On Sunday morning, Nov. 9, 1998, in suburban Chantilly, Va., Tom Holster and members of the Washington Baseball Historical Society sponsored a reunion of the 1969 Senators team. The star of the event was the ’69 team’s rookie manager, Ted Williams. His health weakened by several strokes, the 80-year-old Williams still was able to regale his audience with stories and opinions about baseball and his career.
Williams made clear his pride in having led the Senators to the best record those expansion teams ever had: 86-76. That earned him manager-of-the-year honors. He also encouraged the 500 or so people attending to “keep the faith…. I can’t think of a town ahead of Washington as a place for major league baseball.” As you’d expect, the crowd was full of folks in ’60s-era Senators caps and jerseys.
The night before, Williams and nearly two dozen of his former Senators players had gathered to exchange memories of the ’69 season. He called his success that season as “the most gratifying moments of my life.” With just a bit of exaggeration, he recalled that “every single player on the Washington Senators had the best year they ever had.”
“I think he just wanted to see these players again,” Holster, the society’s founder and president, told William Gildea of the Washington Post.
Present that evening and at the Sunday breakfast were Bernie Allen, Hank Allen, Rich Billings, Ed Brinkman, Dick Bosman, Casey Cox, Tim Cullen, Mike Epstein, Jim French, Jim Hannan, Dennis Higgins, Bob Humphreys, Frank Kreutzer, Lee Maye, Ken McMullen, Ed Stroud, Del Unser and Fred Valentine. Frank Howard, the beloved slugger, was absent, but perhaps he didn’t want to steal any of the spotlight from Williams.
Some of Williams’ most quotable comments at the reunion, as reported by the Associated Press:
Of the last two games of the 1941 season, “I walked all over Philadelphia that night (before) worried about not hitting .400, but not even thinking about not playing.” He began the day hitting .3996, rounded off at .400, but went 6-for-8 in the doubleheader to finish at .406.
Williams, who was a member of the Old-Timers Committee for the Hall of Fame, was a leading advocate for reinstating Joe Jackson, one of eight Chicago “Black Sox” banned for life for throwing the 1919 World Series.
“Jackson got the big, big for-life penalty, and he served his sentence,” Williams said. “I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He played great in the series. Let them look at all the records. Get it together where they’re making a real honest attempt to be fair.”
About Willlams’ own idol Babe Ruth, “Men in history have to have all the circumstances around them to where when it’s all said and done what they did was so instrumental … that they go down in history. He was the guy who made everyone forget about the gambling scandal, the worst thing ever to happen to baseball. He was the guy that brought it back together. He might have been lucky. Not lucky as a hitter, but lucky to be in those circumstances.”
Williams had great respect for the natural ability of Mickey Mantle, but never understood why the Mick didn’t heed the Splendid Splinter’s advice. Mantle “only knew one way to swing the bat — that was as quick and as hard as he could. … He really didn’t appreciate that by choking up a bit, not trying to hit it 580 feet — hit it 380 feet, 400 feet — that he would have got enough hits to establish himself as a much better hitter. Because of that hardheadedness, he kept himself from being a much higher average hitter.”
His own power hitting philosophy: “You never try to hit a home run until you got a little advantage. You got the count, you got a pitcher no matter what he throws looks like a watermelon, and then you say, ‘I can do things with his guy.'”
Williams seemed at peace with himself. “To live the life that I have led, to have some success, to have the narrow escapes I’ve had,” he said. “I am probably as lucky a guy that you can look at.” Williams, who arguably achieved his goal to be “the greatest hitter who ever lived,” died on July 5, 2002.
Oh, how I wish I had been at that reunion. I’m sure I’m not alone.