On February 16, 1953, as the rest of his Red Sox teammates were preparing to head to Sarasota for Spring Training, Ted Williams crash-landed his damaged jet at Suwon K-13 Airbase on the Korean peninsula, held on, and skidded as the fiery plane tore up the runway around him, and somehow walked away intact.
Some people will do anything to avoid going to Florida.
The story has been retold countless times and has become one of the most prominent parts of the Williams legend. On his first mission as a Marine fighter pilot in the Korean War, Williams’ jet took a significant hit and caught fire. His instrument panel and communications system were virtually destroyed, and he had to follow a fellow pilot’s pantomimed instructions to find his way back to base. He refused to bail out, fearing that ejecting would destroy his knees and end any hope of playing baseball again.
Nothing sums up Ted Williams better than the fact that he was flying a plane literally spurting flames, and at least some part of his mind was concerned with how it would affect his ability to hit Ed Lopat.
When Williams attempted to land at 225 miles per hour, an explosion in the plane ripped off part of the structure and he could only deploy one landing wheel. As the fiery hellmouth of a plane skidded across the runway and the sparks flew, Ted offered up what had to be the most unique prayer in the history of organized religion:
“If there’s a Goddamn Christ, this is the time ol’ Teddy Ballgame needs you.”
How that didn’t become a psalm I have no idea. Because as it turned out, it was also the only prayer in history that proved to be 100 percent effective. Somehow, the plane finally came to a stop and Ted dove out of the burning wreckage and was immediately whisked away to something resembling safety.
For just about any other mortal, that would be enough of a story to last them the rest of their lives. But for Ted Williams, it was only the start of one of the most harrowing and ultimately triumphant years of his time on earth. A year that began with him escaping fiery death on the other side of the globe somehow ended with him returning to the Boston Red Sox before the season was out. And the level of baseball he played in 1953 was nearly as miraculous as his survival that day in Korea.
There were several factors underlying Williams’ 1953 season that made his sublime performance almost unfathomable. The first was the fact that his infamous crash landing was not the only time he was lucky to escape Korea intact. Williams scholar Bill Nowlin identified another instance when Ted’s plane took damage while attempting to complete his mission.
This near miss took place a little over two months after his crash landing on April 27 when Williams absorbed anti-aircraft fire in his left tip fuel tank. Fortunately, that particular tank “was the first fuel tapped by the jet engines, so the tanks were empty by the time the Pantherjets had begun their run.” Essentially, Ted’s life was saved by the engineers who designed the fuel supply system of his airplane–had the Pantherjet been built to take its initial supply from a different source, the ground flak would have hit a tank full of jetfuel and the result would have been catastrophic.
So by the time the 1953 Red Sox had put up a 4-6 record to bury themselves in sixth place, their Hall of Fame left fielder had already faced two brushes with death. And you thought the 2011 Sox had a rough start.
The second obstacle that Williams had to overcome to play baseball again in 1953 was the adverse effect Korea had on his health. During his deployment on the peninsula, he contracted several illnesses — some quite severe. Always sensitive to cold weather, Williams did not take winter in Korea well and found himself grounded on February 20th with an ear infection that soon escalated into pneumonia. He was eventually sent to a hospital ship in Inchon Harbor and did not fly another mission for six weeks.
He was hardly in good condition when he returned to the United States either. According to Ben Bradlee Jr, Williams’ “head was all plugged up, he couldn’t hear the radio, and flying was painful.” Finally, after flying 39 missions, “further testing revealed that his eustachian tube…was inflamed and would require more specialized treatment than was available in Korea.”
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Leigh Montville related that Williams “confided to a nurse, years later, that he had returned from Korea with a social disease.” Which was a hell of a way to find out that Ted Williams Brand Champ Prophylactics apparently spent all of their budget on marketing instead of quality control.
Yet another factor that Williams had to overcome was that when he finally returned stateside in time to throw out the first pitch for the All-Star Game, he hadn’t picked up a bat since April 30, 1952. In the past five months, he nearly escaped death twice and had contracted pneumonia, a severe ear infection that nearly left him deaf in one year, and the clap. But after he “received an ovation that lasted for several minutes” at the Midsummer Classic, Williams delivered the message everyone had been waiting to hear: “Tell the Boston fans to get their lungs warmed up. It looks like I’ll be back.”
