This morning, the first of the spring, my pickup truck cut through a blurry landscape of raindrops and gray, arriving at its destination: a packed commuter lot 30 miles southwest of Boston. Pebble and sand crumbling beneath its tires, the truck eased into space 406.
What better parking spot for the first day of spring? Ted Williams‘ parking spot. As a Red Sox fan, hungry for “real” baseball and mild summer evenings at Fenway, the significance was not lost. It’s a magic number for Sox fans and I’d imagine it’s a magic number for all fans of the game. The singularity of Williams’ .406 season in 1941 makes it all the more remarkable: he set his mark 11 years after Bill Terry (.401 in 1930) was the last to eclipse .400 and no one has been there since, a span of 73 seasons.
George Brett made a spirited run in 1980, paddling above the .400 mark as late as September 19th, but the banged-up third baseman sank to .390 in the final weeks of the campaign.
Tony Gwynn was denied a shot by the 1994 players’ strike. Gwynn sits for eternity at .394 with 52 games left in the ’94 season, games lost to history, never to be played. Gwynn remains the only player in the last 73 years to finish above .390.
Bucketfoot Al Simmons (.390 in 1931), Brett and Gwynn remain the only hitters other than Williams to crack .390 in the last 83 years. There was a 36-year span between 1941 (Williams) and 1977 (Rod Carew‘s .388 mark) when the only other man (non-Teddy Ballgame division) to top the .370 barrier was Stan Musial, who hit .376 in his 1948 MVP season.
In more recent times, an age of performance-enhancers, bandbox ballparks and minuscule strike zones, several players made a bid at .400, but none sniffed the mark, much less the magical .406. The modern Red Sox even had a contender with Nomar Garciaparra in 2000, but their dynamic shortstop won the batting title at just .372, 34 points off Williams’ pace.
My truck will sit in space 406 today, a warm day by Massachusetts standards, and I will think of summer nights and Williams, paragon of discipline, his 37 home runs, 120 RBI, 147 walks, 135 runs scored, and .406 batting average in 1941 that marches on through baseball history, daring the modern hitter to come close before he ultimately goes down swinging.