Prodigal Pastime (4)

My parents bought me books for Christmas. Socks and books, gifts that children are supposed to hate, are those which I used most or still have. It shouldn’t be surprising that I didn’t always know what was good for me when I was eight. But, in a world where we ridicule participation trophies, we seem keen to shower kids with useless shit and instant gratification on the day of the birth of our lord and savior. For the record, I love frivolous gifts. Now that my sisters and I are all adults, our Christmas mornings are filled with cookbooks, gaudy socks, novelty t-shirts, homemade cards, Spotify playlists, used books, refrigerator magnets, new books, and elaborate jokes. It’s glorious. But I also don’t feign some Spartan sensibility and fly off the handle about character building and the rigors of little league back in my day. I digress. And I still get more books than other things.

I aged out of most of the books that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was little, but many are still on the shelves of what used to be my bedroom. My favorite for most of elementary school was a big red coffee table book: The 100 Greatest Hitters, by Benton Minks. I leafed through pages that included Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Harmon Killebrew, Carl Yastrzemski, Enos Slaughter, Mickey Mantle, and Pete Rose. Written in 1996, Barry Bonds was listed somewhere down in the bottom third if I recall correctly along with other questionable contemporary players like Frank Thomas and enduring greats of the era like Tony Gwynn and Ken Griffey Jr.

I’ve always had an eye for statistics. I rooted through the nonfiction section of the library for a massive dozen-volume collection of Civil War history. Each battle ended with a list of belligerents, notable generals and their troop counts, sizes of armies, and casualty totals. I tried to memorize them. It could certainly have been a sort of compulsion, but in a way it seemed like the only way to pay respect to a number I couldn’t comprehend was to try and remember it. I don’t think I’ve seen 29,800 people in one place in my entire life. Being able to recall that so many soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing at the Wilderness, being able to recite the most prominent commanders, was the only way I could appreciate something that transcended my comprehension. And so, as I read down the list of the greatest batters of all time, I memorized home run totals, records accumulated, team names, and active dates. Until I got to #1.

Ted Williams topped the list. Ted Williams without mountainous statistics to pile against Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb. Ted Williams whose only claims to the record book are obscure or require a built in caveat. His .344 batting average puts him on top in the “live ball” era (the caveat), but Babe Ruth is only three points behind and has two hundred more home runs to his name. Williams sank to a three-way tie for 20th place on the all-time home run count in the bonanza of the early 2000s. He sits in 15th place for runs batted in. I couldn’t figure out why he occupied the top spot.

In my maturity, it occurs to me that maybe memorizing statistics didn’t really substitute for the quality of a thing. Maybe magnitude can distract from real lasting importance. Maybe it’s not important that 29,800 soldiers fell or went missing in the dense woods near my home. Maybe it’s important that a bit of lead cut the smoke and struck a confused hayseed who’d never left pa’s farm in upstate New York before 1863, and that it knocked him down a rocky hill past corpses and pine trees, until he stopped and lay there choking on sulphur, at the mercy of the next passerby. Maybe it’s important that such a thing happened over and over and over again. Sheer statistics, one thing piled upon all the others, really does distract. Babe Ruth hit almost twice as many home runs as Carlton Fisk, but I doubt Fisk would trade one in particular for anything short of a World Series. Numbers aren’t really everything. Especially because America has a romantic concept of sports.

And America does have a romantic concept of sports. Each has its own role – football encourages toughness and physicality, basketball nurtures endurance and teamwork. Sports in general build character, teach kids to deal with defeat, win graciously, work with others. Football relies on aggression, confrontation, traditional masculinity, pushing one’s body to the brink. All sports encourage that sensibility to a degree. Curt Schilling’s bloody sock is in the Hall of Fame even while Schilling himself is not. I didn’t have a Hank Aaron poster in my room. Instead I had a massive black and white photograph of Cal Ripken, Jr, taken from the back as he stepped out of the dugout upon official completion of his 2,131 consecutive game played. The record said nothing about the quality of a baseball player, beyond that he was important enough to start for that long. It said everything about his character, value as a teammate, toughness. Maybe I gravitated toward Ripken because I was an Oriole fan in my bones and blood, while Aaron was a Brave. But I also idolized not Jim Palmer or Mike Mussina, but Nolan Ryan. Ryan got angry, threw a million miles an hour, started constantly into his late forties, hated being yanked from games, never seemed to tire.

Other factors came into play, but toughness was always there. Beyond that, baseball relies on perfection of technique, nerve and focus. At least that’s what we like to think. A swing is a scientific process, physics and repetition and trigonometry in motion. Pitching is a remarkable feat when I stop to think about it, the propulsion of an object at a speed that rivals a speeding a car into a box the size of a folded newspaper, but with English and someone trying constantly to swat it to kingdom come. Fielding is pure technique; the coverage of every scenario to the point where catching a tiny object hurtling at breakneck speed and ricocheting off of a landscape that changes minutely countless times each day becomes a reflex

Ted Williams was, by all accounts, a beautiful baseball player; a stellar fielder, fast and smart on basepaths, a sweet swing who hit for contact and got on base by any means necessary, home run or walk. But that doesn’t account for his status either. So, why is Ted Williams the greatest hitter of all time? The answer lies in who we never really consider to be the best.

Williams seems to be the guy at the top of lists, but he trades occasionally or is challenged immediately by the likes of Stan the Man, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, or Honus Wagner. Though he sometimes appears near the top with a disclaimer, Barry Bonds is never a regular, though he clearly has the stats to back up his claim to legend. And therein lies the rub. Ted Williams is the greatest hitter of all time because we’re okay with thinking he is. He’s exactly who we think the greatest hitter of all time should be and he’s got the stats that make the claim most credible.

Baseball is America’s pastime. Numbers lend the claims credibility but stats aren’t everything – we want more from the greatest of all time. We want to be able to live with who we idolize and Ted Williams was an all-American boy, working class and rough around the edges. He served in the military (though the story is a little more complicated) and was wholesome as they come. Babe Ruth was quintessentially American in the most roaring-twenties of ways: cigar-chomping, proudly indulgent, pudgy, arrogant, hard-drinking, and really god-damned overwhelmingly good. Willie Mays was flashy and brilliant, fast and thrilling, exceedingly skilled in every way but powerful and exuberant. Hank Aaron was the workhorse America imagines it exalts: modest, well-rounded, determined, and reliable even while extraordinary. Babe Ruth is the sort of hero we love to hate and begrudgingly admire. Willie Mays is the hero we love to watch. Hank Aaron is the hero we aspire to or think we could be.

There’s more to the game than numbers. No decision is purely objective. Reducing anything to statistics and impartiality drains it of its resonance. There’s no greatest of anything. A battle isn’t important because more people died. A business isn’t more useful because it has more inventory. A hitter isn’t better because he has more home runs. It’s really quite simple.

Ted Williams is the greatest hitter of all time because he’s the hero we’re most okay with worshipping.