HANK THE HAMMER & THE SPLENDID SPLINTER
Above the bed of my youth hangs a picture of the Splendid Splinter. To see the Teddy Ballgame bear down on a cut fastball is to see baseball at its epiphany, of finesse matched to the tension of physical strength. Mr. Williams hit 521 homeruns. His .344 career batting average tops the post-1920 live-ball era. His work is that of a natural talent: making the hard onto impossible appear simple, as if even you could do it yourself.
Yet the Splinter had more than just talent. He was the consummate professional. When the time came to leave the warm-up circle, nobody was more prepared to succeed than Mr. Williams. Said Carl Yastrzemski of his teammate, “They can talk about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio and Stan Musial and all the rest, but I’m sure not one of them could hold cards and spades to Williams in his sheer knowledge of hitting. He studied hitting the way a broker studies the stock market, and could spot at a glance mistakes others couldn’t see in a week.”
Baseball has a saying that a hitter cannot be made. But Ted Williams thought the hitter could always improve, as more mistakes are made in the hitter’s box than in any other part of the game. My favorite Ted Williams story starts at the Louisville Slugger Lumberyard. Each year before spring training Mr. Williams would travel to Kentucky. He’d pull bats by the armload off the assembly line to inspect the cut of the ash, the handle, the sweet spot. He would feel them, swing them, take notes, then leave. After a couple seasons of this a company lumberman - somewhat annoyed, slightly intrigued - put Ted Williams to task. He handed Williams five unmarked bats, each within a quarter ounce of each other, then asked the Red Sox leftfielder to lay them out, lightest to heaviest. Williams obliged. The Louisville Slugger employee shook his head in disbelief. Ted cracked a smile. The ballplayer knew the tools of his trade.
Ted Williams’ took his influence beyond the Green Monster and Yawney Avenue. He was a hero, even if the word has lost some of its meaning by being bandied around all too loosely these days. Center fielders who slap singles to win a game in April are called heroes. Ted Williams was the real deal. During World War II and for two years of the Korean War, he volunteered for the ultimate sacrifice, leaving one uniform behind to put on another. Flying fighter jets in wartime might not have been his intention, but duty to his country called.
In ’52 and ’53 Mr. Williams piloted 39 missions over Korea. Flying low on a February 19, 1953 bombing run, small arms fire tattered William’s F-9 Panther, setting the plane’s hydraulic system afire. Wrestling the plane back to base, an on-board explosion caused Williams to attempt a 225 mile-an-hour, one-wheel emergency landing. Those days Williams flew alongside a five-time Distinguished Flying Cross winner by the name of John Glenn. “You don’t pick a wingman because he can hit a baseball, said Glenn, who went on to be the first American to orbit the earth. “You pick him because he can save your life.”
At his Hall of Fame introduction in 1966, Williams put America’s social conscience to test. He called for Cooperstown to enshrine the great Negro League players not given the chance to play in the Major Leagues before Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color barrier in 1947. “I’ve been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform,” said Williams. “And I hope some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.” Not only was Ted Williams everything right about the game of baseball, he was everything that is right about America.
In all you do, do it with passion. When his major league career came to an end, Williams split his time between coaching the art of hitting with fly fishing. He had success here as well. You can find his name in a Hall of Fame outside of Cooperstown.
Chasing down the home run record, Hank Aaron showed he, too, had the right stuff. In his autobiography, I Had a Hammer, Aaron wrote: “The most basic motivation was the pure ambition to break such an important and long-standing barrier. Along with that would come the recognition that I thought was long overdue me: I would be out of the shadows.”
The ballplayer bearing down on Aaron’s home run record cannot outrun the shadows of his past. Perhaps this person’s ambition was too much of that like Icarus, whose became too fanatical and he didn’t heed the words of Daedulus when he said, “Fly the middle way. Don’t fly too high or the sun will melt your wings. Don’t fly too low, or the tides of the sea will catch you.” Just like the leftfielder from San Francisco, Hank Aaron’s life evoked his character. It’s just that no one would ever accuse Mr. Aaron of confusing flaxseed oil with anabolic steroids.
Numbers, even 755, give an incomplete picture of a man. But the statistics are telling: Negro Leagues World Series, Major League World Series, three Gold Gloves, MVP vote getter 19 straight seasons, would have had over 3,771 hits, over 700 more total bases than anyone who ever played the game. Hank didn’t get these numbers by corking his bat. It’s in how he approached the game.
“Aaron was very sophisticated with how he approached the game thirty, forty years ago, when sport psychology certainly wasn’t in vogue,” explains Jon Hammermeister, a sports psychologist at Eastern Washington University. “Back then there was a stigma against those who believed in imagery and refocusing routines. Before every game, and again before every at bat, Aaron would use imagery to see the pitcher he would face. His imagery skills got so good he could recreate just about every pitch on every pitcher he’d faced, right down to the rotation of the seams. Because of this, Aaron went to the plate calm and relaxed. Even as his MLB home run record may be passed any day now, 755 will endure as a magical number in sports. The people’s home run king, that’s the crown Hank Aaron will still wear, even as baseball changes. He had it all dialed in- the physical, emotional and the mental. He had the whole package.”
Focus. Concentration. Professionalism. It’s these traits that set Aaron apart. “You concentrate, and start thinking about what you’re doing – consistently – and automatically you’re going to get better. There’s no question, if you had any talent at all,” said the Home Run King. “You do this, and you know what happens? You don’t have to have somebody behind you telling you to keep your eye on the ball, because you automatically do that. It’s that simple. Nobody needed to tell me that. If my eyes were on the ball, I’m not going to hit it.”
Skiing’s the same. The best racers I’ve seen don’t need another telling them to train at such-and-such pace, or what have you. They know - and knew it from the minute they rose from bed. You think Newell’s got it? Is there any question?
Having this total package allowed Aaron to endure - the grind of 162 games a year, 23 major league seasons, the racially charged insults. Playing as a farmhand in the South Atlantic League at age 19, Aaron could not eat, sleep or drink from the same water fountains as his teammates. Joe Andrews, a white Boston Braves minor league teammate would escort Aaron out of the ballparks of Dixie, bat in hand. As a 19 year old that year Aaron led the league in everything but hotel accommodations, hit .362 and took home the league’s MVP award. The guys who shared the clubhouse with Aaron knew he was among the pantheon of baseball greats. “I was watching a game in Milwaukee from the seats behind the third base dugout,” says Joe Torre, a teammate of Aarons from 1960 through ’68. “Henry was batting, and I distinctly remember watching the pitch pass behind him and he still hit it out of the park. He hit it that late and still hit a home run. He was the most amazing wrist hitter I ever saw.”
The day after Aaron passed Ruth’s 714 a Washington Post editor said of the ballplayer, “Here is a person who is authentic, whose acclaim is based on the results of his self-confidence and not self-promotion, who has been faithful to his vocation whether noticed or not.” I cannot put it any better.
“I could have been a decent hitter. My career line could’ve ended up at .220. I could have hit 255 home runs, driven in 500 runs. But I wasn’t going to be satisfied with that. I wanted to be a great hitter,” said Aaron.
“A good hitter is someone who goes out and hits .270, and that’s it. A great hitter is somebody that can hit .300, and do it on a consistent basis. People relate the two so closely but there’s a world of difference. If I wanted to be this kind of player I had to do some things unlike any other player. I had to become an ultra disciplined hitter. The first few years in the big leagues I was a swinger. I guess the older I got, the wiser and more mature I got. I kind of settled down and started waiting on my pitches. I just didn’t swing at anything unless I thought it was my pitch to hit.”
Why do we need to remember Ted? Why should Hank be cherished? Their playing days happened before my time. And yet, the closest my generation ever came to see either of these legends play come from grainy highlight reels of ESPN Classics or when Williams took to the field to throw out the first pitch at the ’99 All-Star Game at Fenway. The two ballplayers are the remnants that line the walls of our interior system of beliefs. To forget them is to sweep the shards of Troy into the trash bin of our forgetfulness. Day in, day out, they perfected their craft in front of the public eye, taking the art of hitting a baseball into the sublime. They gave themselves to causes beyond themselves. They cracked the door to Cooperstown for Satchel, for Gibson, the ones time left behind. Hank Aaron and Ted Williams played the game the right way. They are a schoolboy’s modern day Hector and Odysseus. The greatest hitter that ever lived has now passed away. The days count down until the day the King’s record will be eclipsed. But you will not be forgotten.