Spring is here, and with it the Boston Red Sox and hope. Hope for the Red Sox is spelled T-E-D. It stands 6 feet 4 inches high, weighs at the moment a bulky 224 pounds and swings a baseball bat as perfectly as a herring gull flies.
Hope stood in short left field in Payne Park in Sarasota, Florida last week, flopping around after fly balls and grounders, smiling, talking with this player and joking with that one, laughing, sweating under the sun. People watching practice from the grandstand looked mostly at the batting cage and the man currently at bat, but eyes kept straying out to left field, and newcomers to the stands were nudged and told, "There's Ted. That's Ted Williams out there in left."
When it was near time for his turn at bat, Williams loped in to the batting cage. He dropped his glove, picked up the little red shin guard he uses to protect his left leg from fouls glancing down off his bat and leaned over to strap it on.
Joe Reichler, an Associated Press sportswriter, was on the other side of the cage.
March 12, 1956
"Hi, Bush," he said to Williams. Williams looked up from the shin guard, his face alert, and saw Reichler.
"Hi, Joe," he said. He finished buckling the strap and walked over.
He stood leaning against the cage, making small talk, occasionally interrupting himself to comment on the action. Leo Kiely, the lean Boston left-hander, was on the mound. Williams indicated Kiely with a nod of his head.
"That guy there. He's as thin as a damn rail."
He shook his head as if in worry, like a parent disturbed by a child who won't eat. A batter hit a sharp line drive.
"Base hit," Williams announced approvingly. "Dandy."
A HARD SWING
Then it was his turn and he hopped into the cage. Bill Henry took over the pitching chores. Williams bunted the first pitch and took the second. He swung hard at the third pitch but missed it completely, grunting from the effort.
"Attaway, Bill!" he called out to the pitcher. Then to himself: "Same old Williams."
He popped one up, fouled one off, rapped two or three "base hits," then swung and missed again.
"How can you miss those?" he asked himself. He talked constantly while he was at bat, to the pitcher, to the catcher, to the other players around the cage. He set himself as Henry threw again. "I won't miss this one."
He hit the ball hard but on the ground.
"One more," he called out to Henry.
He topped it and it bounced off to the left. Williams jumped back into the batter's box for still one more pitch. He set himself, swung hard and hit the ball with a sharp whack! The ball towered high, high into right field and the outfielders turned to watch it drop beyond the fence.
Sammy White, the catcher, said slowly in open awe: "For God's sake."
"Nope," said Williams, walking briskly out of the batter's box and around to the back of the cage. "Didn't hit it good."
Somehow, it did not appear that he had entirely convinced White, who was still looking at the distant outfield fence.
The high regard that Sammy White and the other members of the Boston Red Sox feel for Ted Williams is not based sorely on esthetic appreciation of Williams' great skill with a bat, though no ballplayer could watch Williams' hitting and not admire it. No, for the Red Sox the presence of Williams in spring training means something else: very possibly the fulfillment of a frequently frustrated dream. Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees was, with considerable logic, named Most Valuable Player in the American League last year, but let no one tell you that any player in the league means more to his team's chances of success than Theodore Samuel Williams.
A "YOUTH MOVEMENT"
For four seasons now (this will be the fifth), the Red Sox have been pushing a "youth movement" designed to bring honor and quite possibly an American League championship to Fenway Park. It began in 1952. That year, with Williams away in Korea flying a jet for the Marines, the great Red Sox team that had fought the Yankees tooth and nail for years finally came apart. Lou Boudreau, now with Kansas City but then manager of the Red Sox, wasted no time trying to nail things back together. He ripped out the deadwood on the roster and replaced it with a cargo of youthful innocents: Sammy White, 23, Jimmy Piersall, 22, Dick Gernert, 22, Ike Delock, 22, Ted Lepcio, 21, Faye Throneberry, 20, Bill Henry, 24. White had played in four major league games prior to 1952, Piersall in six. None of the others had played an inning in the majors.
They were too green. One day they would look great, the next day miserable. It was fun for a while and pretty exciting, but then they began to lose, and they lost much more often than they won. Capable veterans like Mel Parnell and Billy Goodman contributed good seasons, but the final result was disaster: sixth place, the worst, except for the war years, that a Red Sox team had finished since 1936.
But if the results were disastrous, the feeling about the future was bright with confidence. The argument in Fenway Park went like this: "The experience these kids are getting is invaluable. By the time Ted gets back, they'll be ready, and with Ted we'll have a great team." More youngsters were added: Billy Consolo, Milt Bolling, Frank Sullivan, Tom Brewer, Tom Umphlett. Trades brought in Jackie Jensen and Grady Hatton.
But Ted never got back, not really. In 1953 he returned from Korea in time only for the last quarter of the season. (He batted .407 and hit 13 home runs in that brief stretch.) In 1954 he broke his collarbone on the first day of spring training, and before he was well enough to get back in the lineup (he hit .345, with 29 homers), the Red Sox were hopelessly behind. In 1955, reluctant to sign a baseball contract until the financial details of his divorce were settled, he missed the first 46 days of the regular season and once again returned to a team that was out of the pennant race (he hit .356 and 28 home runs). For three years the youthful Red Sox had acquired age and experience, but they finished fourth, fourth and fourth.
The fourth-place finish last season, however, had meaning. If earlier years had a gleam in the eye, this one was pregnant with the future. At the same time that Williams returned to the lineup, a catalyst named Billy Klaus—a journeyman infielder with eight years in the minor leagues behind him—took over at shortstop and jarred the infield and the team into cohesion. The Red Sox came alive and raged through the rest of the season like the club the Boston fans had so long hoped they would become. From deep in the second division they rose high enough to close in on the teams fighting for the pennant.
A TRULY SOLID TEAM
Now, in spring training, the Red Sox for the first time in five years have a truly solid team. Late-blooming, youth-movement boys like Lepcio and Gernert and Throneberry are still there, threatening to burst into stardom, but this season they are supported by a bedrock of proven skill in the infield and the outfield. Catcher Sammy White is, after Berra, probably the best catcher in the league. The pitching staff, led by 18-game-winner Frank Sullivan, was superb last year and has been bolstered since by the addition of Bob Porterfield and Johnny Schmitz from Washington.
More significantly, Mel Parnell appears to be back in shape. Parnell, who averaged 18 victories a year from 1948 through 1953, broke his arm in 1954 (he won only three games all season) and injured his knee last year (he won only two). Last week, for the first time in a long, long while, he was throwing the ball with his natural overhand delivery. Parnell is almost too much. If he is indeed himself again, the Red Sox cup will run over.
Because, as any Boston fan will point out, beyond the solid infield and the brilliant outfield and the topflight catching and the deep pitching, Ted is there, too. And this year, for the first time since 1951, he'll be there right from the beginning.