Ted Williams is commonly considered the greatest hitter in baseball history.
He was the last batter to hit over .400 (.406 in 1941, at age 22), and he won the Triple Crown twice in his career. No modern player has won the Triple Crown even once since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.
Williams was an uncommonly patient hitter who hit a lot of home runs and drew a lot of bases on balls. Unlike the mythical portrayal of “Casey at the Bat,” a superlative slugger who wasn’t afraid to strike out, Williams actually didn’t strike out very often. In other words, he did not sacrifice batting average for power.
If you peruse Williams’ career numbers over at Baseball-Reference.com (as indispensable a baseball reference tool as exists anywhere), you’ll find lots of “black ink” on his resume, indicating that he led his league in multiple offensive categories several times throughout his fabled career.
There are batting crowns, home run titles, and, for the modern sabermetrics-inclined baseball fan, OPS+ and WAR victories as well.
But did Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all-time, ever lead his league in hits?
To clarify, I’ve already pointed out that Williams won several batting titles. But was there a single season during which he actually accumulated the most safe hits in his league?
Among players who have won batting titles, several of them have also led their league in hits. Tony Gwynn, for example, won eight batting crowns and also led his league in base hits seven times.
Ty Cobb won an amazing 11 batting titles and led the league in base hits eight times. Rogers Hornsby won seven hitting crowns and led the league in hits four times.
Generally speaking, then, players who win multiple batting crowns also tend to lead their league in actual hits at least some of the time.
It may surprise you to learn, then, that Ted Williams never once led his league in hits.
Ted Williams’ career high for hits in a season was 194 in 1949, when he was 30-years old. Interestingly, despite winning six batting titles in his career, Williams did not lead the league in hitting in the season in which he accumulated a career high in base hits.
The secret to all those batting titles for Ted Williams, was, of course, his fantastic batting eye. He might not have accumulated a staggering number of hits, but, perhaps more importantly, he generated very few outs per plate appearance, relative to virtually every other hitter who ever played the game.
Ted Williams simply would not swing at a bad pitch. When he was in the batter’s box, it was the pitcher who was immediately at a disadvantage, despite the fact that the pitcher could throw any pitch he wanted, at any speed he wanted, anywhere he preferred.
What then to make of baseball’s continuing fetish for high hit totals, especially 200-hit seasons?
Just a decade and a half after Williams retired, Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, a ten time All-Star and the N.L. MVP award winner in 1974 was widely regarded as one of the best players in the game. Garvey made a science of accumulating 200 hits in a season, apparently reasoning that it was an obvious mark of excellence. He reached the 200 hit mark six times in seven years from 1974-80.
Yet Garvey, who never walked more than 50 times in a season, also never won a batting title. I recall as a boy growing up at the time that a base on balls was considered a wasted plate appearance. Apparently, there were many players at the professional level who believed the same thing (and some who still do.) As Juaqin Phoenix’s character, Merrell Hess says in the movie, Signs, “It just felt wrong not to swing.”
There have been many baseball pundits, philosophers, managers, coaches, players and mere fans who have reasoned over the past several decades that to hit for power, you have to sacrifice some batting average.
Sluggers are supposed to drive in runs by driving home runs out of the park. Meanwhile, the rest of the players — especially at the top of the lineup — like Pete Rose, Lou Brock and Ichiro (none of whom drew very many walks overall) are supposed to swing away, lashing singles and doubles around the park.
Yet Ted Williams proved long ago that a slugger does not have to sacrifice batting average for power, and that the number of base hits a player accumulates is not really all that important a statistic.
It appears, though, that Ted Williams was just way ahead of his time, and it has taken so-called baseball experts a while to catch up.
But the great ones are always ahead of their time and, as far as hitting is concerned, Ted Williams was the greatest of them all.