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Last Hurrah
Washington Was First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the American League--Until Ted Williams Arrived By Vic Gold
Comments () | Published May 1, 2000

Reporter (to Bob Short, owner of the Washington Senators): Have you hired Ted Williams so people will forget how bad the Senators are?

Short: No, it's just that we don't want to remind them of it, either.

 

The year was 1969. Richard Nixon was just settling into the Oval Office, and plans called for a summer moon landing. But for Washington sports fans the big news was the arrival of two legends--Vince Lombardi, to coach the hapless Redskins, and Ted Williams, to manage the hopeless Senators.

It had been a long time between winners. For Redskins fans, two decades had passed since the glory days of Slingin' Sam Baugh and yearly runs at the National Football League title. A long wait, but not half as long as that endured by Senators fans, two generations removed from Walter Johnson and the pennant-winning seasons of the 1920s.

Bob Short, a Minneapolis businessman, had purchased the Senators in late 1968 for $9 million, outbidding another out-of-town group headed by comedian Bob Hope. There was a symmetry to Short's winning the bidding war. Minneapolis was where Calvin Griffith had taken the original Senators eight years before, renaming them the Minnesota Twins.

Adding insult to injury, not long after they left the nation's capital, Griffith's "Twins" won the American League pennant, while the new Senators, an expansion team headed by retired Air Force General Elwood "Pete" Quesada, had acquired the old Senators' losing tradition. Nothing, it seemed, could change the baseball world's perception of Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

Not until Ted Williams, the man some called the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, came here to manage Bob Short's ball club.

"It was an electric moment for all true Senators fans," recalls Alan Alper, a die-hard member of the Washington Baseball Historical Society. "The feeling was that if anyone could turn the team around, it was Ted Williams."

 

Fans under 40 May know Ted Williams as the genial senior citizen in a wheelchair seen greeting players and getting a huge ovation at last year's All-Star game. But for those who saw Williams when he was in his prime--the 1940s and '50s--he is fixed in memory as the tall, slender Red Sox hitter who, as one pitcher put it, "has no weakness and can kill you with one swing."

In those days, Williams was called the Kid, the Splendid Splinter--or Terrible-Tempered Ted. Like his rival, the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio, he was a gate attraction wherever he played. But unlike DiMaggio, known for his unflappability, Ted Williams always wore his feelings on his sleeve.

A perfectionist, Williams was his own harshest critic. He brooded, cursing himself when he fell into a slump, and once drove his fist through a dugout water cooler after striking out. But when criticism came from others--notably Boston reporters and fair-weather fans--he made no effort to hide his resentment.

"The Boston press slaughtered him," wrote Dan Shaughnessy in his Red Sox history, At Fenway. Williams' response to media attacks, said Shaughnessy, was to "say the word 'writers' with such loathing, contempt, and disgust that it became an obscenity."

As for Boston fans, when they began booing him for his fielding lapses, Ted would retaliate with what reporters of the day referred to as "rude gestures" or, after hitting a home run, by refusing to acknowledge their cheers with a traditional tip of the cap.

"I don't like Boston," he told an out-of-town sportswriter, "not the town, the people, or the newspapermen. . . . I'm praying they trade me."

Given Williams' record-shattering output as a hitter, there was no chance any Red Sox owner would answer that prayer. The last major-league player ever to hit more than .400 (.406 in 1941), the Splendid Splinter ended his playing days in 1960 with a .344 lifetime batting average and 521 career home runs--despite losing five playing years to military service in World War II and Korea.

Red Sox managers would come and go. But for all his feuds, Williams remained with the club that had brought him east from his native San Diego until he retired, a baseball legend in an era of legends.

 

The question was, could Ted Williams manage? Vince Lombardi's legend was based on his record as a winning football coach. But though Williams had been a great player, at age 50 his only experience in coaching was as a part-time Red Sox batting instructor in the early 1960s.

