There he was.
Right there, smack in the middle of St. Louis's Union Station, waiting to change trains on this still, cool morning of Sept. 18, 1956, was Ted Williams: the Kid, the Splendid Splinter, the greatest hitter of his time. Williams was oblivious to all the people milling around him as he stood with his feet planted wide, intently reading The Sporting News.
And there I was.
How could any 20-year-old baseball fan not be impressed? I knew I had to say hello to him. How could I go back to Evanston, Ill., and tell my friends I had seen Williams in the station's Grand Hall and not gone up to him? There was one deterrent, however—the possibility that a friendly hello at seven in the morning would set off that terrible temper for which Williams was renowned.
I took a moment or two to contemplate several approaches. Ask him for an autograph? Forget it. Ask him where he was going? Obviously he was on his way to Kansas City, where the Red Sox had a game that night. Instead, I decided to try the simplest approach.
Next thing I knew, there I was, right in front of him. He was a big man, all right, almost a foot taller than I was. I swallowed a couple of times to work up some saliva in my dry mouth and waited for my breathing to return to normal.
"Excuse me," I said. "I just wanted to say how much I enjoy watching you play."
I braced myself for the worst, but to my surprise, he answered cordially, "Oh, thanks. Always nice to hear that."
Now I was at a loss for words. I had expected the whole thing to end immediately and I would have a story to tell my friends: Ted Williams told me to get lost. But something kick-started my mind again, and I was saying something like "I saw you on The Bob Elson Show the other night," referring to an interview program in Chicago.
"Oh," he said, "do you get that down here, too?"
"No," I answered. "I saw it in the Chicago area. I live in Evanston, just north of the city."
"I see," he said. "So what are you doing in St. Louis?"
I could not believe it: Ted Williams had actually asked me two questions in a row. The man was downright pleasant. I came up with an answer, which I recall being: "On my way to Columbia. I have a friend there at the University of Missouri. I go to Northwestern. Our classes start in a couple of weeks. I have a couple of free days and I thought I'd stop over and see how my friend is doing."
What now? I was sure he didn't have any more questions for me, and he had certainly been a class act up till now. Should I just say thanks and disappear? Or should I press my luck a little more? "Ted, do you mind if I ask you a baseball question?"
"Not at all," he replied. "What is it?"
"Well, earlier in the season Mickey Mantle was ahead of Babe Ruth's pace for 60 homers. But lately he's tailed off, and it looks as if he won't make 60. How come?"
I couldn't believe what happened next. The man was transformed before my eyes. Williams took his Sporting News and rolled it up tightly, lengthwise, to form a bat. As he did this, I looked around to see if anyone else was aware of what was going on. No one was watching as baseball's finest batter began to give a free clinic.
"You see," he said, "early in the season he was taking a normal stance at the plate, like this." Williams, his newspaper bat over his right shoulder, looked down at an imaginary home plate, then reached down with the bat to measure off the distance, as he would in a game. I was positively light-headed at this point, in a sort of semihypnotic state.
To the best of my recollection, this is how he continued: "Now, this meant that things were going normally. Of course, a guy hitting home runs like that is not normal. Still, for a while the pitchers tried to stay within their plans. Nothing worked. He was driving outside pitches into the opposite-field stands, pulling inside strikes down the line, doing pretty much as he pleased. Wherever they put the ball, he threatened to hit it hard.
"Now, those pitchers don't enjoy seeing someone doing that to their best stuff, so they adjusted. They stopped throwing strikes. They began going outside, low and outside, almost every pitch a ball, no matter if he was batting right or left. They were perfectly willing to walk him on four pitches every time he came up. And if he was hungry to make contact, he'd have to swing at a bad pitch.
"Of course, Mantle understood what was going on. When you hit with power, you know they are going to pitch you carefully. So after swinging at some bad ones and drawing some walks, he decided to make his own adjustment. He began to crowd the plate, making that outside pitch easier to reach."
With these words he took a couple of tiny steps closer to his imaginary home plate. I was impressed, to say the least. But he hadn't finished.
"So Mantle had created his own brand-new strike zone," said Williams. "He'd moved himself closer to the pitches they'd been giving him, and he hit a few of those a long way. But the pitchers had moved the mountain. No matter where the batter stands, home plate is always right there.
"Now the pitchers had regained some of their lost edge. They began watching his feet. If he took the normal stance, they went outside. If he crowded the plate, they jammed him inside, on the fists, often for a strike." Williams brought his hands close to his body, as a batter does when pitched inside. I understood perfectly.
"That's about all there was to it," he continued. "The pitchers just tried to break up his rhythm, make him guess a little more and take away his normal strike zone."
I was momentarily speechless. I recovered quickly, though, and said, "Well, he sure is exciting to watch. Every time the Yankees are in town, we're all down at Comiskey Park, just to see what he might do."
"Yes," Williams said, "he's really something."
A second later I asked without thinking, "Do you think he'll be better than Joe DiMaggio?" As soon as I asked the question, I wished I hadn't. After all, DiMaggio had been Williams's big rival for many years, and he had often been compared favorably with Williams. I feared I had opened a wound.
Instead, Williams spoke of DiMaggio with admiration: "It's a little early to compare the two. Mantle has a lot of career ahead of him, but when you talk about DiMaggio, you are talking about the best."
I let the air out of my lungs, thankful that my thoughtlessness hadn't sparked that famous temper. I knew I could ask even another question.
"I suppose so," I said. "I really didn't see that much of DiMaggio. Just a few games when he was near the end. But I heard he was such a complete player, even down to running the bases. They say he was never thrown out taking the extra base. Is that true?"
"Well," said Williams, "it's true that he was a total player. When you say 'complete player,' it often means a guy is just adequate in all phases of the game, with no weaknesses. DiMaggio was outstanding in every phase of the game.
"As to never being thrown out on the bases, I don't know. I'll say this: His judgment was excellent. He was aggressive, but he played with his head. If he ever was thrown out, I imagine it was a close call and that it took a perfect play to get him. I never saw the guy make a bad play."
I was nearly knocked off my feet. Ted Williams had spoken of Joe DiMaggio with the deepest professional respect. I almost headed for the nearest phone to call Joe D. and tell him all about this.
Instead, I regrouped. Williams had been so courteous in speaking about two Yankee center fielders that I suddenly wondered what was the matter with me. Why hadn't I asked him about himself? I decided to do so quickly.
"Ted," I said, "what about you? Are things going the way you like so far this year?"
"About as well as could be expected," he said. "Of course, these road trips are killing me. Not the games, mind you, just the travel. Especially trips like this one. How can a guy my size expect to sleep on a train? In fact, my back is killing me right now. I'm not even sure I'll play tonight."
With this I understood that it was time to say goodbye. "Well," I said, "it's been a pleasure, and I hope they keep falling in for you."
"Fine," he said. "See you."
Now what? All I had wanted to be able to tell my friends was that I'd exchanged a couple of hellos with the big fellow without having my lights put out. Instead I had been taken to Fantasyland. Who would believe a story like this?
So I just filed it away in my memory. The next morning I picked up the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I wanted to see if Williams had played.
I had to laugh. He had gone 3 for 4. Bad back! Not sure he would play! That gave me a nice feeling, just as my conversation with Williams had. Thirty-two years ago Ted Williams made my day. Twice.
Dan Peterson is a sports commentator for a TV station in Milan, Italy.