The baseball season, still in its first inning, produced a flurry of surprises and exciting performances. President Eisenhower tossed out the first ball in Washington, Bob Allison caught it and then hit a home run. Cleveland fans choked on their breakfast orange juice when they learned that Rocky Colavito had been traded to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn, then choked some more as Colavito hit game-winning home runs for the Tigers. Minnie Minoso, another ex-Indian, hit three home runs for the Chicago White Sox, one of them a grand slam. The big, bad Giants-Mays, McCovey, Cepeda and Kirkland—were also hitting home runs while the rest of the National League shuddered. Red Schoendienst was back, as good as ever, and that was nice to see. There was some good pitching—a fine two-hitter by young Mike McCormick, two straight wins by Bob Friend, 15 strikeouts by Camilo Pascual and three victories by three young Yankees named Coates, Gabler and Short. But in some ways the biggest news of the season was made by the oldest player, Ted Williams, who broke into the major leagues in 1939, when Colavito was 5, when McCovey was one and when Dwight Eisenhower was a 48-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army.
Ted Williams is 41 years old, his neck hurts despite the citrus seed pills he takes, and his legs begin to sag after three innings; but last week in Washington he showed the world he could still hit a baseball. In his first at bat this season Williams hit one of the longest home runs ever seen at Griffith Stadium, the 493rd of his 22-year career, tying him with Lou Gehrig for fourth place in the alltime list behind Babe Ruth (714), Jimmy Foxx (534) and Mel Ott (511).
What made the home run particularly startling was that Williams had not hit any at all during spring training, not a one in the cozy Arizona parks with the friendly, relaxed crowds sitting in the warm sunshine. But in Washington's brisk, overcoat weather, with the President of the United States sitting not 90 feet away, he hit one almost 500 feet on his first try. But then, that's the way it is with Williams.
The Washington pitcher, Camilo Pascual, certainly one of the best in the league, had thrown Williams an assortment of curves, mostly in close to the body. The count had reached three balls and two strikes when Camilo decided to try a fast ball.
"I put something on it," said Pascual afterwards, full of good spirits because he had won the game and struck out 15 Red Sox. "I throw it real good, but it looks like he no care."
THERE IT GOES
Pascual's fast ball came in just about waist-high, and Williams drove it straight up the middle of the ball park. The Washington center fielder started to run back, then stopped and looked up as the ball passed over his head and the 31-foot wall that encloses the outfield. Later Washington Catcher Earl Battey said, "I think the umpire and I were still watching the ball when Williams came home."
Although the crowd gave Williams a grand ovation and people in the box seats along third base rose to their feet in applause, Williams, as always, kept a stern expression and refused to tip his hat. "But when he came into the dugout he started laughing like a kid," said Boston First Baseman Vic Wertz. "Everybody was shaking his hand. I pretended I hadn't been looking. I asked him where he hit the ball, and he got a kick out of that. Boy, he really charged that ball."
The next day Boston had its home opener in Fenway Park, and Dick O'Connell, the Red Sox business manager, estimated that the Williams home run in Washington added 7,000 fans to the crowd. "Based on advance ticket sales we figured we'd draw about 28,000. It was more than 35,000 instead, standing room only. He really brings them into the park." (Williams is so popular with the Boston fans that the Red Sox must employ a secretary to handle his mail.)
On that second opening day Williams hit a second home run. This one wasn't as long, just a line drive down the right-field line that reached the seats near the foul pole. But a home run is a home run, and all New England let out a roar. (The next day Yogi Berra kidded Williams about the hit, which couldn't have traveled more than 315 feet. "Just skimming them in now, eh?" said Berra, to which Williams replied, "Yeah, a real Yankee Stadium job.")
A HERO AGAIN
The two home runs put the name TED back in all the Boston headlines. During the last year Ted Williams has been, as far as the local press was concerned, the ghost of baseball past. "What could we say about him?" asked one writer. "You can only say his neck hurts once a week."
