Ted Williams made big league debut in front of 11 Hall of Famers
Every summer, Cooperstown plays host to the biggest gathering of Hall of Famers on earth on Induction Sunday.
But in the days before the Hall of Fame opened, Yankee Stadium provided a fine imitation of what was to come in Central New York. And the 30,278 fans in the Bronx on April 20, 1939 not only got to see 12 current or future Hall of Famers but also watched the debut of one of the game’s greatest hitters when Ted Williams made his regular season big league debut.
Williams signed with the Red Sox in 1936 as an amateur free agent. After a few successful seasons in the minors, he was inserted into the lineup in right field, batting sixth against the Yankees on Opening Day.
Twelve future Hall of Famers, including Williams, were in the ballpark that day, eleven of them on rosters of either the Red Sox or Yankees along with Babe Ruth, in the stands cheering on the Bronx Bombers.
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A Hall of Fame match up took place on the mound between Lefty Grove and Red Ruffing. The lineups were written by future Hall of Famer manager Joe McCarthy and Red Sox player/manager and future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin. The lineup cards featured Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Joe “Flash” Gordon, Bobby Doerr and Jimmie Foxx – all future Hall of Famers.
It would be the only game in which Gehrig and Williams took the same field.
Both teams were starting rookies in right field as Joe Gallagher made his debut for the Yankees. But he played only two big league seasons and just 14 games with the Yankees before being traded.
Williams went 1-for-4 with a double in the game.
“First game, first time, I struck out,” Williams said in an interview with the Hall of Fame.
Striking out against a Hall of Fame pitcher should not be something for a rookie to get upset about, and Williams didn’t. Following the at bat, one of his teammates asked him what he thought of the big leagues.
“Well, I’d been up…and I’d stuck out…and I had to think it was pretty tough,” Williams said to The Red Sox Reader.
“I gave him a little sass but I also said this, I said, ‘I know I can hit that guy.’ Well, I later proved that I did hit 'em pretty good.”
The second time he faced Ruffing, Williams nailed a 407-foot double off the center field wall.
“Between strike-outs, Rookie Ted Williams of the Red Sox bounced a double off the right-field bleacher wall. He takes a nice swing. But sometimes he takes too many of them in one turn at bat,” said John Kieran the next day in The New York Times.
Little did Kieran know that Williams would go on to 19 major league seasons and 2,021 walks, a .344 batting average, two AL MVP Awards and two Triple Crowns. He was selected to 19 All-Star Games and had a .482 career on-base percentage – still the best in baseball history.
Samantha Burkett is a freelance writer from Fairport, N.Y.