The Red Sox’ 10 Greatest Hitters
Ted Williams (1939-42, 1946-60)
When he arrived at Boston training camp in 1938 as a tall, skinny 18-year-old prospect from San Diego, a brash Williams felt disrespect from Red Sox veterans and warned them that he’d soon be making more money than the rest of them put together. Williams quickly walked the walk after talking the talk, returning a year later following a monster warm-up at Triple-A Minneapolis and proceeded to become, arguably, the greatest hitter of all time. Approaching the batter’s box with a scientific dedication to hitting, Williams won seven batting titles (his last coming at age 40), two triple crowns, led the American League four times in home runs, eight times in walks and an all-time record 12 times in on-base percentage; he was named to 17 All-Star teams and was selected AL MVP twice—though he might have won more were it not for spiteful Boston sportswriters for whom he had an incendiary relationship and, even when he was at his absolute best, refused to even place him on the ballot.
Of the Splendid Splinter’s many great seasons, the one that will always be remembered is his 1941 campaign. Williams became the last player to date to finish the season hitting over .400, collecting six hits on the season’s final day to ensure the mark after he came into the doubleheader batting .3995. On the year, he also set an all-time mark with a .553 on-base percentage, and a personal-best .735 slugging percentage; neither of those numbers would be surpassed until the steroid era.
Perhaps Williams’ greatest disappointment was that he never experienced the thrill of winning the World Series, losing in his only appearance in 1946; he helped the Red Sox clinch the AL pennant that year thanks to an opposite-field, inside-the-park homer—the only one of his career—against Cleveland, which had created the so-called “Williams Shift” in moving everyone but the third baseman and left fielder to the right side of the field to counter Williams’ dead-pull instincts.
Williams totaled 521 home runs and 2,654 hits, but he easily would have increased those figures to, respectively, 600 and 3,000 had he not missed nearly five seasons’ worth of ball due to military service, as he was one of only a handful of major leaguers to serve time in both World War II and the Korean conflict.
Upon his return from Korea, Williams showed that he wouldn’t be slowed despite advancing age. After turning 39 in 1957, Williams batted .388—his highest average since his fabled .406 of 16 seasons earlier—and hit .328 a year later to became the first player ever to win a batting title after turning 40. A boastful man who could swallow his pride, Williams requested a salary cut after hitting a career-low .254 in 1959, then retired on a high note in 1960—famously hitting a home run in his final at-bat. His .344 career average is the highest by any player active after 1940.
Perhaps as an indication that no love was lost between Williams and members of the media years after his retirement, 20 out of 302 Hall of Fame voters refused to place him on the ballot in his first year of eligibility into Cooperstown. His love for teaching other hitters the tricks of the trade helped reward him with a manager’s job in 1969 for Washington—where he gave the second version of the Senators their only winning record (86-76) before their move to Texas—but he lasted just four years, released after losing 100 for the 1972 Rangers.
Even in death, controversy has surrounded Williams; he was cryogenically frozen in the hope that he might somehow come back to life in the future, but a tell-all book from a disgruntled employee of the company that kept Williams frozen revealed sickening details of other employees abusing his dead body.
Carl Yastrzemski (1961-83)
Williams’ replacement in left field would become just as iconic—and more affable toward Boston fans and reporters—in a career that would stretch an amazing 23 years, tied with Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson for the most by a player performing for one team.
After some five years of modest numbers to start his career, Yastrzemski forged his own legacy by becoming the last player for 45 years to win the triple crown of hitting, leading the AL with a .326 average, 44 home runs and 121 RBIs in 1967. He secured the rare feat by surging in the regular season’s final month to lift the Red Sox above tight competition to win the AL pennant; he continued his hot play at the plate by batting .400 with three homers in the World Series, but the Red Sox lost to St. Louis in seven games. A year later, in the pitching-dominated 1968 season, another hot September helped him win his second straight batting title (and third overall) as he became the only American Leaguer to hit over .300 (at .301).
Yastrzemski hit 40 or more homers three times over a four-year period, but otherwise never hit more than 28. Overall, he slumped through the early 1970s, but later revived his play as the team came back to life with young stars Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans; he knocked in 100 RBIs in back-to-back seasons (1976-77) and, in 1982 as he approached his 43rd birthday, was hitting well above .300 before cooling off late in the summer. Yastrzemski’s 3,419 career hits are the most by any Red Sox player and good for eighth on the all-time list; he’s also the club leader in runs, RBIs and doubles. Defensively, “Yaz” won seven Gold Gloves, and was selected to 18 All-Star games.
David Ortiz (2003-16)
Big Papi was the latest, most productive—and certainly the most popular—in a line of big, burly Red Sox players that includes George Scott and Mo Vaughn. After several years failing to make a go of it at Minnesota, Ortiz became an instant hit in Boston and ultimately emerged as one of the game’s most beloved baseball personalities, the prime power source who energized the Red Sox to their first three World Series titles after nearly 100 years of championship drought.