But now he was a hero again. SOX LOSE, TED HITS 494, said one paper. And when Williams pulled a muscle running out the second home run and was forced to sit on the bench through the next several games, it was TED HURT.
No one seemed more impressed by Williams' early season form than Casey Stengel. After the second game he said, "Williams looks so much better up at the plate than most everybody else in the league that all the pitchers better forget how old he is and be careful."
Pitchers' ideas of what to throw Williams haven't changed much over the last 20 years: he can hit anything, most of them say. But last year, when Williams was having his troubles, pitchers began to come up with pet theories. Pascual believes his best chance with Williams is a curve inside. Art Ditmar of the Yankees tends to agree.
"That home run in Washington doesn't necessarily mean that Williams is going to start hitting the way he used to," Ditmar said. "The last thing a hitter loses is his ability to hit the long ball. Remember when Babe Ruth used to take a few swings years after he retired and still drive the ball out of the park? That pitch Pascual threw may have been to the one spot Williams can still murder—waist-high and away. Never pitch him away."
Williams' second home run also came on a waist-high fast ball, this one delivered by Jim Coates of the Yankees. After the game Bob Turley said, "You'll notice that when Coates kept his fast ball low to Williams, he wasn't able to pull it. He used to pull everything, but not any more."
But if Williams the hitter has changed with age, Williams the personality has not. His attitude toward sportswriters is still one of violent antipathy. Before the Boston opener a group of writers was standing near the batting cage when Williams suddenly started swinging his bat perilously close to their heads. "Clear out, you guys," he yelled. "I need swinging room. You guys shouldn't be allowed here anyway." Then he turned to Catcher Haywood Sullivan and continued in a loud voice, "Nice guys, aren't they? The knights of the keyboards. Tried to retire me last winter. Real nice guys." Haywood Sullivan looked embarrassed.
Despite his star-spangled start this season, Williams has reached the point where he is of extremely limited value to the Red Sox except as a showpiece. His severest critics argue that he never really did help the team, but that is not true. The records show that until last year no Red Sox team with Williams on it finished worse than fourth, while in three of the five years he was in the service the team finished deep in the second division. But now he hurts the club.
His fielding, never good, is painful to watch. In the Washington game Lenny Green hit a short fly ball to left. Williams tried to move in, but the ball dropped in front of him for a double. Later in the game Marty Keough went in to play for Williams and made a wonderful over-the-shoulder catch in deep left center with a runner on base.
"See?" said one Boston writer. "Those are the things you forget to count. With Ted that's a sure double and one run in. Keough saved us that run and maybe another. Happens all the time."
At Fenway Park Williams' defensive faults are less conspicuous because over the years he has learned to play the short left field wall beautifully. Gil McDougald lined a ball against the wall there last week, and Williams, running to just the right spot, grabbed the rebound and got it in to second base in time to keep McDougald at first. And once when Bobby Richardson took a wide turn at second Williams threw the ball behind him and nearly caught him off base.
"I keep warning everybody about that play," said Stengel afterwards. "The old guy is cute."
But cute as he may be, there is no way he can escape the fact that time is catching up with him. At his age pulled muscles come more often, and they linger on. Even when he is healthy there are few other teams that could afford to use him as a regular or semiregular. Certainly not the contending teams, for he would inevitably give away more defensively, especially in those large ball parks, than he could make up for offensively. Even Baltimore, a team built on pitching and defense, could not use him. So Williams is lucky to be playing for a team as weak as the Red Sox, and the Red Sox are lucky to have him playing, for he at least generates excitement and guarantees a respectable crowd at the park. But the day is coming soon when he will have to give up the game.
He wants very much to hit 500 home runs, and he will certainly stick around until he accomplishes that. If he is hitting well—that is, over .300—he will finish out the season. If summer finds him hitting as poorly as he did last year (.254) and he has his 500 home runs, chances are he will retire. Then baseball will be less exciting for everybody.