On This Day 73 Years Ago … Lou Boudreau Introduces Ted Williams Shift

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  

Managers, coaches, pitchers, and fielders tried to neutralize Ted Williams over the years, but few succeeded.  Williams was an offensive menace in 1946, hitting .342 while taking American League MVP honors despite missing the three previous seasons to serve in World War II.

On July 14 of that season, Williams slugged three homers and drove in 8 runs to lead the Red Sox to a 11-10 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the first game of a doubleheader at Fenway Park.  In between games, Indians manager/shortstop Lou Boudreau gave his team a crash course in what became known as the “Ted Williams Shift.”  

Boudreau, knowing that Williams was an extreme pull hitter, simply played the percentages by deploying all four infielders between first base and second base.  Left fielder George Case, standing 20 feet behind where a shortstop would typically play, was the only defender of the left side of the field. Boudreau, a seven-time All-Star considered one of the more cerebral players of his time, may have been inspired personally as well as tactically to limit Williams’s success.  His biographer believed Boudreau, a less-recognized player, resented the fame and attention that constantly went Williams’s way. In his first at bat against the shift Williams hit a line drive directly at Boudreau, who was positioned between first base and second base. Williams later doubled and drew two walks. 

In 1959, Fleer entered the baseball card business with a set commemorating the life and times of Hall of Famer Ted Williams.  Each of the 80 cards displays full-color images with a small title along the bottom white border. The back side of each card features a continuing biography of Williams from his childhood through the 1958 season.  Card #28, titled the “Williams Shift,” illustrates where Bourdeau had each player positioned and is one of the few cards from the time period that does not include a player image. The card back explains how the shift created  “a huge vacant area at third base and all the way to the left field fence.” The unique Fleer card also asks, “How would Ted bat against it?”

The answer is found in card #30 titled “1946 — Beating the Shift.” The upright, colorful card design displays Williams crossing home plate after what appears to be one of his 521 career homers.  Fleer asks on the card back, “Will he settle for cheap hits or will he continue to aim for the right field fences?” And answers, “He hit more Home Runs (38) that season than any year before.”

Williams faced shifts in some form for the remainder of his career.  The Splendid Splinter chose not to sacrifice power for a handful of extra base hits to the opposite field, nor did he want to alter the swing that made him baseball’s most feared hitter.  Despite facing special alignments to limit his prowess at the plate, Williams finished second to only Babe Ruth in career slugging percentage and his .482 lifetime on-base percentage still ranks No. 1 all time.

As noted on each card from the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams Set, “all card data by E. Mifflin.”  The source is Edward Mifflin, who covered baseball for The Sporting News in the 1950s and became good friends with Williams.  In 1954, the Saturday Evening Post published an article announcing the retirement of Ted Williams.  According to baseball lore, Mifflin ran into Williams in Baltimore and told him that retirement would jeopardize his baseball legacy and likely cost him Hall of Fame enshrinement, noting that Williams was still shy of 400 home runs, 1,500 RBI, and 2,000 hits.

Williams, perhaps influenced by Mifflin’s advice, would play six more seasons and slug 155 more home runs while adding over 700 hits to his resume.  He retired after the 1960 season, widely considered “the greatest hitter who ever lived” and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.

Ted Williams Beating The Shift

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