Ted Williams, also know as “The Kid”, “The Thumper”, “Teddy Ballgame”, and the “Splendid Splinter”, is honored this week as we celebrate the United States Marine Corps’ 248th birthday and honor our Veterans on Veteran’s Day. Williams served in both World War II and the Korean War, receiving three Air Medals while sacrificing valuable years at the peak of his extraordinary baseball career.
After graduating from high school, Williams began his professional baseball career by signing with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. By the age of 19, he was playing for the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association. His Major League debut came in 1939 with the Boston Red Sox, and he quickly emerged as baseball’s best hitter by hitting .406 in 1941. No MLB player had accomplished this since 1930 when Bill Terry hit .401. Ted remains the last to accomplish this feat. Even though he could have sat out the last day of the season since he was batting .3995, which would round off to an even .400, he chose to play so there would be no doubt about his mark. He went 6 for 8 in a doubleheader, raising his average to .406 to end the season.
Williams had been classified as 3-A in the draft because his mother was completely dependent on him, but he had to appeal to the draft board when his status was changed to 1-A after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During his appeal, he promised he would join the Navy after he had completed the commitment he had made to baseball that year. Following the 1942 season when he captured the Triple Crown by batting .356, slugging 36 home runs, and batting in 137 runs, he enlisted in the Navy and became a Naval Aviator.
He joined the V-5 program and attended the Navy’s preliminary ground school at Amherst College with his fellow teammate Johnny Pesky. He then spent four months at preflight school in Chapel Hill. While there, he continued to play baseball, joining the Chapel Hill Cloudbusters team which also featured Pesky, Harry Craft, Buddy Hassett, and Johnny Sain.
Williams fueled his passion for baseball by playing on the Armed Forces All-Stars team, which was managed by Babe Ruth and featured Joe DiMaggio. They played the Boston Braves in a fundraising event.
In 1943, Williams was sent to NAS Bunker Hill, Indiana to complete his primary flight training. From there, he went to NAS Pensacola for intermediate training and left a strong impression by setting records in aerial gunnery.
On May 2, 1944, Williams was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and received his flight wings. He attended gunnery training in Jacksonville, again setting ariel gunner records before returning to Pensacola as a flight instructor. From June to August in 1945, he was stationed in Hawaii and went through flight training for the fighter aircraft, Vought Chance F4U Corsair. He was awaiting orders as a replacement pilot when the war ended. He also played baseball with the Marine Flight-Wing team while there.
In 1946, Williams was discharged from the Marines and returned to the Red Sox. He was essential in leading the team to the World Series and was named the MVP of the American League.
His baseball career was put on hold once again when he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War at the age of 34. In 1952, Williams was sent to MS Cherry Point, North Carolina to learn how to fly the Grumman F9F Panther. He was then assigned to the VMF-311, Marine Aircraft Group 33 (MAG-33). Williams, now a Captain, was in the same squadron as John Glenn, the famous astronaut, and even served as Glenn’s wingman. He flew 39 combat missions with one almost taking his life when he was hit by North Korean enemy fire during an air strike over Kyomipo, Korea. Refusing to eject because he feared injury to his knees from the ejection system, he chose to make an emergency landing and safely crash-landed. Wanting to get the experience behind him, he was in the air the following day but again took enemy fire over Chinnampo. Because of an inner ear problem that hampered his ability to fly, he was forced to leave the Marines in 1953.
Williams played for the Red Sox until 1960, ending his illustrious career with a lifetime batting average of .343 and 521 home runs. On September 28th at Fenway Park, he hit a home run in his last at bat. He served as a manager for the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers from 1969 to 1972. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966 during his first year of eligibility. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
The Foundation honors Williams for his commitment to his country and his sacrifice to serve in World War II and the Korean War. Even though he lost five years at the height of his baseball career, he never publicly complained about the time that he devoted to service. He left behind a strong legacy as a United States Marine Corps pilot and one of the all-time greatest hitters to ever play the game.