5 notable facts about Splendid Splinter's life and career

August 30th, 2023

enjoyed a remarkable career -- and life. The Hall of Famer remains one of the most legendary and distinctive players in Major League history more than 60 years after he played the last of his 2,292 games for the Red Sox.

Williams, who passed away in 2002, was born on Aug. 30, 1918, in San Diego. On the occasion of his birthday, here is a look at five of the many highlights from his iconic life.

1. Serving his country

Like many ballplayers of his era, Williams was called to service -- first during World War II and again during the Korean War. Yet, unlike many of his MLB comrades, the Splendid Splinter was a casualty of active combat -- losing part of his hearing and surviving many dangerous encounters while flying 39 missions as a captain in the Korean War, according to the Marine Corps Association.

"Some people came back in from the sports world who were put to work as coaches for the baseball teams or something like that," said John Glenn, who later became an astronaut and U.S. senator, to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. "Ted was not that way. Ted fit right in. He was a Marine pilot just like the rest of us and did a great job."

Williams' first military stint had a rocky beginning, at best. With a 1A status, he received a deferment months after the 1941 season -- due to his mother's dependence on him -- which the media portrayed as "un-American," contributing to one of the many fractures in his relationship with the press. Williams voluntarily enlisted in the Navy reserve a year later and spent the next three seasons learning to fly.

Teddy Ballgame was known for his remarkable vision at the plate, and that prowess translated directly to his military tenure. According to Mayo, Williams set records for hits, shooting from wingovers, zooms and barrel rolls, as well as a student gunnery record, in reflexes, coordination and visual reaction time -- a high mark that still stands today.

"Much as I appreciate baseball, Ted to me will always be a Marine fighter pilot," Glenn told Mayo. "He did a great job as a pilot. Ted was a gung-ho Marine."

2. Risking a .400 season -- and winning big

Williams remains the last player to exceed the .400 mark. But he put that milestone on the line on the final day of the 1941 season.

With the Red Sox 17 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees in the standings and Williams sporting an even .400 average entering that afternoon, there was little incentive for Boston's All-Star left fielder to play. Since the postseason only consisted of the AL and National League champions meeting in the World Series at the time, the Red Sox's title hopes had ended weeks earlier.

Yet, Williams risked losing his .400 mark by playing in both ends of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics. The Splendid Splinter delivered in dramatic fashion, as he went a combined 6-for-8 to vault his average to .406. Had he gone hitless that afternoon, Williams would have finished with a .393 average, and Rogers Hornsby's .424 mark in 1924 would have remained the last time a player eclipsed .400.

3. Six batting titles (almost eight)

Only six players -- Ty Cobb (12), Tony Gwynn (eight), Honus Wagner (eight), Rod Carew (seven), Hornsby (seven) and Stan Musial (seven) -- won more batting titles than Williams, though the Splendid Splinter lost two titles by the narrowest of margins.

Williams finished 194-for-566 (.3427) in 1949, while George Kell went 179-for-522 (.3429), a separation of just .0002 points in favor of Kell. Had Williams gotten one hit on the final day of the season against the Yankees -- he went 0-for-4 -- he would have won the title. Adding injury to insult, the Red Sox lost the AL pennant on that day to -- you guessed it -- the Yankees.

Williams also posted a .345 average in 1954 that would have been the AL's best. But he finished with just 386 at-bats, 14 shy of the league minimum to qualify. Williams had 526 plate appearances that season, but his MLB-high 136 walks wound up being a hindrance. MLB altered its regulations in 1957 to accommodate plate appearances instead of at-bats in determining batting titles.

Incredibly, Williams won his final two batting titles in 1957 and '58, having turned 40 before the end of the latter season. He batted .337 from age 35 onward, a mark that only Gwynn has bested since Williams retired.

It's also worth noting that due to his tremendous batting eye, Williams led the AL in on-base percentage a whopping 12 times and holds the all-time record in that category (.482).

4. A Triple Crown, and make it a double

Since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920, just 10 players have ever won a Triple Crown by leading either the AL or NL in batting average, home runs and RBIs. And Williams is one of two -- along with fellow Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby -- to accomplish that feat twice.

The first time came in 1942, when Williams was a mere 23 years old. Although his .356 average was a 50-point drop from the year before, it still led the AL, along with his 36 homers and 137 RBIs. (For good measure, Williams also led his league with 141 runs, 145 walks, a .499 OBP, a .648 SLG, a 216 OPS+ and 338 total bases.)

Perhaps more impressively, Williams repeated the feat in 1947, in only his second year back after missing three prime seasons due to his aforementioned military service during World War II. In '47, Williams hit .343 with 32 homers and 114 RBIs and also led the AL in all of the same categories as above.

Yet somehow, Williams took home AL MVP honors in neither of those Triple Crown seasons. After his .406 average wasn't enough to overcome Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game hitting streak in the 1941 AL MVP voting, Williams once again finished as the runner-up to a Yankee in '42. This time it was second baseman Joe Gordon, who hit half as many home runs and had an OPS 247 points lower than Williams. (The Yankees did win the AL pennant by nine games over Williams' Red Sox, though.)

Then, in 1947, it was Williams' old rival DiMaggio who once again came out on top as the Splendid Splinter's second Triple Crown was not enough despite significantly more robust statistics -- albeit for a third-place team.

5. An AL MVP Award, finally

While Williams endured four runner-up finishes in AL MVP voting, he didn't come up empty. In 1946, his first season following World War II, he finally won it, while leading the Red Sox to their first pennant in 28 years.

Williams led the league with a gaudy 215 OPS+, more than twice the league average of 100. Since then, the only qualified hitters besides Williams to beat that figure in a non-shortened season are Barry Bonds (four times), Mark McGwire (once) and Mickey Mantle (once). 

Yet, despite the breakthrough, that year culminated in disappointment. In an exhibition game four days prior to the Fall Classic, Williams was hit by a pitch on his right elbow and -- although he downplayed it -- experienced major swelling, according to the Boston Globe archives. He would play in all seven games of the World Series, but went just 5-for-25 (.200) with one RBI and no extra-base hits, as the Red Sox fell to the Cardinals.

Williams won the AL MVP Award again in 1949, but he never played in the World Series after the '46 heartbreak.