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Baseball Legend Ted Williams Dies at 83

Aired July 5, 2002 - 13:32   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Now back to our top story: The death of Hall of Famer, Ted Williams. He died at 83. We want to give you an intimate look at one-on-one interview done on Ted Williams' 80th birthday. Thanks to our CNN Leigh Montville now.


TED WILLIAMS: I get nervous when I think about my young life, young player, how hard it was. They can say, you know, nothing to it, hell -- no sweat. The hell there wasn't any sweat. And a lot of disappointments and great jubilation at times, but it was like -- and I made it too high and too low, trying to keep some kind of a high level of...

LEIGH MONTVILLE, CNN "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED": You just attacked things, didn't you, when you were a kid.

WILLIAMS: Well, I don't know. They say that, but hell, it was hard for me. It wasn't an easy thing, and I had, I think, just enough grit in me that if, certainly, if any pitcher tried to intimidate me I was a better hitter.

MONTVILLE: Every time you went up there you thought you were going to win the battle?

WILLIAMS: I didn't think of it as a battle. Isn't that funny, I didn't think of it as, "Am I going to win the battle?" I was thinking, "I hope I can do something against this guy." And when I went in there with that type of attitude, I was far and away better than if I said, "Just get it over, old buddy."

MONTVILLE: Were you thinking what he was going to pitch to you every pitch?

WILLIAMS: I'll tell you three things in my life that were exceptional -- this is the first time I ever said this to anybody -- on tape.

MONTVILLE: I can't believe that.

WILLIAMS: Well, all right. I can't hardly believe it either, but there are so many things that happened during my career that made me have to sum it up: Number one, I was extremely lucky. Number two, I was even accused of that by my teammates. Number three, I was a terrific "guess" hitter.

Now, because I was such a good guess hitter, I formed a lot of deductions that I didn't have to worry about and concentrate on what I thought I was going to get. And they didn't know when I first started to play whether I was a better high-ball hitter or a better low-ball hitter. A lot of guys said I was a better low-ball hitter, so I got a lot of high fast balls. I started making a little history up there, now they're going down again. And now I'm making more history. And then they say, "Well, we don't know how to pitch to this guy."

And then a very -- this is the first time I ever said this -- first time -- finally, it came down to where there was a new pitch in my career, a new pitch that was getting everybody out.

MONTVILLE: What was that? Was it kind of a slider?

WILLIAMS: Well, you don't -- certainly, it was the slider. I could hit the slider just as good as I could hit any ball. So I started looking for sliders and here they came, and boy, I was laying for it and I was ready for it and I was crashing it.

MONTVILLE: Would you have been, do you think, a better player today than you were when you played...

WILLIAMS: No, I don't.

MONTVILLE: I mean, different things...

WILLIAMS: I understand. I would have tried to do things a little better than I did, but I absolutely wouldn't want to go through my life again as a baseball player. It was too hard for me. It was too disappointing. I mean, it was too grindy, it was -- oh. And still, I'd happy when I'd bat a good day or our club was winning in a streak or something.

But, no, I don't think I'd do any better today. I might hit a few more home runs, and if I had to do it over again -- you know, they asked me the first thing I'd ever do if I had it to do over again, and I said I would have tried to get stronger. Now I was quick and I'm strong enough, but I would have tried to be even stronger.

MONTVILLE: Nobody did that then, did they?

WILLIAMS: Not that many. The only thing I did, I did a lot of push-ups and on my fingers and this kind of stuff. That's the only thing that I ever did.

MONTVILLE: So, like, the last day of the season, you're hitting .3996 or whatever it was, and you could have had that which would have rounded off to .400, and you could have batted .400 without even playing, but why did you play that day?

WILLIAMS: Cronin (ph) asked me, he said, "If you don't want to play today, it's all right." I thought, "What the hell is he talking about, I'd never even given it a thought." But, I've got to say this, I didn't really realize how much .400 would mean to my life. MONTVILLE: You didn't know it would be, like, the last time anybody would do it.

WILLIAMS: Oh, that's right. That's right, yes. But it'll be done again. I've always said it will be and it will be. It will be.

MONTVILLE: It's been a while, though, you know?


MONTVILLE: So like, at the time it wasn't as important in your head.

WILLIAMS: It only happened ten years ahead of me, and I was sure that -- I wasn't sure of anything then, but I felt that they're certainly would be other .400 hitters.

MONTVILLE: I mean, your whole life, do you have many regrets about anything or has this been, like, just a big...

WILLIAMS: The biggest regret I've got is that I didn't have -- that I wasn't successful in the World Series. And my playing performance was terrible. I hit .220.

MONTVILLE: But as a life, it's been a terrific life, hasn't it?

WILLIAMS: I've been a very lucky guy. Even I know how lucky I've been, especially in my baseball career. Anybody who thinks that he hasn't -- that's had great success, or outstanding success, he's a lucky guy.

MONTVILLE: He's a lucky guy.

WILLIAMS: You're damn right.


WHITFIELD: Ted Williams dead at 83, known as the Splendid Splinter, who miraculously lost five years of his career because of service in World War II and the Korean War and still is most noted for his legacy in baseball. Now, Bob Fiscella with CNN sports is with me now to talk a little bit more about the life and the legacy of this pretty courageous and a remarkable athlete.

BOB FISCELLA, CNN SPORTS: He was a remarkable athlete. We've got to remember that he lost five years, five prime years of his baseball career to both the Korean War and World War II. He was actually John Glenn's wing man during the Korean War. He was a patriot. And he retired as the third leading home-run hitter of all time, and had he had those five years, he might have gotten awfully close to Babe Ruth with the 714. Instead, he retired with 521.

