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by William H. Benson

September 27, 2012

     On September 28, 1941, a Sunday,Ted Williams played in the 1941 season’s last game for the Boston Red Sox, and at eight times at bat that day, he hit six times, good enough to push his batting average to .406. It was his third year in the pro’s, and he was the first professional baseball player in eleven years to exceed .400, ever since Bill Terry last did it in 1930, and no one has achieved it since.

     A player’s batting average tells how good or great a player truly is. It is determined by dividing a player’s cumulative total number of hits by the number of times he went to bat. A .406 batting average meant that Ted Williams struck a base hit better than four times out of every ten times that he was at bat. A batting average of .250 is terrible, .350 is great, but .406 is extraordinary.

     In the current baseball season, Miguel Cabrera of Venezuela, a slugger for the Detroit Tigers, leads the American League with a batting average of .333, and Melky Cabrera of the Dominican Republic, leads the National League with an average of .346. No one approaches .400.

     All the players in professional sports are great players. For a player to suit up and play for any professional team indicates great talent, but then there are the stars the game-changers, those immensely competitive, driven to win, and blessed with exceptional abilities.

     In hockey there was Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. In football there was Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and John Elway. In basketball, there was Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Jordan. In baseball, there was Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds. The great players are common; the stars are rare, a couple handfuls.

     What is remarkable is that the difference between the great and the star is slight, barely perceptible, and yet it is there. Bill James, baseball’s preeminent statistician, said it best, “Think about it. One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.” In other words in a single game or in a week’s series of games, no one can distinguish the great from the star. Only the statistician can do that.

     Michael Lewis, in his book Moneyball, makes the point very clear that the baseball scouts are clueless about identifying the rare talent. The scout cries that he ends up “driving sixty thousand miles, staying in a hundred [crummy] motels, and eating [who] knows how many meals at Denny’s all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four months, 199 of which were completely meaningless to you.”

     The problem with the scouts is that they rely solely upon subjective thinking, intuition, hunches, and what they see in one or two games. Michael Lewis wrote, “They believed they could judge a player’s performance simply by watching it, but the naked eye was an inadequate tool. The human mind played tricks on itself. There was a lot you couldn’t see when you watched a baseball game.”

      Billy Beane, when general manager of the Oakland A’s a dozen years ago, said that the scouts were “victimized by what [they] see.” It was Billy Beane who turned player-selection upside down by using statistics or objective thinking to determine who could hit and field, rather than by just eyeballing a player’s looks and skills. Beane had a low payroll budget, but because he wanted to win games, he found on the college statistical tables those great but low-cost players, and they won him lots of games.

     Recently I heard a foreigner now living in the U.S. summarize what he thinks of Americans. “All they want to do is throw things away and play ball.” Oh yes! They want to play ball, and they want to watch others play ball. Sometimes when seated in the bleachers though we see things happen on the field or in the court that truly amaze and astonish us. Two examples.

     The very last time that John Elway put on his helmet and played a professional football game, it was on January 31, 1999, and he led his Denver Broncos to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIII. Such a thing rarely happens in the pro’s. Most retire with a whimper, their bodies broken, their minds filled with regrets and excuses. But Elway retired a Super Bowl champion, no regrets and no excuses.


     Then, on Wednesday, September 28, 1960, the same day of the year back in 1941 that Ted Williams boosted his batting average up and over .400, Ted Williams strode to the batter’s box in Boston’s Fenway Park. It was the final game of the season, his final time at bat, and the final game of his career because he had already decided to retire. The pitcher pitched. Ted swung and hit a home run.