Paul O’Neill Book Excerpt: A Memorable Chat with Ted Williams

I knew my sister, Molly, a reporter for The New York Times, was scheduled to interview Ted about food, fishing, and obviously, a little baseball, too. When Molly told me about this, I was in awe that my older sister was poised to speak with one of the greatest hitters of all time. I jokingly told Molly that I was struggling and that she should tell Ted I needed some advice. Still, I never expected Molly’s visit to Ted’s home would result in him contacting me. All this brought me back to the boy whose proud father had told him his swing was reminiscent of Williams’ swing. I didn’t match Williams’ swing or his accomplishments, but I was giddy talking about the man himself.

Credit …Grand Central Publishing

To this day, even with my sister’s connection and her gentle or forceful nudging, I’m still amazed that Ted was willing to call me. I was even more amazed when Ted said, “I bet you’re not hitting the ball the other way.” That comment gave me goose bumps because it showed that Ted knew the way I had to hit it to be productive. To be successful, I need to look for pitches on the middle or outside portion of the plate and hit the ball in the opposite field. So, the legendary Ted Williams – a pull hitter who was also talented enough to adjust and hit the ball up the middle or the opposite way – knew my approach.

“You know what?” I replied. “You’re right. I’ve been getting out on my front side too quickly. ” A minute into the conversation, I was already trying to process how surreal it was that Ted Williams – the Ted Williams – was evaluating me as a hitter. Ted won six batting titles, two MVPs, made nineteen All-Star teams, was the last man to hit .400 (in 1941), and finished his phenomenal career with a .344 average, 521 homers, and an all-time record. .482 on-base percentage. He was the hero who also paused to serve his country twice in World War II and the Korean War. And he was talking to me about hitting! It was such an inspirational and nerve-racking call because I was absorbing every word Ted uttered. But I also felt like there were a hundred questions I needed to ask before the voice of God hung up. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I let him guide the conversation and, sure enough, Ted said something that made me smile and made me feel like I did something right as a hitter.

“Don’t let anybody change you,” Ted barked.

As much as any hitting advice I’ve ever received, those words resonated with me because they aligned with how I always felt. A stubborn and serious hitter, I was dedicated to my approach to swinging levels and elevating a slight uppercut to hit line drives. I believe in that swing and still believe in it. Hearing Williams says a hitter shouldn’t let anyone change him was one of the highlights of the call and was something I could hear all day.

Honestly, I should expect Ted to emphasize that because it was what he wrote in “The Science of Hitting,” his seminal book in which he dissected the most difficult thing to do in sports: hitting a baseball. I don’t remember the first time I picked up the book, but I do remember being enamored with it. There’s a picture of Ted on the cover, his front foot slightly lifted, his eyes focused on the baseball, and body language that screams, “I’m about to crush this pitch.” Ted wrote that Lefty O’Doul, who hit .349 in his career, told him, “Son, whatever you do, don’t let anybody change your style. Your style is your own. ” Ted obeyed. So did I.

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