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Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, and Time Lost

“March Madness” was to have culminated this weekend. Major League Baseball was supposed to be underway. The NBA playoffs were scheduled to begin this month. Instead, our games have been put on hold.

The athletes are the ones who are suffering the most. Career-defining performances and paychecks have been lost. But let’s put things in perspective. At the moment, it looks as though we’re talking about one season. Imagine what it’s like to be the best in the world at what you do and have three years in the prime of your career taken away from you.

That’s what happened to Muhammad Ali and Ted Williams.

Williams came up to the major leagues as a twenty-year-old prodigy in 1939 when baseball was the national pastime and deeply ingrained in the fabric of America. By many reckonings, he was the greatest pure hitter who ever lived. Among his accomplishments, he was the last man to bat .400 for an entire season. And the way he did it shed light on his character.

In 1941 (Williams’s third year in the major leagues) his average stood at .39955 going into the final day of the season. Because of the manner in which baseball keeps statistics, that number would have been rounded off to .400. Boston Red Sox manager Joe Cronin offered to let Williams sit out a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics that day. But he insisted on playing and got six hits in eight at bats to raise his average to .406.

That’s a champion.

One month after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis sent a letter to Franklin Roosevelt asking if major and minor league baseball should be suspended for the duration of the war. Roosevelt responded by letter, writing, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. That means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before. If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens. That, in my judgment, is thoroughly worthwhile.”

Thus, baseball continued during World War II. But some of its greatest stars were called for military service. Williams was one of them. Most likely, he would have rewritten baseball’s record book had he not missed the 1943, 1944, and 1945 seasons in their entirety due to miltary obligations. Then he was called back to active duty for most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons during the Korean War.

Muhammad Ali also lost three years during the prime of his career because of a war. Like Williams, he was called to serve in the United States military. Like Williams, he was guided by his principles. Unlike Williams, Ali refused induction.

One might have expected Williams to be scornful of Ali. But that wasn’t the case, as I learned when I interviewed him three decades ago.

Williams was fond of boxing. “I feel the greatest prize in sports is the heavyweight championship of the world,” he told me. “I happen to have been successful in baseball. But if you want to talk about dedication, take a fighter who climbs to the top and stays there.”

Williams placed Joe Louis at the top of his rankings. “I think that Joe Louis was the greatest heavyweight fighter who ever lived,” he reminisced. “I loved his style, his punch, his aggressiveness. He was moving in all the time; stalking you, stalking you. He fought everybody. He fought more often than anybody. To me, nobody will be a greater heavyweight than Joe Louis.”


But Williams also spoke fondly of Ali. “As for Vietnam and the political side of things,” he said, “I served in two wars as a pilot. My career was interrupted several times, and I didn’t agree with what Ali did, but I respected him for it. Ali’s faith was important to him. He was sincere and he acted in accord with his convictions.”

“I have great admiration for Ali,” Williams continued. “My first experience meeting him came [in 1966] at the airport in Tampa. I saw him from quite a distance, maybe two hundred feet. Ali looked in my direction, and apparently he recognized me because he started to walk toward me. He got right up to me. I don’t remember exactly how he said it, but the gist of it was, ‘I’m Muhammad Ali.’ I said, ‘I know who you are,’ and we started talking. He was going to Canada to fight George Chuvalo. And he told me, ‘Chuvalo’s a tough guy, but I won’t have any trouble with him.’ I always admired his confidence; saying he was going to do something and then, by God, going out and doing it.”

“Ali was absolutely devoted to being the best, and he was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived,” Williams added. “I’ve seen him fight live. I’ve seen all his films. What always amazes me is the way he maneuvered in the ring. There’s no question in my mind that he was the fastest big man ever in boxing. And I think he got as much out of his physical ability as possible which is another reason I admire him. He came as close as any athlete I know to getting the most out of his potential. I’ve been a fan of his for a long, long time.”

That night, I told Ali about my conversation with Williams. And Muhammad responded in kind, saying, “Ted Williams was as great in his sport as I was in mine.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected]. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing  – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In December 2019, it was announced that he had been chosen by the electors for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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