Fifty years ago Friday, Ted Williams announced he was resigning as manager of the Texas Rangers, wrapping up a chapter that began with high hopes in Washington in 1969 but ended with the worst team in baseball in 1972.
The Washington Senators had hired Williams to bring excitement to their moribund franchise, and he had instant success.
The rookie manager won the American League Manager of the Year Award in 1969 while leading the team to its only winning season in D.C.
On the eve of the All-Star Game in Washington that year, the New York Times praised Williams as the “focus of a tremendous revival in baseball interest in the nation’s capital, and of a remarkable improvement in the weak team’s fortunes on the field. In celebrity-minded Washington, few can match Williams for celebrity at the moment.”
Williams, the last batter to hit .400 in a season, worked personally with players to improve their performance, such as sluggers Frank Howard and Mike Epstein, and pitcher Dick Bosman. For example, at Spring Training that year, the new blunt-spoken manager asked Howard, “Can you tell me how a guy can hit 44 home runs but only get 54 base on balls?”
When Howard said he tried to be aggressive, Williams asked him to be more selective and take a tough strike. The plan worked: Howard walked 102 times and had his best season — a .296 average, 48 home runs and 111 RBIs. Epstein also excelled under William’s guidance, hitting .278 with 30 home runs, both career-highs.
As a player, Williams had a notoriously bad relationship with reporters in Boston, but at his introductory news conference with the Senators, the now 50-year-old Williams suggested he had mellowed.
“Despite what you’ve heard, I’m not a hard guy to get along with,” he said. “That was a very, very small segment I had trouble with. I hope I’ve matured a little more.”
Washington finished 86-76 in 1969 – the best record of any Washington team since 1945, covering two different franchises.
On the last day of the season, fans at RFK Stadium gave Williams a standing ovation.
But in contrast to his playing days, he proved to be a one-hit wonder as manager, losing at least 90 games in each of the following three seasons, capped by a 54-100 record in his sole season in Texas.
His relationship with the media went downhill too, after a friendly start. Williams instituted a policy that kept the clubhouse closed to the media for 15 minutes following games, prompting the Baseball Writers Association of America to complain to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Williams’s response: “Neither Kuhn, Nixon or Jesus F---ing Christ could change this goddamn ban.”
He also started to clash with his players. As broadcaster Shelby Whitfield recalled in his book, “Kiss it Goodbye,” after ’69 the “shine of Ted Williams the Legend began to wear off … Ted’s reaction to the bickering and complaints of some players was to get tougher and more distant and fine players more often. But during his second year, Ted began to find he couldn’t ignite them with his enthusiasm as he did that first year, nor scare them with fines or yelling.”
“He expected hitters to be like him,” recalled Epstein. “When he couldn’t get through to players, it dampened his enthusiasm.”
Williams also lost a group of players in the clubhouse who called themselves the Underminers’ Club.
“We were the people dedicated (in our minds anyway) to the overthrow of Ted Williams,” wrote disgruntled pitcher Denny McLain, in his autobiography, “Nobody’s Perfect.”
The ’70 Senators wrapped up the season with 14 consecutive losses en route to a last-place finish, then lost 96 games in ’71, their final season in D.C.
The downward spiral continued in Texas the next year, but there was one bright spot. That summer, Williams joined several old-timers for a pre-game batting practice exhibition at Fenway Park to benefit the Red Sox’ charity, the Jimmy Fund.
After fans chanted “We want Ted!”, Williams, days shy of his 54th birthday, smashed balls all over the field and a couple over the wall.
“I guess I showed those [expletive deleted] I can still hit,” Williams said, according to “The Kid” by Ben Bradlee Jr.
But by the end of the 1972 season, team owner Bob Short admitted the Hall-of-Famer had outlived his usefulness.
“I thought I needed Ted four years ago to create interest in Washington and I thought I needed him this year to create interest in Texas. But I don’t need him as much as I thought,” he said.
Soon after that, with four games left in the season and a year left on his contract, Williams announced he wouldn’t be coming back the following year. He would be replaced by Whitey Herzog, who didn’t last the full ’73 season. Billy Martin finished that year out.
“This is my decision alone,” Williams said. “It has been in my mind for quite a while … The change will be better for everyone. Losing has had a tough effect. Winning, as a manager, makes you as exalted as you can get. Losing, you’re in the depths.”
Washington Post baseball writer George Minot Jr. wrote that critics faulted Williams for over-platooning and relying too much on young players.
“Many of his athletes bristled at the constant bed checks when the team was on the road and rebelled at such ‘Mickey Mouse’ directives as those banning golf,” he added.
William’s resignation as manager came almost exactly 12 years after he played his final game, when hit a home run at Fenway Park in his last at-bat, and refused to acknowledge the fans by tipping his cap. As John Updike famously wrote, “Gods do not answer letters.”
But there was no such sendoff in Williams’s final game, on Oct. 4, 1972. The Rangers lost their 100th game of the season, this one to the Royals, managing just two hits in front of 7,300 fans in Kansas City.
Williams finished with a career .429 winning percentage – significantly lower than his career on-base percentage of .482.
Frederic J. Frommer, a writer and sports historian, is the author of several books, including “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals.” Twitter