As talk turned to a possible return, he was also reminded that the writers doubted him–to the surprise of no one. The New York Times’ Arthur Daley offered a measure of sympathy with his skepticism, noting upon Ted’s recall to the Marines that he “would be asked to pick up the threads of a broken career at the age of 35, so dubious an undertaking that it verges on the impossible…
“Unlikely to be realized, though, is his one burning ambition. After his career had ended, he wanted folks to be able to point at him and say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’”
And the only way that Ted could shut these people up was to prove that he was still the greatest hitter who ever lived.
His comeback began with a legendary batting practice session. In late July, Williams returned to Fenway to meet with Tom Yawkey for the first time since he reentered the service. Pleasantries were exchanged and the eager Red Sox owner soon suggested “Why don’t you go down and hit a few?” It was the most excited Yawkey had sounded since the last time he got to say something racist. After making a show of hemming and hawing, Williams agreed.
What followed would be remembered forever by the few who were fortunate enough to witness it. Boston sportswriter George Sullivan recalled that “When Williams came out…there was a roar. You would have thought you were in Yankee Stadium. Everything just stopped. Everybody was watching.” It was time for Ted to put on a show. He took a couple of tentative swings trying to find his timing. And then he sent one over the wall. And then another. And another.
All of a sudden, the only sounds heard in the ballpark were those of yet another baseball being crushed over the fence and Ted Williams yelling “Throw the son of a bitch!” A mixture of home runs — nine in a row — and profanity. Ol’ Teddy Ballgame truly was back.
Williams hadn’t even played a game and he was already creating a scene that would have fit perfectly in The Natural. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Williams remembered that “After I’d finished, we were standing at home plate and I told [Joe] Cronin I thought the plate was off line. ‘Gee, it couldn’t be,’ he said, but he agreed to humor me. He got a guy to check it with a transit and sure enough it was off a fraction.”
Of all the nicknames Ted picked up throughout his career, it’s a shame that the only one that never caught on was “The Human Protractor.”
After a few more days of BP and getting in baseball shape, it was time to see what Williams could do against real major league pitching. He activated himself and took his first at bat in a pinch hitting appearance against the St. Louis Browns’ Marlin Stuart on August 6.
In his last game before being recalled for duty in 1952, Williams had homered off of Dizzy Trout in his final at-bat in what later came to be known as “rehearsing for John Updike.” The question on everyone’s mind was: could he bookend it with a homer in his first at bat back from Korea? His initial plate appearance was in the midst of a furious Red Sox ninth inning rally as they attempted to come back from a three-run deficit. With the tying run on third base, Williams strode to the plate to the roars of the crowd and…popped out to first.
So much for drama. According to Bradlee, “the small crowd nonetheless roared appreciatively, both as Ted was introduced and as he made his way back to the dugout.” Already Ted had witnessed an even bigger miracle than surviving the crash landing: Boston fans cheering him after making an out.
His next test came three days later against a formidable foe in Cleveland’s Mike Garcia. Once again, Williams emerged late in the game to a thunderous response, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Harry Jones noting “The instant he walked up the steps to the dugout, swinging two bats, the fans leaped to their feet and began applauding, shouting, roaring.”
In an at bat that quickly felt familiar, Williams worked the count to 3-1. Here was his first real test — a hitter’s count where everyone in the park knew that Garcia would challenge him with a fastball to see how his timing was after a year and half away. As Jones reported, “The crack of the bat was unmistakable. It was a home run, high over the Boston bullpen and into the right field bleachers. The din that followed must have been heard in Seoul and all points between here and there.” The blast traveled an estimated 420 feet.
So Williams didn’t hit his first home run of 1953 until his second at bat back from Korea. Arthur Daley was right. He was slipping.
That homer alone would have made Ted Williams’ return one of the most dramatic stories of the year. Standing at third base, Cleveland’s Al Rosen noted that even Ted seemed moved by the moment: “I’ll bet maybe he was trying to hold back tears or something.” Sox manager Lou Boudreau called it “The greatest ovation I’ve ever witnessed on a ball field.”
But there were still two months of baseball to play. Ted followed the homer up with five more pinch hitting appearances, going hitless with a walk and three strikeouts. Finally, on August 14, he told the media, “Today for the first time I feel I’ve got it again.” The American League was officially on notice.
Williams got his first start of the season in the second game of a doubleheader against Washington on August 16. He was greeted with yet another five-minute ovation when his name was announced in the starting lineup and he did not disappoint. A line drive out to first base off of Spec Shea in the first inning served as a warning shot. This was followed by a ringing double to right and his second home run of the season before he left the game after five innings.
And he was just getting started.
