40 years ago today, Ted Williams began a four-year career as a manager. His Washington Senators lost the presidential opener to the New York Yankees. However, the 1969 Senators would go 86-76, an increase of 21 wins over the previous year, and the best record by a Washington baseball franchise in my lifetime.
The improvement was all down to hitting. The Senators gave up roughly the same number of runs in 1968 and 1969, but increased their own production by a remarkable 170 runs.
It was no accident. Williams was perhaps the greatest student of hitting ever, and he worked with and inspired the Washington hitters. One of his projects was the late Ed Brinkman, the shortstop. Brinkman batted .188 in 1967 and .187 in 1968. Under Williams, he batted .266 and .262, before reverting to his light-hitting form after a trade to Detroit following the 1970 season. Mike Epstein was another major success story. In 1968, he had 13 home runs, 40 RBIs and a .366 slugging percentage in 123 games. Under Williams in 1969, the numbers were 30, 73, and .551 in 131 games.
Williams also worked to improve race relations on the team. Accordingly to the newspaper accounts of the day, he discouraged what he perceived to be self-segregation within the squad, with some success.
Unfortunately, 1969 was Williams’ only successful year as a manager. He may have lost interest, and it seems clear that his players began to tune him out. Bad personnel moves by the front-office certainly didn’t help either.
Few fans know about Williams’ time as a manager. Indeed, John McCain, one of his biggest admirers, seemed at best dimly aware of it when we were talking about Williams on the Straight Talk express in November 2007. And McCain seemed skeptical of the idea that a perfectionist like Williams could have any success as a manager.
It took me a few seconds to realize that McCain was a POW in North Vietnam during Willaims’ entire managerial tenure.