October 16, 2010 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Ted Williams the manager no match for Ted Williams the hitter

Baseball legend Ted Williams was the first manager of the Texas Rangers. (Getty Images)

The rookie manager, seated in the office of a ramshackle Florida spring training ballpark, was deep into his research when he was interrupted.

With some hesitation, I entered the room and re-introduced myself.

"How's Lolich doing?" he asked before I could deliver my first question, hard and on the corner.

I guess that he swatted it all the way over the right field wall.

His name was Ted Williams -- and he was the greatest hitter of my lifetime. That encompasses my boyhood, more than a half-century of writing this stuff, and well into my dotage.

Ted was always a student of baseball -- as a hitter, then as a first-year manager of the Washington Senators.

I responded that I thought Mickey Lolich was looking pretty sharp. It was the spring after Lolich had won three games for the Tigers against the Cardinals in the World Series in 1968. And I had driven down to Pompano Beach, Fla., from the Tigers' encampment in Lakeland specifically to visit with Williams and ask some questions.

But he started grilling me first. He asked about Lolich and Al Kaline and Norm Cash and the pitcher who had won 31 games during Detroit's championship season, Denny McLain.

I spilled out what opinions I had, fully aware that they were not laden with expertise.

Finally, I managed to let Williams know the drift of my thoughts.

Mediocre manager

It had been a basic belief of mine the great athletes tend to be troubled as managers, or coaches, because they cannot tolerate the mediocrity. They cannot accept the ballplayer who strikes out too much; they cannot accept the pitcher who lacks discipline and dedication. They expect their ballplayers to be as good as they were -- and no hitter in the past 80 years has matched the balanced batting proficiency of Ted Williams.

But as major-league ballplayers -- well, Sparky Anderson, Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, all the others: They could never lift Ted Williams' bat.

He told me he agreed with my opinion -- and the record shows that Ted Williams, despite his studious nature and his curiosity, was a mediocrity as a manager.

Later on he became philosophical about his managerial career.

"All managers are losers, they are the most expendable pieces of furniture on the face of the Earth," he said, quoted by the Baseball Almanac website.

But right now as Major League Baseball plays down, so gradually, to the World Series there is a connection to Ted Williams.

The Texas Rangers, in a championship playoff for the first time, are competing against the proud, often preening Yankees for the American League pennant.

The winner advances to the World Series. The Rangers trail 1-0 in the series.

And this championship series reflects baseball heritage.

The Yankees follow the lineage of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford down to Derek Jeter.

And the Rangers carry the heritage of Ted Williams. An angry Ted Williams, already a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, in his final year in uniform in 1972.

He was the first manager of the Texas Rangers.

The franchise had been based in Washington during the first three years of his managerial career. The Senators then were moved en masse, with manager, to Texas in 1972.

Williams did not particularly care for Texas and retired after one disastrous season, 54-100.

That first season in Texas symbolized much of the rest of the franchise's history.

For most of 50 seasons -- a half-century -- the Senators/Rangers, established in 1961 as an expansion club, wallowed in mediocrity. They are, according to my research, the oldest North American professional sports franchise that has never won a league championship. Until this past week, when they ousted the Rays, the Senators/Rangers were the only major-league team to never win a playoff series.

Williams' managerial record reflected very dimly on his career as the best, most studious hitter in the big leagues through 19 seasons with the Red Sox.

His first season as a manager worked in Washington. The Senators went 86-76 in 1969 and were in contention for much of the season in the revamped American League, fragmented into divisions.

He was acclaimed for his managing. But then saddled with mediocre athletes -- the sort Williams the perfectionist could not abide -- he put up with three awful seasons. His four-season total as a manager was 273-364Managing was a sorry finish to Williams' life in a baseball uniform.

Still the greatest

My personal memories of Williams the ballplayer and the man blot out his managing tortures.

Memories such as the home run at Briggs Stadium, Detroit, that won the 1941 All-Star Game (I listened via radio; his .406 batting average that same season (I did see him play).

Memories such as Williams' two tours as a Marine aviator during World War II and the Korean War. Five seasons out, serving our nation. Five seasons that deprived him of reaching the 3,000-hit career total and breaking Babe Ruth's then home-run record of 714.

And memories about his beliefs as a hitter -- "I want people to say, 'there goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived'" -- a statement taken from his autobiography, "My Turn At Bat."

And one special memory of Williams, then in the uniform of the Washington Senators, probing my head.

He was a man of great pride and rare discipline -- and of sometimes precious congeniality.

The late Hank Aguirre, beloved as a Tiger, told me the story about the day he managed the strike out Williams to win a ballgame.

"I got the ball," Hank said, "and I asked Williams to autograph it.

"Ted did.

"The next week I pitched against him again. He hit a long home run."

"As he went around the bases," Aguirre said, "he yelled at me: 'Get that bleeping ball back and I'll sign that one, too.'"