CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla., July 5 (UPI) -- Ted Williams, whose exploits on the baseball diamond and service to his country combined to make him an American hero, died Friday at the age of 83.
Williams had been in ill health for several years, having made his last public appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game. Confined to a wheelchair, Williams was brought to the pitcher's mound at Fenway Park that night and given a prolonged ovation that became a final tribute to a player recognized as the best hitter in the history of the game.
"With the passing of Ted Williams, America has lost a baseball legend," said President Bush, who bought the Texas Rangers two decades after Williams had managed them. "Whether serving the country in the armed forces or excelling on the diamond, Ted Williams demonstrated unique talent and love of country.
"He inspired young ballplayers across the nation for decades and we will always remember his persistence on the field and his courage off the field. Ted gave baseball some of its best seasons -- and he gave his own best seasons to his country. He will be greatly missed."
Williams suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years. On Friday, he was taken to Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, Fla., where he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 8:49 a.m.
He had undergone open-heart surgery in January 2001 and had a pacemaker inserted in November 2000.
As a 20-year-old rookie, Williams was quoted as saying:
"All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street, folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.'"
In the minds of most, he achieved that goal during a 19-year career spent entirely with the Boston Red Sox. No one in the major leagues has batted .400 for a full season since Williams did so 61 years ago.
A two-time MVP, Williams won baseball's Triple Crown twice, captured six American League batting titles, had 2,654 hits with 521 homers. He was a lifetime .344 hitter.
Williams led the American League in runs scored six times, home runs and RBI four times, walks eight times, and slugging percentage seven times. He also struck out only 709 times in 7,706 career at bats.
His career .483 on-base percentage is the best of all time, nearly 10 points higher than the second-place Babe Ruth. His career slugging percentage of .634 trails only Ruth (.690).
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, receiving an almost unheard of 93.38 percent of the possible votes (282 out of 302) in his first year of eligiblibility.
His career statistics would have been far more spectacular had he not missed three seasons during World War II and portions of the 1952 and 1953 campaigns during the Korean War.
"This is a sad day for baseball, a sad day for anyone who knew Ted," New York Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra said. "Nobody was more loyal, generous, corageous, more respected than Ted. He sacrificed his life and his career for his country. But he became what he always wanted to be -- the greatest hitter ever."
As time passed, however, Williams began to become more and more recognized as a symbol of baseball at its best and of an era that is fast fading into the history book.
"I am truly heartbroken," said Phil Rizzuto, another of the New York Yankees Hall of Famers who competed against Williams. "We have lost another great ballplayer, another great person. Ted Williams was one of the most exciting players I ever saw."
"I've always loved to hit," Williams said long after his retirement. "And from the first day I set foot in Fenway Park, I wanted to show everyone that I was the kind of hitter who belonged with the best in the game -- names like (Jimmy) Foxx, (Joe) DiMaggio and (Hank) Greenberg."
In 1971, Williams wrote "the Science of Hitting," a book baseball authorities still consider the bible of fundamental hitting. Many of baseball's star hitters, like the recently-retired and now broadcaster Tony Gwynn, swear they learned how to properly hit a baseball by learning from Williams.
"The most important thing about hitting I learned from Rogers Hornsby," Williams said. "And that was to wait for a good ball to hit. It sounds simple, but many players today simply can not or do not wait for a good pitch."
As a youth in San Diego, Williams was a playground baseball legend who led his high school to a state championship. The scouts took early notice of the 6-foot-4, 190-pound outfielder.
When the Red Sox signed him, they sent him to play for his hometown San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. It was there at Lane Field, as legend has it, that Williams hit a home run so far over the right-field fence that it landed in an empty boxcar in a train headed for Los Angeles.
Not long after, Williams was headed for Boston.
In his rookie season of 1939, he hit .327 with 31 homers and 145 RBIs, easily the top batting statistics ever for a rookie. Quickly, he became a hero in a city known for its dedicated and enthusiastic fans. As the new favorite of Bostonians, young and old, and even the media, he spent many a day tipping his cap to their ovations.
But his once-close relationship with baseball writers began to sour and it probably cost him at least one MVP Award, in 1947, when one Boston sportswriter left him off the ballot completely. Williams lost by one vote.
In 1941, Williams put together one of the finest seasons ever, but it also happened to be the year of the incredible 56-game hitting streak by New York's Joe DiMaggio.
On the next to the last day of the year, Williams was hitting .3998, which would have rounded up to .400 and made him the first American League player since 1923 to attain that number.
Boston Manager Joe Cronin offered to let Williams sit out a doubleheader on the last day of the season to guarantee the mark. After staying up all night thinking about the decision, Williams told his manager:
"The record's no good unless it's made in all the games."
Williams went 6-for-8 in the two games and raised his average to .406.
After a stint in the Navy, where he served in World War II but never made it into battle, he returned to baseball in 1946. He hit a home run in his first at bat of the season and was named the league's Most Valuable Player that year despite often facing, "the Williams Shift," with the opposing team's defense aligned with most of it players on the right side of the diamond.
Williams, a strong pull hitter, clinched the Red Sox's first pennant in 28 years by hitting an inside-the-park home run to a vacated left field.
He won another batting title in 1948 (.369) and was MVP again in 1949. In 1950, he broke his elbow in the All-Star Game, but still came back to hit 28 homers and drive in 97 runs in 334 at bats.
In 1952, with the United States in the Korean Conflict, Williams headed back to the military. This time, he was chosen to fly with future astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. Williams was awarded many medals for his 39 missions, but lost some of his hearing because of the gunnery noise.
After leaving the military in 1953, he was not sure he wanted to play baseball again. But he was asked to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game that year and the thunderous ovation helped him change his mind.
Williams was back with the team in August of that year.
Amazingly, Williams had a stretch in September 1957 in which he reached base 16 consecutive times, including hitting four homers in four at bats. At the age of 39, he led the AL in hitting and lost the MVP race to another Yankee legend -- Mickey Mantle -- by 24 votes. Williams decided to call it quits late in the 1960 season and capped his remarkable career by homering off Jack Fisher at Fenway Park in his final at bat.