But he defined what hitting was all about. The Michelangelo of hitting a baseball. His career average, .344, not the highest ever, but he played in an era when baseballs weren't flying out of ball parks like they are now. Steroids weren't as prevalent as they are now or available at all. He was just a slender guy that just had perfect timing, the perfect swing, and he was the measuring stick for all hitters.

WHITFIELD: And he was so respected as a player, particularly because he was so straightforward.

FISCELLA: And ironically, it was that straightforwardness that made him -- never made him a really beloved player. The media always was at odds with him. And it might have cost him, that straightforwardness, a couple of most valuable player awards.

We are joined now on the telephone by Frank Howard, the former slugger. And Frank, what did Ted Williams mean to you?

FRANK HOWARD, FORMER BASEBALL PLAYER: Well, there is no question, the man is, like you said earlier, is one of the great true living Americans, God rest his soul. He represents everything that's great about our great country. There is no question, he is all-time legend in baseball.

I think you touched upon it a little earlier when you consider this man gave five and a half prime years of his baseball career to serve his country and do his duty as an American, you have got to take your hat off and salute the man. Very unique, charismatic, electric individual. We like -- we would all like to say we are our own men. But that's a bunch of baloney. We all have to answer to somebody, but Ted Williams is probably the only man that could say he is his own man and have that ring true.

Like you say, very, very straightforward, totally honest. Sometimes to the point of being a little blunt. But that was his style. Truly loved the game of baseball. Loved the players in it. He is not where he's at for by chance. He is in baseball's Hall of Fame because he is the premier measuring stick for all the great hitters.

FISCELLA: Frank, do you think that the casual baseball fan understands how good of a ball player that Ted Williams was?

HOWARD: Well, you know, in today's world, I think that, you know, most of them probably weren't old enough to see him play. You know, when you consider the man is what, 82 or 83.

FISCELLA: Eighty-three.

HOWARD: Eighty-three years old. You know, there aren't too many Americans left that had a chance to see him play. I mean, I played for him, when I broke into the National League in '58, '59, '60. He was just finishing up the American League. So I never got a chance. I've seen films of him. But I -- he is light years ahead of anybody as far as the art of hitting a baseball. I mean, he probably was 50, 60, 70 years ahead of his time. And he was a genius.

FISCELLA: Well, you played with him with the Washington Senators. He was such a perfectionist as a hitter. What was it like playing for this man? HOWARD: Oh, listen, you know, he just didn't have the -- you know, everybody said, well, they didn't think he was much of a manager. That's a bunch of baloney. He was manager of the year. He took a very, very mediocre ball club, in some cases less than mediocre, and run them to 10 games over .500 one year. So, no, this man -- everybody said, well, hitting is the only thing he knows. Well, that's not true. Ted Williams probably knows as much about outfield, good defensive outfield play as any outfielder in the big leagues. He knows as much about pitching as any pitching coach in the big leagues.

The one area that he wasn't real familiar with was infield play, but he had the great Nelly Fox (ph) there as his infield coordinator. So, you know, that made his job as a manager a little easier.

FISCELLA: Ted Williams is also known, Frank, for having one of the quickest wits around. Any stories that you can share with us?

HOWARD: Well, you know, just he is amazing. In that, you know, he'd start talking about hitting, and just so to a ball player, the next thing you know, you got guys from both clubs, plus the managers, plus the coaches listening to him. He -- a very, very captivating man.

I have often said this that he is only guy I know that can walk into a banquet hall with 2,000 people in it, where you can't hear yourself think straight, and as soon as he walks in the door, you could hear a pin drop. Just -- he just -- like I said, he is just totally charismatic, electric, electrically charged individual. Great American, a great American, and, God, this country has lost a great American today.

FISCELLA: Indeed. Frank, we talk so much about money these days. Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers, the highest paid player in the game, makes about $25 million a year. You think they could even pay Ted Williams if he played today?

HOWARD: I doubt it. The DiMaggios and the Williams and those guys today, the owner of a big league club would have a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) probably.

FISCELLA: I mean, you have described Ted Williams to a tee. Is there anything about Ted Williams maybe the general public didn't know?

HOWARD: Well, you know, he didn't -- you know, he didn't need the limelight to survive or to thrive on fan adulation. He didn't need that. He knew how talented he was. But I think the things about the man that nobody knows -- you know, when you consider that he and the late Tom Yawkey, that great owner of the Boston Red Sox, created that Jimmy Fund, that cancer fund for the children. You know how many millions and millions of dollars those two men helped raise for that fund? Now, that's just one isolated incident, or one situation, I should say.

But I think the things that he has done for kids around the country that need a little pat on the back or needed a break, you know, he didn't want the notoriety or the publicity that went with it, but I mean, thousands of times the hospitals that he would go to on his own, just out of clear blue sky, and just, you know, pay respect, pay homage -- and I think those are the things that -- see, sometimes the public's perception of a great man like this, you know, it sometimes it isn't flattering to the point that he deserves. You know what I'm saying?

He has done so many marvelous things for the American people that have gone unrecognized or unpublicized because that's the way he wanted it. But we've -- you know, the game of baseball has lost one of its great all-time performers. Like I said, the United States of America has lost one of its most patriotic guys.

FISCELLA: Indeed. Frank Howard, we appreciate the time. Ted Williams, lost almost six years of his career, five plus years, to serving in both the Vietnam War (sic) and World War II. And Fredricka, it's not a stretch to say baseball has lost its greatest hitter of all time.

WHITFIELD: Well, we appreciate you helping us remember him.

FISCELLA: You bet.

WHITFIELD: Such a great hitter. Bob Fiscella, thanks very much.




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