Known for his routine of spitting on his batting gloves and slapping them together between every pitch (until baseball’s pace-of-play rules threatened to put an end to it in 2015), Ortiz put up voluminous numbers at his peak, forming a devastating one-two punch with Manny Ramirez; they helped make history when, in 2004, the pair became the first since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931 to each hit over .300 with over 40 homers and 130 RBIs in the same year. On his own, Ortiz launched a Red Sox-record 54 home runs in 2006. But his shine was tarnished when his name was leaked from a secret list of major leaguers who tested positive for steroids in 2003. The revelations coincided with a career slide that, as he entered his mid-30s, suggested that Ortiz was fading out. But he performed an impressive about face into the 2010s, hitting over .300 with power over three straight seasons and, in 2013, became a spiritual leader for both team and city when he led the Red Sox to their third championship under his presence and helped Boston heal from the wounds of the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings in April—memorably telling Red Sox fans and the world during the team’s first homestand after the attacks: “This is our f**king city, and nobody is going to dictate our freedom!” Even commissioner Bud Selig gave a thumbs’ up to Ortiz’s dare-the-FCC inspiration.
In 2016 at age 40, Ortiz had a career finale for the ages—batting .315 with a major league-leading 48 doubles, 38 home runs and an AL-high 127 RBIs. Each of those numbers set all-time records among players performing in their last season. Ortiz’s next stop was Cooperstown, where he entered the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.
The bigger the stage in October, the better Ortiz was; few have had a higher batting average, on-base percentage or slugging percentage in World Series history, as he hit .455 with six doubles, three homers, 14 RBIs and 14 walks in 14 career Fall Classic contests.
Tris Speaker (1907-15)
An intense competitor who was exceptionally smooth with both the bat and glove, Speaker did most of his career damage for the Cleveland Indians—but is better remembered for his early days in Boston, where he helped the Red Sox to two World Series titles, including his famous ‘second-chance’ single after a foul pop-up was dropped, crucially aiding a walk-off rally in the final game of the 1912 Fall Classic against the New York Giants.
Speaker failed in a brief appearance as a 19-year old with the Red Sox in 1907, and only was allowed at spring training the next year because he paid his own way to get there. Soon the Red Sox would be happy to foot any bill thrown his way; Speaker hit .309 in his first full season (1909), a mere warm-up for what was to follow, as he eventually hit .337 throughout his time in Boston.
As talented as Speaker was with a bat, he was phenomenal as a center fielder; he co-owns the AL record for most assists in a season by an outfielder, with 35 (he did it twice, in 1910 and 1912), and he shares a major league record with four career unassisted double plays from the outfield.
Speaker’s tenure in Boston ended early after just nine years; he refused to report in 1916 when the Red Sox wanted to cut his salary in half—all because his batting average had dropped three years in succession (never mind that it bottomed out at a still-sterling .322). Unable to settle, he was shipped off to Cleveland for two players and $55,000.
Dwight Evans (1972-90)
Evans quietly and slowly emerged as, undoubtedly, the most underrated player in Red Sox history—and certainly the most underrated hitter of the 1980s throughout all of baseball, while teammates such as Lynn, Rice and Carlton Fisk grabbed most of the headlines. A fair hitter during the 1970s, Evans played every day more for his cannon-like throwing arm in right field; but in 1981, something kicked in offensively for Evans, who had been batting primarily seventh or even eighth in the batting order but was now plugged in at the top, showing increased power and patience that led to AL highs in home runs (22) and walks (85) during the strike-shortened season. Improving on an annual basis even as he reached his late 30s, Evans hit more homers and extra-base hits than any other American Leaguer during the 1980s. Evans never won an MVP but placed in the top 10 in voting four times.
Jimmie Foxx (1936-42)
An intimidating, muscular presence at the plate, Foxx came to the Red Sox in 1936 after being a victim of Connie Mack’s second (and more prolonged) fire sale with the Philadelphia A’s. While the A’s were done with Foxx, Foxx was by no means done with the game, giving the Red Sox six years of devastating numbers upon opponents.
Foxx’ 1938 season is the one that stands out; he smashed 50 homers and a career-high 175 RBIs (the fourth highest total in major league history) and won his third batting title by hitting .349; at Fenway Park alone, he hit .405, belted 35 homers and knocked in 104 runs.
In 1942, at age 34, Foxx’s effectiveness quickly began to erode, likely because of increased off-the-field drinking and deepening sinus problems that began after getting beaned during a 1935 exhibition game—and was traded to the Chicago Cubs, unable to regain his abilities.
