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by Harold Friend
Howie Hirsch lived for the Boston Red Sox. As a youngster, he wouldn't have dessert if the Red Sox lost, which meant that Howie didn't have a weight problem. In 1957 Howie saw one of the greatest seasons any player ever had. His hero, Ted Williams, won the batting title with a remarkable .388 average. To make it even sweeter, Ted beat out Mickey Mantle, who batted .365.
Ted Williams Was On a Mission
I will never forget the 1957 batting race between Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. It seemed as if 38 year-old Ted were on a mission to show everyone that he was the greatest batter to ever play the game.
Ted had a temper and didn't hesitate to express himself. He had served his country in its never end battle against the forces of evil when he joined the Marines as a fighter pilot and flight instructor during World War II. It cost him three seasons at the peak of his career.
In 1952, Ted was back in the service. He was not happy, and he openly criticized "gutless' politicians and unfair draft laws. After missing most of 1952 and 1953, Ted returned and hit .345, but he broke a collar bone and didn't have enough official at bats to win the batting title.
During the 1950s, the Red Sox were mediocre, while the Yankees pretty much dominated baseball. Finally, in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series when young Johnny Podres shut out them out in the seventh game. It was a little vindication for all the times the Yankees had beaten better Brooklyn teams in the World Series.
After the World Series, Johnny Podres was drafted. Ted Williams, who had little love for the Yankees or for politicians, didn't mince words when he was interviewed during spring training in 1956. He believed that Podres was drafted because he had been the star of the World Series.
"The draft boards and sports writers didn't have the guts to stick up for him. College kids" and guys from big corporations never get touched."
1956 Belonged to Mickey Mantle
On the second day of the 1956 season, Williams bruised a tendon in his instep, which caused him to miss 33 games. He had a solid season, batting .345, but Mickey Mantle had his career year, won the Triple Crown, and many fans believed that the mantle of being the game's best hitter had been passed from Williams to Mickey. They were wrong.
Ted Keep Getting Hits
Ted came to spring training in 1957 in great shape. He got off to a great start and was hitting .409 on June 1. As the season progressed, Ted continued to flirt with the .400 mark. I remember listening to almost every Red Sox game, watching some on television, and going to Fenway a few times. I can't remember too many games in which Ted didn't get at least one hit.
No Ted Williams
Yankees' fans who saw Mantle tell youngsters, "you had to see him to believe him." Mickey Mantle was a good hitter, but he was no Ted Williams. I never saw a better hitter than Ted Williams, not even in the recent era of Arena Baseball.
Two Mantle Hits Almost Everyday Was Not Enough
Williams and Mantle battled for the batting title all summer. One of my friends, a Yankees' fan who spent the summer in the beach community of Rockaway, told me that Mickey often got two or three hits, which prompted Mel Allen, the great announcer, to check the ticker to find out what Williams had done. A disappointed Mel usually told listeners that Ted had two hits and a walk.
Injuries and a Hot Hitter
Mantle developed a severe case of shin splints in August, but Ted missed the first two weeks of September with a severe respiratory infection. When Ted returned, he reached base 16 consecutive times, getting six hits, nine walks, and being hit by a pitch once. He batted .647 the rest of the season to finish at .388.
Williams later told a reporter that "I spent the season being mad at the world for one reason or another. I don't think I said two words to the Boston writers all year."
Even Better Than I Thought
Today, I realize that Williams' season was even better than I thought, thanks to modern baseball statistics. The 1957 American League teams batted .255, or .133 less than Ted Williams. The league's on base average of .326 was .200 points lower. What an amazing feat. Mantle had a .512 on base average.
The only other American Leaguers to hit at least .300 were Gene Woodling (.321), Bob Boyd (.318), Jacob Nelson Fox (.317), Minnie Minoso (.310), Bill Skowron (.304), and Roy Sievers (.301). National League batting champion Stan Musial hit .351. It's too bad many younger fans don't realize how great Williams and Musial had been.
Since 1957, only George Brett (.390 in 1980) has produced a higher batting average than Williams' .388. Rod Carew batted .388 in 1977, and that's it.
It was so great that Ted Williams won another batting title in 1957, but there was still some fun to be had. The Yankees faced the Braves in the World Series. Of course, the Yankees were favored, but a right handed pitcher they had traded away came back to haunt them. Lew Burdette tied a record by winning three World Series games, including duplicating Johnny Podres' feat of shutting out the Yankees in the seventh game. What a great season.