"Williams knew as much baseball as any man alive," wrote Washington sportswriter Tom Dowling in the spring of 1970, "but he was a man impatient of even the most piddling adversity. . . . Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby had been fair country hitters and keen students of the game, but washouts as managers because of their explosive temperaments and intolerance of imperfection. Ted Williams seemed cast in their mold."

Volatile temper, no managerial experience--a questionable hire at any price. But Bob Short, as Senators announcer Ron Menchine remembers, was a high-risk entrepreneur who worked on hunches.

"Short loved big names," says Menchine, who now lives in Long Green, Maryland. "Bringing Ted Williams back into baseball was a coup. Whether it worked out in the long run or not, the publicity boost it gave the team seemed worth the money."

As Menchine recalls, sportswriters who attended Williams' first news conference as manager came prepared for the worst--the reappearance, if some reporter's question touched the wrong nerve, of Terrible-Tempered Ted.

"Williams surprised everybody," recalls Menchine. "He didn't just respond to questions, he did it with a level of enthusiasm that energized the room. It was that way all season long--wherever Ted went, he dominated the setting, larger than life."

 

Reporter: Will manager Ted Williams be able to tolerate a player like Ted Williams?

Williams: If he can hit like Ted Williams, you're damned right.

 

There were two theories that season about the change in Williams' attitude toward the press. The first theory was that the Kid was no longer a kid and had mellowed. The second--Williams' own--was that there wasn't any change. He was the same Ted Williams he'd always been, the only difference being that he now worked in a town where the press didn't treat him as, in one Boston sportswriter's description, "a spoiled brat and prize heel."

In Boston, a city that expected nothing less than the second coming of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams could never do enough to keep fans happy. Washington fans had lower expectations. It was enough that the Senators' new manager was bringing, as Bob Short put it, "a whole new ball game" to the city.

"Nobody had illusions about going to the World Series that year," says Tom Holster, president of the Washington Baseball Historical Society. "All we wanted was a competitive team, a ball club that won as many games as it lost."

In a season of surprises, Ted Williams' Senators would do that and more.

 

"What kind of manager was Ted Williams? Let me tell you--"

 

The booming voice on the other end of the line belonged to one of Washington's most popular players in the 1960s, the Bunyanesque hitter whom fans called "Hondo."

Frank Howard, sounding no different than he did 30 years ago, was calling from Florida, where he now spends his early springs as batting coach for the Tampa Devil Rays.

"Hondo" was one of the few gems on the Senators roster when Williams arrived. As Short told reporters, his new manager could coach players like Howard, Mike Epstein, and Eddie Brinkman because "Ted is a master of instant communication, whether he's giving the middle finger, spitting, or using colorful phrases. One way or another, he gets his point across."

Frank Howard: "Ted Williams was a communicator and more--he was the most charismatic individual any of us had ever met. When he talked baseball you listened, because he knew every facet of the game--not just hitting but pitching and fielding. In my opinion he was light-years ahead of everyone on how the game should be played."

For his part, Williams, never given to false modesty, conceded that he knew everything there was to know about baseball but downplayed the value of what he called "those X's and O's." The element a manager has to bring to a team to make it a winner, said Williams, is "enthusiasm, the joy of the game."

"Enthusiasm and hustle, that's what wins ball games," he told Tom Dowling. "A lot of times a ball player's got enthusiasm but he's playing for a dead-ass coach, so he doesn't put out. But put the same guy with an enthusiastic coach, he turns into a charger."

 

Enthusiasm was the hallmark of Williams' managerial style, and nowhere was it more apparent than around the batting cage.

That was when the Skipper, as his players called him, would shed the years and revert to being the Kid: "Hey, c'mon, Stroudie!" he'd call out to utility player Ed Stroud. "Get that rhythm, cock those hips, move those shoulders, zip it! C'mon, you can rip. Atta boy, way to go!"

The cheerleading was contagious. A subdued, clock-punching team in prior years, the Senators under Williams came alive. "Talk it up," he would urge his players during ball games.