His third home run came just three days later on the 19th, a two run blast that went 410 feet deep to right field in the bottom of the seventh that turned a one-run deficit into a Red Sox victory over the Athletics. And it turned out that three days between homers was too long for Ted, as his next one came on the 21st, a game-tying, three-run blast in the fifth inning in Washington. For good measure, he later drove in the game-winning run with a two out RBI single off Shea in the seventh.
After the game, the beleaguered Senators pitcher told the media that “the Marines should have kept Williams 20 more years.” Ted had made all of four starts on the season, and he was already accepting opposing pitchers’ unconditional surrender.
Over four games in Washington, Williams went a scintillating 7-for-11 with two walks. He drove in another game-winning run in the seventh inning on the 22nd, and hit yet another game-tying homer in the seventh frame on the 23rd. The only person in baseball history to consistently have better seventh innings than Ted Williams was Harry Caray.
By that point in the season, the Red Sox were 15 games back of the pack in fourth place with a 70-56 record. With the team out of the pennant race, Williams’ .480/.521/1.120 batting line was the whole show. As if that wasn’t enough of an indication of how The Splendid Splinter had taken center stage, the Sox as a team had hit eight home runs in the month of August. And Williams had five.
The destruction of the Washington Senators was the beginning of a 12 game hitting streak, during which time he went 19-for-37 with nine walks and only four strikeouts. He blasted six home runs over that stretch, with two sets of back-to-back homer days on August 30-31 (off of Bob Feller and Garcia no less) and September 6-7.
Leigh Montville related a story about the August 31 game that illustrated the kind of zone Ted was in:
“[Sox first baseman] Dick Gernert remembers Williams asking the clubhouse boy to find out who was pitching for the Indians…the answer was ‘Mike Garcia.’ Williams said, ‘Sliders. I’m going to hit a slider out of here today.’
“Gernert watched and waited. Williams struck out in his first at bat, grounded out in his second. In his third trip to the plate, he smoked a home run into the second deck.
“‘The fuckin’ guy finally threw me a slider,’ Williams said. ‘I told you I’d nail it.’”
It turned out that among Ted’s many skills was clairvoyance. But only when predicting his own awesomeness.
After the hitting streak ended, Williams briefly cooled down — going 3-for-22 in his next six games. This knocked his line for the season all the way down to .380/.494/.887. Clearly, this kind of mediocrity could not stand. And after hitting a pinch-hit, three-run homer against the White Sox on September 14th (his twelfth in 30 games), he went off once again, all the way through the end of the season.
Over his final 23 at bats, Ted crushed 10 hits with three doubles and two homers. His thirteenth and final home run of the season came on September 17 at Fenway. With the Tigers leading 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth and Jimmy Piersall on first with two outs, Ned Garver admitted to the media that he was trying to walk Ted on a 3-1 pitch.
But as Williams later said, “It was a slider but I don’t think Ned got it where he wanted to.” The slider ended up 15 rows deep into the right field grandstand for a 2-1 Boston victory. That was indeed probably not where Ned wanted it to go.
After going 1-for-3 off of Whitey Ford on September 27, Williams ended the 1953 season with this absurd slashline: .407/.509/.901(!). It took all of 37 games for Ted to amass 2.1 WARP–and only 26 of those were starts. He later tried to shrug off this brilliance, claiming that “I think this will happen when you come in fresh like I did, because baseball is never quite as good at the end of the year, everybody is tired, the pitching isn’t as tough.”
Yeah, that explains it. Now that we know that’s how someone could come back from serving in Korea and put up those numbers, I guess that’s why the only other person to put up a 1.400 OPS in 1953 was Ed McMahon.
Between Williams beginning the year by cheating death and ending it by slugging .901, there has never been a season in baseball history like the one he had in 1953. And considering that his year encompassed military service, a transcendent performance at the plate, and even the Red Sox adopting the Jimmy Fund as their official team charity, 1953 was also symbolic of everything that made Williams’ legacy so memorable.
So of course he ended it hitting .400.
Bradlee Jr, Ben. The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. Little, Brown and Company, 2013. p. 363, 368
Montville, Leigh. Ted Williams: The Biography of An American Hero. Doubleday, 2004. p. 173-174, 180, 182
Nowlin, Bill. 521: The Story of Ted Williams’ Home Runs. Rounder Books, 2013. p. 194, 198
Nowlin, Bill. Ted Williams at War. Rounder Books, 2007. p. 161, 229, 254-255, 258
Seidel, Michael. Ted Williams: A Baseball Life. University of Nebraska Press, 1991. p. 252
Williams, Ted with John Underwood. My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life. Simon & Schuster, 1969. p. 185-186
Photo by Aaron Doster – USA TODAY Sports