June 18, 2016
The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age,
Robert Weintraub (2013)
The Red Sox were having difficulty clinching the 1946 American League pennant. One of the reasons for their failure was that their main hitter was mired in a slump.
Boston had saved its worst for last. The celebratory champagne was being carried across half the American League, from Washington to Philly to Detroit to Cleveland, without being cracked open. There was no thought of an epic collapse (they still led the AL by fourteen games), but the wait at the precipice was getting on the nerves of everyone in Boston.
Williams was getting on people's nerves himself. Throughout his career, he would often wear down toward the end of the season due to illness. Even as a kid in San Diego, late-summer fevers plagued him, though he never did figure out why. Now he spent many a ball game in a fog, from either a head cold or the medication he took to treat it. "He practically had pneumonia, he was so sick," remembers Bobby Doerr. "He was real run down." "I'm tired physically," Williams admitted to the press late in the season. "I'm on the go all the time and I wish it were all over."
Meanwhile, his Triple Crown hopes had dissipated like a sneeze in the air. Once the leader in all three categories, he fell behind Mickey Vernon of the Senators in the batting chase, and Hank Greenberg, Detroit's slugging star in the twilight of his fabled career, in home runs and RBIs.
Greenberg had suffered through a miserable 1946. He had been the first major league star to be called up for service, way back in 1940. He was honorably discharged on December 5, 1941. Two days later, he was back in the military, volunteering (the first major leaguer to do so after Pearl Harbor) for the Army Air Corps. "We are in trouble," he told the Sporting News, "and there is only one thing for me to do - return to the service. This doubtless means I am finished with baseball and it would be silly for me to say I do not leave it without a pang. But all of us are confronted with a terrible task - the defense of our country and the fight for our lives." ...
He came home in mid-'45 and proved he was far from "finished with baseball." Greenberg walloped a homer "on a line as flat as old beer," in Red Smith's phrase, during his first game back, and hit a grand slam to clinch the pennant. Hebrew Hank then slugged a memorable three-run shot to win Game Two of the World Series, as the Tigers bested Chicago in seven.
But for most of the summer of '46, he was considered washed-up at age thirty-five, his 28 homers, 88 RBIs, and .268 batting average through August far below his standard numbers. Then a fellow Tiger, an even older one named Roger "Doc" Cramer, who at forty was fortunately still extremely juvenile, slipped into the Sox clubhouse one afternoon at Fenway and stole one of Ted's bats. Cramer presented it to Greenberg, and Hank duly, in his words, "embarked on his annual fall salary drive" with the new lumber. He smashed a dozen homers in three weeks with Splinter's splinter, until it shattered one day. Undaunted, Hank hit 5 more with his own previously uninspiring ash, to give him 16 for the month of September and 44 in all, good for best in the league. His 39 RBIs during the exceptional month gave him that title as well. Grantland Rice opined, "Greenberg's surge is one of baseball's greatest achievements." When the season ended, he gave Williams a fresh bat as a thank-you.
L: Mickey Vernon; R: Hank Greenberg presents a bat to Ted Williams after 1946 season.
Ted wasn't too happy about the whole thing. He suspected, as did some others, that Greenberg and Vernon were getting grooved pitches in an effort to deny Williams the Triple Crown. As Austin Lake wrote, "Rival athletes gradually grew sour at Ted for his aloof swagger and chill hauteur toward his fellow craftsmen." Pitchers, in the Williams worldview, were dubious characters who lacked morals. He could easily envision some of those snakes not coming high and hard at the popular Greenie so they could stick it to The Kid.
The Sox soon clinched the pennant. Ted did not lead the AL in any of the Triple Crown categories but was overwhelmingly voted MVP.