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  • 01/05/2009, 12:45PM ET

March Madness of Throwdowns, Round 1: The most iconic baseball figure not named Ruth.

BigBlueBMP: STAT & 'Melo (67-52-13) vs Porkins. (179-15-3)
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In this TD, we are arguing the player/figure who served as baseball's most storied icon (under the stipulation that we cannot use Babe Ruth). For argument's sake, I will aim to defend the Splendid Splinter, Mr. Ted Williams.

Proclaimed as "the greatest hitter that ever lived" by the likes of Bob Feller, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski (quoted Yaz, "He studied hitting the way a broker studies the stock market, and could spot at a glance mistakes that others couldn't see in a week."), Ted Williams is the last .400 hitter that fans of the game have witnessed. The closest anyone has come to his .406 mark in 1941 was George Brett, who hit .390 in 1980. Although not impossible to attain, Teddy Ballgame's mark for hitting prowess will more than likely never be matched; hence, why his book "The Science of Hitting" is widely regarded as THE handbook for apprentices of the game to revere.

Just as Ruth was the face of the Yankees and the usher of extricating baseball from the Dead Ball era, Ted Williams was the face of the Red Sox and an era in which many ballplayers saw their careers cut short by military service (for Williams, it happened TWICE).


Ted Williams is indeed the face of the Sox, and- in my opinion- among the 3 or 4 best players of all time.

However, he is not the most iconic baseball figure this side of Babe Ruth.

You would have done well to pick someone like CY YOUNG or ROBERTO CLEMENTE. Each has left a huge impact on history-

After all, what's more ICONIC than having a major award named after you?


To answer my own question, I'll reveal my choice:

Jackie Robinson.

It may be trite to choose him, but other than the Babe, no player is a more enduring symbol of baseball history.

Robinson is the very definition of an ICON.

"An important or enduring symbol"
"An idol"
"One who is the object of great attention and devotion"

In a clear demonstration of his legacy, Robinson has had his number retired by Major League Baseball. I ask you- is that not an icon?

To this day, Jackie stands as a symbol of equal opportunity, fair play, and the importance of judging people based on what they do, not what color they are.


Ted Williams was unquestionably a better baseball player, talent-wise. But in terms of being an iconic figure representing the sport's history, he can't touch number 42.


Several reasons to idolize Williams:

HUMILITY
Noted as a player who loathed the fickle nature of fans, Williams still paid respect to his peers. When asked who was the best all-around player, Ted would always defer to DiMaggio as the superior counterpart. When speaking of Rizzuto, he once quipped, "We would have been the ones winning all of those World Series if he were with Boston." These acknowledgements are a testament to his modesty.

HONOR
In light of his military service (although it deprived him of several years in baseball, he NEVER inferred that it hindered his shot at better career #'s), Gen. MacArthur, Ted's idol and WWII legend, once sent Williams a painting with the message: "To Ted Williams - not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who served his country."

AMBITION
In 1941, Williams could have sat the final day of the season, as he had enough AB's to be eligible for .400 and the batting title. Instead, he played in a doubleheader, going 6/8, boosting his avg. to .406.

EMPHASIS
Fittingly, Williams's final AB of his career was a HR, the focal point of a John Updike award winning essay, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."


You're preaching to the choir. I think Ted Williams was the best hitter the game has ever seen. But what distinguishes him from other all-time greats like Gehrig, DiMaggio, or Mays? Those (and others) were monsters on the diamond, influencing generations of fans.

Joltin' Joe had a SONG written about him! That's pretty darn iconic right there.

Williams should be idolized, both for his play and his character, but he simply doesn't stand out to the degree that Robinson does.


It's not JUST that Robinson was the first African-American to play in the majors. It's that he did it in a way that showed how much better the sport could be without segregation.

ROY
MVP
6 World Series

He played at a high enough level that the establishment could NOT ignore him.

And you want to talk about ambition? How easy would it have been for Robinson to give up? Like Williams, Jackie served in the military. Blacks were barred from OCS at that point and he fought segregation for years in the Army.

Yet when his military career ended, did he say "I've had enough"?

His strength of character broke the color line. But more than that, it changed expectations.

That's an icon.


Enduring symbol, you say?

Recall the poignancy of the 1999 All-Star Game. McGwire's 13 monster blasts in the Derby. Pedro's MVP award (he fanned 4 to start the game: Larkin, Walker, Sosa, and McGwire). None of these mattered compared to the scene before the game. Players flocked to see Ted Williams, present for the ceremonial first pitch. Remarked an awed Larry Walker, "When I got up there, tears were coming out of Ted's eyes. I kind of walked away; it brought tears to MY eyes."

The beautiful thing about Williams is that you needn't mention a single stat in order to convey his impact on both the sport and society.

Ted Williams was John Wayne in stirrups and cleats.

His service moved Gen. MacArthur and Johnny Pesky. Said Pesky, "He mastered intricate problems in 15 minutes, which took the average cadet an hour...and 1/2 of the other cadets there were college grads.???

He earned the Air Medal (an honor also given to Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn).

His HoF speech honored Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson before he even mentioned himself.

Pass through San Diego and Boston and you'll see Ted Williams Tunnel & Parkway.

This was Teddy Ballgame.


Again, you've made good arguments for Williams. However, you've failed to show me why or in what way he's a better choice than Jackie.

-When an entire sport comes together and retires your number, that says something.
-When they rename the rookie of the award the Jackie Robinson Award, that says something.
-When you're remembered as the driving force in bringing minorities into a sport that now thrives based on the contributions of players of color, that says something.
-When April 15th is known as JACKIE ROBINSON DAY and is celebrated by select players commemoratively wearing your number, that says something.

Williams can't lay claim to anything like that.

Ted was a war hero and a fantastic player.
Jackie also served his country, was a great player, and did it in a climate of suspicion, bigotry, and hate.

The fact that the number 42 hangs in every ballpark in America speaks louder than any argument I could make. When you think of baseball, a few players transcendent players come to mind, not only for their skills but for the impact and imprint they made on the game.

Outside of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson is the most iconic baseball player.

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