever I want”
“I’m going to get you out with my slider; they didn’t even have those when you played”, McClain replied, running out to the mound.
With the entire team watching, Williams rocketed a line drive into the right-center field gap on McClain’s first pitch, just as he had called. McLain responded with a fastball under Ted’s chin.
Ted said, “I respect you for that, but I’m used to it. I played without a helmet and dodged bullets in the war. You think your little fastball’s going to hurt me?” Then he belted another line shot, this time to left-center, again as he called it.
The exhibition done, Williams ‘consoled’ McLain “I don’t want to take you deep and embarrass you to the point where you quit on me. If a pitcher listens to a good hitter they can learn how to get them out.”
The Senators picked up and moved to Texas as the Rangers in 1972. It would be Williams’ final season as a manager. Texas went 54-100, and under the tutelage of one the greatest hitters ever, hit an unfathomable .217, by far the worst team batting average in the major leagues during the decade.
Years later Williams, sentimental guy that he was, waxed poetic about his last position in baseball.
“All managers are losers; they are the most expendable pieces of furniture on the face of the Earth,” he said.
Joe Gersbeck is a baseball historian and lifetime fan/student of the game who lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons. His website is http://www.1970sBaseball.com and his book, 1970s Baseball: A History and Analysis of the Decade’s Best Seasons, Teams, and Players is available on Amazon, B&N, and iBooks: