In his last time at the plate, Ted Williams crushed a 440-foot home run deep to right field.
On one damp and raw day in late September of 1960, I was in Boston’s Fenway Park. A great player was “hangin’ ‘em up” for the last time at the end of the game against the Baltimore Orioles. I was there in the center-field bleachers in the bottom of the eighth inning when “Old Number Nine” stepped into the batter’s box.
For the better part of twenty-two years he had been the star hitter of the Boston Red Sox. He had been through hardships and setbacks that might well have stopped a lesser man, including five years of wartime service in the Marines during the height of his career. Now it was all down to one last time at bat.
Fans stood and cheered for several minutes as the umpire held up the game. Nobody sat down. It might have been the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. It seemed as if each fan was trying to savor these last few moments. The batter did not acknowledge the ovation. He never had since his first or second year in the big leagues.
Finally Jack Fisher of the Orioles delivered his first pitch. It was low and inside for a ball. Still everyone stood. The next pitch came in high, and with a Herculean swing the hitter missed the ball. It was not like him to swing at a bad pitch. He stood there grinding the bat in his hands like someone trying to wring out a wet mop. He was a picture of tense concentration as he stared at the pitcher on the mound.
How would all this end after such a colorful career that included being the last hitter to bat over .400, two MVPs, and six batting titles? So often he seemed to hit one out in the most dramatic situations. He had belted a three-run homer to win the 1941 All-Star Game in Detroit. He homered off a Dizzy Trout pitch in his last at-bat before leaving for the Korean War, and did it again his second time at bat when he returned. Now he was like a matador standing in the middle of the ring waiting for the bull’s last charge.
Fisher was into his motion, and the next pitch was a fastball about thigh-high. The hitter, with a quick hitch and his fluid swing, made contact with the ball. It flew off the bat and headed in a straight line, almost in my direction. The Baltimore center fielder, already playing deep, slowly faded back and glanced over his shoulder to see how much room he had to the fence. He looked as if he had the ball in his sights and was ready to make the catch. Everything seemed to shift into slow motion. The ball hung in the air, the fielder’s face was turned up, another step, another, and finally the ball sailed over the fence.
The batter raced around the base path with his head down, never looking up. This was typical of him.
For minutes fans stood and yelled for him to come out of the dugout, but he refused. A man to my right kept screaming “The old man is still number one!” The hitter wouldn’t come out and wave good-bye. He had made a vow years before that he would never again tip his hat to the crowd. Only when Pinky Higgins, the Red Sox manager, sent him out to left field the next inning and brought him back in before the first batter stepped to the plate did he raise his head and look my way for just an instant. With his head down again, Ted Williams loped toward the infield, across the first-base foul line, and disappeared into the dugout and into baseball immortality.