Whoa, whoa, slow down there, deputy!
Before you go running off to grab your Goudey Babe Ruth card and cradle it in the fetal position, just hear me out. You don’t have to agree with it; I’m not even sure I agree with it myself. And while there’s no doubt that Babe Ruth is, and always will be, the most dominant athlete of his day and the greatest icon in American sports history, or even just American history, a case can be made that Ted Williams was actually the greatest hitter the game has ever known. Mile High Card Company offered a Spectacular Fresh to the Hobby 1950 Ted Williams Boston Red Sox Game Worn and Autographed Jersey in our August 2016 auction, and while preparing a description for the catalog, I got an opportunity to crunch the numbers on behalf of “The Splendid Splinter” with some interesting results. Keep in mind, what I’m about to suggest is completely unscientific and totally speculative, but might just give some insight into how truly incredible a hitter Ted Williams really was.
It’s Not Just About the Numbers!
Sure, a side by side comparison of the career numbers of Williams to Ruth leaves “Teddy Ballgame” lagging far behind in every category but walks (#4 all-time, Ruth is #3) and slugging percentage (#2 all-time, Ruth #1) with a slight lead in doubles (525 to 506). But Williams missed considerable time while in the prime of his career to military service; close to 5 years. What I’m proposing is to “give back” those lost years, using seasonal statistics prior to and after military service, to estimate what his career body of work might look like. Of course, many would say, “Hey, it is what it is, players get injured but we don’t sit around ‘giving’ them extra stats for missed games.” True, but losing time to injury is part of the game; losing time to defend your country is something different altogether. While it’s possible that Williams might have gotten injured and missed time anyway, I’m not claiming the player with the best numbers is the best hitter. We’re just trying to “even the playing field” of what might have been so that we can make an “apples to apples” comparison … so here it goes!
World War II
Ted Williams was in his fourth season at 23 years old having just completed an American League Triple Crown season, batting .356 with 36 homers and 137 RBI when Uncle Sam summoned him to military duty. He wouldn’t see the field again until he was 27 years old, losing three prime years of his career. If we take the average of the two seasons prior and the four years after his service, projecting that over three years would net Williams 1,548 more at-bats, 408 runs, 555 hits, 113 doubles, 106 home runs, 390 RBI and 449 walks to his resume, with a batting average of .359 over those three seasons.
Back to the Front
In the six seasons after his return from World War II, Ted Williams won two batting titles, two home run crowns and was twice the American League MVP. But in 1952, he was recalled to active duty to serve as a combat pilot in the Korean War, playing only six games in ’52 and returning to the field for 37 games in 1953. Using the average of the prior season and the three seasons after as an estimate with Williams missing about 83% of those two years, it earns him another 677 at-bats, 146 runs, 230 hits, 41 doubles, 63 homers, 157 RBI, 195 walks and a .340 batting average.
The Fair Comparison
OK so in our alternate universe, Ted Williams never served in the military and continued to perform at or about the same rate for those “missing” years. Under those conditions, here’s the career comparison of Ruth and Williams…
Not only would Williams surpass Ruth in several key categories, he would be baseball’s all-time leader in runs, RBI and bases on balls (all highlighted in red). He would have retired second to Ruth in homers, and with 29 round-trippers in his final season in 1961, might have played another year or two for the chance of taking the all-time home run crown. And let’s not forget, Ted Williams didn’t have “The Iron Horse” batting behind him … EVERY … SINGLE … GAME … for well over a decade! The defense rests, your honor. What’s your verdict?