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Celebrating Ted Williams’s Historic Call for Inclusion 50 Years Ago This Week

By Paul Dickson, July 23, 2016
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Boston Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams in 1954.

In late 1965, in advance of his first year of eligibility, Ted Williams was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 282 out of a possible 302 votes. He needed 227 for election. He received 93.4 percent of the votes cast by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, making him just the eighth player elected on his first appearance on the ballot.

Following his election, Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on July 25, 1966, 50 years ago this week. His speech was planned to be short and to the point. He vowed not to go long as it would take time away from the next inductee, Casey Stengel, whom the crowd anticipated for his singular brand of folk speech, known far and wide as Stengelese.

Williams took the podium. He was tanned and in great physical shape—one writer said he looked like Rock Hudson and, when he began to speak, sounded like John Wayne. He lead off by thanking the writers who had voted him into the Hall, significant in that Williams had feuded with the press throughout his career, with special antipathy for the local Boston scribes who covered the Red Sox.

For years he had derided the writers as the “Knights of the Keyboard,” and, according to biographer Ben Bradlee Jr. in The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, he actually manufactured a long-playing conflict with them to fuel his drive to excel. “Though his press was overwhelmingly positive,” Bradlee concluded, “he would seize on a negative story or column to portray all writers as a contemptible lot bent on invading his privacy and stirring up public opinion against him. The newspapers became a bogeyman that Williams constructed to feed the fire of antagonism that was central to his ability to perform well.”

So, Williams surprised many of the writers when he said: “I know I didn’t have two hundred and eighty-odd close friends among the writers. I know they voted for me because they felt in their minds, and some in their hearts, that I rated it, and I want to say to them: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

Significantly, Williams thanked many going back to his early coaches, but he never mentioned the fans who had come by the thousands for his special day. For all of his star quality that backed up phenomenal numbers and his heroic position as a Marine Corps combat pilot in two wars (World War II and Korea), Williams refused to let the fans, who wanted to adore him, adore him. There were many examples but none more illustrative than a recollection of catcher Birdie Tebbetts that appeared in The Sporting News in April 1955: “When Bobby Doerr and I were with the Red Sox, we pleaded with Ted Williams to tip his cap when the fans applauded his home runs. We pointed out that as great a slugger as Babe Ruth was he used to do it and we finally convinced him. Next time up, Ted hit one a country mile into the right-field bleachers. I was anxious to see what he was going to do. He dropped his bat, lowered his head in the funny way of his and as he began loping toward first base, we could hear him muttering: ‘I won’t do it, I won’t do it, I won’t do it,’ and he didn’t.” Nor would he ever tip his cap ever after he hit a home run in Fenway Park in his last at-bat as a Red Sox player. To put it simply: Williams was his own man—a bone fide nonconformist.

Back to the speech in Cooperstown:

After thanking many and talking about his own devotion to hard work, Williams brought up the subject of Willie Mays. The Giants star had just hit his 522nd home run, which put him ahead of Williams, who had retired with 521. “He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, ‘Go get ’em, Willie.’ Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game.”

In his 22 year major league career, “The Say Hey Kid” earned 12 Gold Glove Awards, National League MVP honors twice, and appeared in 24 All-Star Games where he set several records including the number of at-bats, hits, runs, triples and steals. Ted Williams said, “They invented the All-Star Game for Willie Mays.”

Then in the context of discussing Mays, Williams paused and sweeping his hand toward the Hall of Fame in the background delivered an unexpected sentence: “I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.” The audience cheered and clapped.

According to Joseph Durso writing in the New York Times, Williams had written the speech the night before in his motel and had said nothing in advance about what he would say. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, one of the writers who was there, wrote the next morning that “Williams was no less than magnificent when he bethought himself of the great Negro players who didn’t make Cooperstown.” Povich, and other writers who had long argued for the inclusion of the Negro League players, used the word magnificent.

On July 7, 1971, the rules were finally changed to give full membership to the Negro Leaguers rather than honorary membership, as had been originally proposed. Two days later, Williams was honored at the predominantly black Howard University in Washington for his role in opening this door to the Hall. Satchel Paige was to be inducted as a full member in August, and credit was being laid at Williams’s feet. ”I’ve been thankful for baseball,” Williams said, adding his last word on the subject. “It’s what I’ve done best. It’s what I know. But a chill goes up my back to know I might have been denied this had I been born black. I think it’s time we realize that these great players were not just great black players, they were great players. They should rightfully be enshrined next to the Musials, Alexanders, Cobbs and Ruths.”

The day after Williams died at age 83, Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote a profile of Williams in which he called the sentence uttered by Williams in Cooperstown in 1966 “perhaps his finest moment as a man.”

Now a half century after the fact, Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, was asked to put the call for inclusion into perspective: “Ted Williams’s call for the inclusion of Negro Leagues players in Cooperstown represented a watershed moment for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and for baseball overall. For the institution of baseball, in which Jackie Robinson had just four years earlier earned election to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot in 1962, Ted’s comments spoke volumes and offered resounding support for the recognition of Negro Leagues players. Five years later in 1971, the Hall of Fame welcomed the first members of the Negro Leagues as Hall of Fame inductees. Having one of the game’s greatest icons supporting others at the time he was receiving his own recognition served as an important motivator for change for Cooperstown.”

Following Paige’s 1971 induction, 34 Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues players and executives have since been elected, including Josh Gibson. Paige was once asked who were the greatest hitters in the game, and without hesitating he responded: Ted Williams and Josh Gibson.

 

 

 

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