30 baseball books in April ’13: Day 28 >>>>>>>>> To this day, they don’t have Ted Williams figured out … but they can keep trying

The book: “Facing Ted Williams: Players From The Golden Age of Baseball Recall The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived”

The author: Edited by Dave Heller

The vital stats: Sports Publishing, 306 pages, $24.95

Find it: At Barnes & Noble, Powells, or publisher’s website

The pitch:  Facing Ted Williams today might be so bad. Scary, for sure. But still …

Consider that you’d be pitching against a 94-year-old frozen in time.

Johnny James, a right-handed pitcher for the Yankees and Angels between 1958 and ’61, says that living these days in Scottsdale, Ariz., he often drives by the Alcor Life Extension cryonics facility where Williams’ detached head is still reported to be chilling out in the hopes of being brought back to life years from now.

“I go by it frequently,” James says on page 89. “I always say, ‘Hi, Ted’ when we do because he was my hero when I was a young boy wanting to be a ball player. My wife, of course, thinks I’m nuts and she’s probably right. She usually is.”

James’ unremarkable career record of 5-3 with two saves and an ERA of 4.76 included the honor of facing Williams just once in his career — and issuing him a walk on July 10, 1960.

And somehow, in a book like this, that’s the kind of stuff that matters.

Even if Jones is the only one willing to even breach the subject of Current Ted’s Head versus what was in Ted’s head during their encounters, what he says about that single encounter more than a half century ago speaks to how important is still is to him.

“I probably had the same thing going through my mind as any rookie pitcher who ever faced Williams for the first time. You are thrilled to be doing it, and you don’t particularly care if you get him out. Take that with a grain of salt because you do want to get him out …
“My undoing as far as walking him was the umpire behind the plate, Ed Hurley … my side of the story is that I walked (Williams) on five strikes.”

Hall of Famers Bob Feller, center, and Ted WIlliams, left, with the Red Sox’s Charlie Wagner pose in this undated file photo. (AP Photo/Reading Eagle, via http://photos.cleveland.com)

Some like James only faced Williams once. Others, like Hall of Famer Bob Feller, couldn’t figure him out either in 153 appearances — Williams had 43 hits against him, including nine home runs and 23 RBIs. Plus, 34 walks (five intentional).

“Was he the toughest out?” Feller asks. “No, I had a dozen fellows that were tougher than Ted.” Like Taft Wright, Stan Spence, Roy Cullenbine.

Sounds like the locker room clubhouse boys who cleaned the shoes of Murders’ Row.

But that’s the kind of insight you get from skipping around and listening to those who had not a lot of SABR information on how to face the Spendid Splinter, only the knowledge of what others suggested and whether they had the nerve to try it.

Ned Garver, another who ended his career with the Angels in their first year of ’61, gave up nine homers among the 40 hits Williams had off him (a predictable .412 average). And that’s after striking him out the first time they met on May 26, 1948.

Virgil Trucks also gave up nine dingers to Williams, most of them in Detroit with a short right-field porch.

“If I threw him a fastball and it was over the plate, it was a goner,” says Trucks.

Eventually, there’s someone like George Zuverink. Williams homered against the right-hander in their first meeting in 1951. But then, Zuverink, just 32-36 with 40 saves and a 3.54 ERA from 1951-59, surrendered only one more hit against him in 22 total appearances.

His secret? Luck, perhaps. But Williams didn’t see it that way.

“In 1961, when the Red Sox had spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., and I was retired, I went to the ballpark and introduced myself to him,” said Zuverink. “He said, ‘George, I think you could still get me out!’ What a compliment.”

Gene Conley, the one-time Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, has perhaps the more interesting story about being traded to Boston in ’61. He was given Williams’ empty locker space. And there happened to be a bat left in there — the one he purportedly used to his hit final home run.

“I gave the bat away to a kid in Rhode Island,” Conley says, “and my wife didn’t speak to me for a long time. ”

Not just pitchers are quizzed, but also fielders who had to position themselves in odd shifts that are still seen today. Former St. Louis Browns shortstop Al Naples only played two games in the big leagues and managed a .143 batting average. But both of those games were against the Red Sox, and he diagrammed the shift for author Heller playing into Williams’ tendency to pull the ball (also called the “Lou Bodreau shift”):

“I do remember throwing him out on a one-hopper at first … it felt good!” Naples says.

There is a good feeling as well in revisiting those like Naples who were hardly on the radar but more than willing to add their voice to a subject that remains one of the most intriguing in major league history. For that, thank Heller, a frequent contributor to Seamheads.com, who had his pick of some 236 former pitchers and other players to deliver their retrospectives.

More to know:
== A review from the Boston Globe and the New York Journal of Books
== The transcript of a Q-and-A Heller did with the Milwaukee Journal
== Find Ted Williams’ “The Science of Hitting” and his autobiography, “My Turn At Bat.”
== Also: “Ted Williams: The Biography of An American Hero” by Leigh Montville in 2005.

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