The last man to hit .400 in the major leagues died today at 83. But there was a lot more to Ted Williams than carrying a big stick.
Williams was a flawed role model, but he certainly got one thing right, and it’s fitting that he died on July 5. You see, Ted Williams gave up seven of the best years of his career to be a Marine pilot. Can you imagine Barry Bonds going through boot camp to become a Marine? I didn’t think so.

Ted Williams had a lot of enemies. Opposing pitchers didn’t like him much, because he was the best hitter in the league. He was their natural enemy. But the press hated him too. So did Boston’s fans.

When Ted Williams went to his first spring training, his new teammates greeted him. “Wait until you see Jimmie Foxx hit,” one of them said.

“Wait ’till Foxx sees me hit,” the cocky Williams responded.

Jimmie Foxx was the best home-run hitter in the game at the time. The only man up to that point who had hit more homers than Foxx was the recently retired Babe Ruth. Teams used to build walls and put up screens to try to keep Foxx’s screaming line drives from becoming home runs. Many of Foxx’s records stood for 50 years. And this kid, who’d never seen a big league pitcher except in the stands or on a baseball card, was saying “Wait until Foxx sees me hit?”

They say it’s not ego if you can back it up, and Williams backed it up. In just his third season in the majors, he batted .406. Now, 61 years have passed, and the closest anyone has come since to hitting .400 over a full season was George Brett in 1980.

Williams hit .344 on his career, and hit a total of 521 home runs. Given those six years back, he would have set records no one would have reached. The man hit .342 with 38 home runs in 1946, after he’d sat out the 1943, 1944, and 1945 seasons flying airplanes in World War II! There are a lot of men in the Hall of Fame whose best seasons paled with Williams’ rusty comeback season.

Yeah, Williams had a lot in common with Barry Bonds. Both feuded with fans and teammates. Both collected a lot of bad blood. But what Williams gave up for his country is something baseball fans can only imagine.

It’s fitting, in a way, that Williams went out on July 5, 2002. This country’s been through a lot the past 10 months–the biggest threat since the threats that had Williams trading his fielder’s mitt and bat for an airplane. There were men who gave up more than Williams did–they gave up their lives–but it’s hard to imagine very many stars today doing what Williams did. Some do, but the majority of them are more concerned about their next piece of expensive jewelry.

Fortunately, we still have good men willing to fight for something worth fighting for. Be grateful. Be ever grateful.