On 28 September 1941, Ted Williams finished his third season with the Boston Red Sox with a .406 batting average: for every five at-bats, he got a hit (maybe a homer).
On 28 September 1960, Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat in his 21 years as a baseball player with the Red Sox.
In between, he served in both World War II and the Korean War.
And no one has surpassed that batting record in the intervening 82 years. In 1941, Williams had 37 homers, 135 runs and a slugging average of .735.
According to the New York Times in 2011: “Acclaim for Williams’s feat increased each decade as no other hitter reached .400, but the attention rarely reached the awe and veneration attached to, say, Babe Ruth’s home run records.”
In addition, his 1941 record .553 on-base percentage “stood for 61 years until Barry Bonds topped it in 2002 (.582), then again in 2004 (.609).”
Williams was one of baseball’s best hitters. Period.
In 1942 and 1947, Williams won the American League Triple Crown for batting: best batting average, the most RBIs and the most home runs. In American major leagues, only one other player has won that Triple Crown twice: Rogers Hornsby in 1922 and 1925.
There are lots of theories as to why no modern American player has bested a .400 batting average.
One theory: relief pitchers were a rarity until the 1970s. Batters faced a tired arm towards the end of the game, suggesting it would be easier to get a hit.
Yet according to Stephen Jay Gould, in 1986 the mean batting average remained unchanged at .260 (Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin). The bell curve had kept a stable mean but its range had narrowed.
Gould considered a “shrinking in variation” in individual performance as why .400 remained a record.
I am not arguing that no one will ever hit .400 again. I do say that such a mark has become a consummate rarity, achieved perhaps once in a century like a hundred-year flood, and not the common pinnacle of baseball’s early years… [but] … Every season features the promise of transcendence.
Williams believed it was because he made a science out of hitting. From Ted Williams’ Hit List (1998):
Hitting a baseball is the single most difficult thing to do in sport. . . . A hitter … is expected to hit a round ball with a round bat and adjust his swing in a split second to 100-mile-per-hour fastballs, backbreaking curveballs, and, occasionally, knuckleballs that mimic the flight patterns of nearsighted moths.
In 2018, an ESPN writer ran the numbers: at bats, walks, hits, strike outs. “In the 1980s and 1990s, .400 chases were rare but thrilling… But nobody since 2000 has topped .380 in the first half of the season, which means nobody since 2000 has even given us a credible, sustained threat at .400.”
Williams died at 83 years of age on 05 July 2002.
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