Jim Rice (1974-89)
Rice was considered the “other” rookie alongside Fred Lynn who propelled the Red Sox to an AL pennant and a memorable World Series with Cincinnati in 1975, but he would go on to have the more substantial career between the two—and ruled as the AL’s best hitter, period, late in the 1970s, when he won the MVP once (1978) and placed in the top five of the vote three other times. It was during that MVP season—in which Rice hit .315 with 46 home runs and 139 RBIs—that he totaled 406 bases, the highest figure seen in the AL since 1937. Surprisingly, his superstar efficiency waned in the early 1980s, all before enjoying a mid-decade renaissance when he led the AL in 1983 with 39 homers and 126 RBIs; it was the first of four straight years in which he would knock in at least 100 runs.
Rice’s performance declined again, this time more precipitously, in the late 1980s, and his relatively premature exit from the game—leaving his career totals below 400 home runs and 2,500 hits—likely forced him to sweat year after year waiting for induction into Cooperstown, finally getting in on the 15th (and last try) as voters focused on his early career dominance.
Manny Ramirez (2001-08)
One of the best pure hitters of recent times, Ramirez experienced a proficient but turbulent eight-year reign that ended with a midseason trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 after several altercations with players and staff, not to mention a perceived indifference on the field. But it’s hard to envision any apathy in the stats he produced with the Red Sox; he hit .312 and averaged 33 homers and 102 RBIs in each of his first six years at Fenway, topping the AL in 2002 with a .349 batting average and in 2004 with 43 round-trippers. Ramirez was even deadlier on Red Sox opponents during the postseason, hitting .321 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs over 43 games in helping the Sox to their first two world championships in over eight decades; his 29 career playoff homers are a major league record.
But as with Cleveland and later with the Dodgers, Manny couldn’t help being Manny. Even President George W. Bush understood; noticing an AWOL Ramirez at a White House ceremony celebrating the Red Sox’ 2007 championship, he remarked, “I guess his grandmother died again.” Ramirez’s insensible personality led the Red Sox to place him on waivers before the 2004 season—but despite his tantalizing talent, no one would take on the remainder of his $20 million-a-year contract. His difficult attitude aside, Ramirez’s legacy on the field was challenged by revelations that he, like Ortiz, was using steroids per his presence on the leaked list of players testing positive in 2003. He would be caught doping again—twice, in fact—while with the Dodgers, hastening the end of his career and tarnishing his chances to make the Hall of Fame.
Jackie Jensen (1954-59, 1961)
Had the multi-talented Jensen been around during the age of trains, his career might have lasted longer—but as the majors spread their geographical reach in the 1950s and demand for air travel increased, Jensen developed a deep fear of flying that cut short what had been a solid tenure in Boston. Jensen began his career with the Yankees but found his path to stardom blocked by Mickey Mantle; nevertheless, he still hung around long enough to become the first person ever to participate in both a World Series and college football’s Rose Bowl. After a brief spell in Washington, Jensen arrived in Boston and reached his full potential, hitting his peak in 1958 when he hit .286 with 35 home runs and an AL-best 122 RBIs and 99 walks, a collective set of numbers good enough to win the AL MVP award. Jensen was also fast for his time, leading the league in 1954 with 22 steals—but ironically wasn’t fast enough to avoid hitting into a then-record 32 double plays that same season.
His aerophobia caused him to quit the game after 1959, returning in 1961 with hopes of conquering his fear—but his numbers suffered on the field, leading to a second, more permanent retirement after the season.
Wade Boggs (1982-92)
Midway through the 1982 season, reigning AL batting champion Carney Lansford hurt his ankle and a rookie named Wade Boggs took his place at third base. Lansford never regained his job in Boston; Boggs made him expendable by hitting .349 for the year, setting the tone for the next decade as one of the game’s premier batting leaders.
In each of his first full seven seasons with the Red Sox, Boggs—nicknamed the Chicken Man for his superstitious daily routine of eating chicken before every game—collected over 200 hits and won five batting titles, all of them achieved by hitting no worse than .357. His high averages, combined with a terrific eye that led to numerous triple-digit totals in walks, left Boggs almost untouchable at the top of the on-base percentage charts. Never known for his power, Boggs suddenly blasted 24 home runs in 1987—a year when it seemed everyone was bashing away—but never collected more than 11 in any other season.
Boggs’ Red Sox tenure began to sour in 1989 when it was revealed he had been involved in an extra-marital affair with a California woman, who demanded $12 million from him through the courts for emotional distress and “breach of an oral contract.” (She ultimately received a fraction of that amount.) After hitting an unusually low .259 in 1992—in the final year of his contract, no less—Boggs signed with the Yankees, regained his batting stroke and won his only World Series with the 1996 edition of the Yankees. Boggs played out the final two years of his career in Tampa Bay, where he reached the 3,000-hit milestone.
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