Not that Williams neglected teaching "those X's and O's." For players like third-baseman Ken McMullen, who now lives in Camarillo, California, the '69 season was "a learning experience" of reexamining old techniques and working on new ones.

Williams had been one of the first in the game to recognize that bat velocity, rather than heft, is the key to power hitting. He encouraged players to move from the massive bats of the Babe Ruth era to lighter models. And whatever model they used, to be patient in the batter's box and "wait for your pitch."

The result was a 25-point increase in the team's batting average over the previous season, with a patient Frank Howard nearly doubling his walks, cutting down on his strikeouts, and raising his batting average more than 20 points. Even light-hitting shortstop Eddie Brinkman caught the spirit, raising his average from .187 to .266.

Cellar dwellers in '68, the Senators climbed to fourth place in '69 with an 86-76 record. Attendance increased to more than 900,000, and following the last out of the last game of the season--a win over the Boston Red Sox--Washington fans rose to give the Skipper and his team a standing ovation.

Ted Williams, in his first year on the job, was named American League Manager of the Year by the nation's baseball writers. A good beginning, thought Senators fans. They could hope that even better days were ahead.

 

It was Casey Stengel, second only to Yogi Berra as a philosopher of the diamond, who said that the only sure thing a baseball manager knows on the day he's hired is that one day he'll be fired. Ted Williams would serve out his contract as manager without being fired, but there were many times over the next three seasons when he came close to packing it in.

Tom Dowling: Is managing a baseball team different from what you thought it would be?

Ted Williams: Well, a lot of it's fun, and a lot of it's horseshit, and when it gets to be more horseshit than fun I'll quit.

"It all went downhill after the '69 season," recalls Ron Menchine. "That first year, whatever Ted tried worked out. The following year, nothing seemed to work. He was the same manager, but the pitching broke down, and when your pitching breaks down, everything follows."

Owner Bob Short went for a quick fix when the season ended. With Williams fishing in Florida, Short traded half his team's infield for Denny McLain, a big-name Detroit pitcher who was past his prime, out of shape, and plagued by problems brought on by a gambling habit. It was, says Frank Howard, "a trade that set the team back so far there was no way to recover."

By the end of the '71 season the magic was gone. But the worst was still to come: In 1972, Short, like Cal Griffith before him, abandoned Washington and took his franchise to what he saw as greener pastures. Reluctantly, Ted Williams left the nation's capital for Dallas to manage what would now become the Texas Rangers.

Williams had two years left on his contract with Short. He would remain only one--a year, he later told friends, in which he woke up each morning wishing he were somewhere else.

 

"What's the most difficult pitch to hit?"

 

Ted Williams, age 80 and in a wheelchair, was quizzing one of his protégés from the '69 Senators, relief pitcher Dennis Higgins. The Skipper had come all the way from his home in Hernando, Florida, for a 1998 team reunion and was catching up with his old players.

"The slider," replied Higgins, who had traveled from his home in Missouri to get together with his former manager and teammates.

Williams beamed--a retired teacher pleased that a lesson taught three decades before had been remembered. Higgins asked Williams to autograph a baseball. Williams signed with a flourish, then turned to look around a room filled with faces from the past.

"You know what they're thinking?" he asked, indicating the 25 ex-ballplayers mingling with fans. "They're thinking, 'I wish we were playing right now!' " He laughed. "All old ballplayers are like that."

One by one that night, they came to pay their respects--Howard, McMullen, Brinkman, Del Unser--the boys of summer '69. Many, like Higgins, had brought old baseballs, faded photos, yellowed programs to be autographed. Williams signed them all, then stayed to sign more for the fans, the fathers and mothers who had come with kids too young to know what was so special about this old man in a wheelchair.

Purists would say he was special because he was the last major leaguer to bat over .400. Or that he was the hitter some called the best in the history of the game. All true, but that night there was more to it than that.

This, after all, is Washington, the city of broken baseball dreams. What makes Ted Williams special here is that for one brief shining season, he turned the Senators into winners.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 05/01/2000 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles