The night in Philly before Ted Williams hit .406

Ted Williams standing 1200x800 Getty
Hall of Famer Ted Williams was the last Major League Baseball player to hit .400 or better.

On Tuesday, some local baseball pilgrims celebrated the most meaningful walk of Ted Williams' career.

Not among the 2,021 listed on the late Hall of Famer's impressive statistical resumé, it instead was a 1941 walk that, on the eve of his greatest accomplishment, Williams took through Philadelphia's crowded streets.

"Planning this walk just seemed a nice way to commemorate some Philadelphia baseball history," explained Seamus Kearney, the event's organizer and a member of the local chapter of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research).

Wednesday will mark the 75th anniversary of one of this city's great sports moments, the day Williams, his .3995 batting average teetering on the brink of history, went 6 for 8 in a season-ending Shibe Park doubleheader to finish at .406. No one has hit higher than .390 since.

Nearly as interesting as what Williams did on Sept. 28, 1941, however, was what happened the night before. That Saturday, obsessed by the next day's challenge and haunted by self-doubts, the Boston Red Sox star roamed downtown Philadelphia for hours in a trancelike state.

Over the years, as generations of batters have failed to match Williams' milestone, that weekend here has acquired a mythological sheen. And while researchers have dissected his gutsy Sunday performance, little is known about his mentally therapeutic trek Saturday.

But by combining an understanding of downtown Philadelphia on the eve of World War II with contemporary newspaper stories and accounts in his biographies, it's possible to get a sense of Williams' walk.

"SABR held its convention here in 2013, and to honor the game's last .400 hitter I organized a Ted Williams Pub Crawl," Kearney explained. "On this 75th anniversary, we thought we'd celebrate it with a walk."

Tuesday's commemorative stroll, organized by Friends in the City, a retiree group that makes historical walks, began at the Ben Franklin Hotel, where the Red Sox stayed in 1941. It concluded, two hours later, at McGillin's Ale House, perhaps the only surviving downtown bar from that weekend.

They visited eight pubs in all, one for each of Williams' Sunday at-bats.

"At each place I'll let the group know what he did that at-bat," said Kearney. "Then we'll buy a drink and toast Ted."

The heartfelt homage indicates how, 56 years after his retirement, 14 years after his death, Williams remains one of baseball's most enduring and fascinating characters. That's due, in part, to the strange dichotomy that was his personality - an astonishing ability to concentrate juxtaposed with a fingernail-biting anxiety.

Those conflicting traits were at war on that long-ago Saturday. He was determined to focus on what he needed to do to hit .400 and desperate to find an emotional and physical outlet for the nervousness that challenge produced.

And so he walked.

When he found himself hitting .431 that June, Williams' appetite for .400 was honed. The Giants' Bill Terry had done it in 1930, but no American Leaguer since 1923.

In Saturday afternoon's 5-1 win over the Philadelphia A's, a 1-for-4 batting performance dropped him below that mark for the first time since July. Manager Joe Cronin, knowing Williams' .3995 would be rounded off to .400, offered him a chance to rest Sunday. As proud and stubborn as he was physically gifted, the young star refused.

"If I'm going to hit .400," he said, "I want more than my toenails on the line."

Returning from Shibe Park on Saturday, Williams had dinner in the 1,200-room hotel at Ninth and Chestnut, which a week later would host first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Around 7:30, he asked Red Sox clubhouse manager Johnny Orlando to walk with him.

Williams loved walking. Later in life he would roam through cities in Africa, Europe, and Latin America. This time, the only destination he had in mind was .400.

Deep in thought, striding zombie-like with his diminutive sidekick, the 6-foot-3 Williams likely headed west, toward City Hall. He passed through crowds of Philadelphians who, on this final night of Daylight Savings Time, moved in and out of theaters and hotel lobbies, drug stores and bars.

The 1941 season had two games left, and Williams was weary, mentally and physically. An uncharacteristic 4 for 20 at the plate the previous week had threatened both his ambition and self-assurance. The more he feared he was blowing his chance, the antsier he became.

No one is certain where they walked, but Orlando later estimated they went for three-plus hours, perhaps 10 to 12 miles. It was a mostly silent journey except when the slender slugger couldn't contain himself.

"He kept repeating, over and over again, how determined he was to hit .400," Orlando said.

Orlando stopped twice at bars. On those occasions, the teetotaling Williams found some ice cream. He seemed to have a primal urge for the frozen treat as if it soothed his internal fires.

Often, teammates said, Williams would hop off trains at stations to hunt vanilla ice cream. Once, between games of a Fenway Park doubleheader, he exited the ballpark to get a cone. In 1991, visiting a children's hospital, the 73-year-old asked the patients, "Do you guys get any ice cream in this joint?"

Ten weeks before Pearl Harbor, he wouldn't have had trouble feeding his habit in Philadelphia. Dozens of downtown drug stores sold it at fountains. Department stores Wanamaker's and Gimbel's dished it out at basement counters. There were ice-cream shops and fast-food places like Horn & Hardardt's that served it. And hometown producer Breyer's was celebrating its 75th anniversary with a variety of promotions.

A half-hour past his preferred bedtime, at 10:30, Williams returned to the hotel. In its ornate lobby, he encountered Cronin, who again offered him the option of sitting out the games. Refusing, Williams went to his room.

After a restless night, he rose early on Sunday morning and, with roommate Charlie Wagner, caught a cab to the North Philadelphia ballpark.

"I remember thinking how fast the cabbie was driving," Wagner recalled in 1967, "and that we were probably going to get killed before we got there."

Save for Williams' statistical quest, the doubleheader was meaningless. Boston was in second place, 171/2 games behind the Yankees. Connie Mack's Athletics were in last.

Only 1,000 fans had gone to Shibe Park on Saturday. But on Sunday, 10,268 showed up - 4,000 above the A's 1941 average. They might have been enticed by extensive newspaper coverage of Williams' quest that morning. The headline on one of those Inquirer stories was blunt: "Williams Falls to .399."

Before Sunday's opener, the Evening Bulletin reported, he was visibly nervous, chastising himself "for getting only one hit for four times at bat Saturday."

"He sat on the bench, biting his fingernails," the article noted. "His mammoth hands trembled. . . . He asked Jimmie Foxx [a teammate and a former A's star] if the late afternoon shadows ever bothered him."

Williams led off the second inning against A's starter Dick Fowler. Mack, according to Philadelphia catcher Frankie Hayes, had insisted his staff work him tough.

According to a 2013 SABR article by Bill Nowlin, Williams took two balls, then lined a single into right. The delighted crowd roared for him. His average was .40089.

Now he relaxed. "I was shaking like a leaf when I went up to bat," he said afterward. "When I got that first hit, I was all set."

He hammered a fifth-inning Fowler fastball over the right-field wall and onto 20th Street, 440 feet away. His 37th homer lifted him to .40222.

Williams singled twice more in the 12-11 Red Sox win, the only failure coming on a hard-hit ball that second baseman Crash Davis mishandled. At game's end, he was at .40397.

He still was not in the clear, however. If he went 0 for 5 in the second game, he would drop below .400. But he insisted on playing.

He went 2 for 3, with a single and a line-drive double that struck a loudspeaker on the scoreboard in right-center. Darkness halted the A's win after eight innings and, with six hits - "all slashing line drives," the Inquirer noted - Williams' day, season, and quest ended.

"There's a lot of luck making that many hits," Williams said, before turning toward Foxx. "Just think, hitting .400. What do you think of that, Slug? Just a kid like me hitting that high!"

No one has done it since. George Brett's .390 in 1980 was the closest flirtation, and it seems increasingly more unattainable.

"If I had known hitting .400 was going to be such a big deal," Williams joked in his ghostwritten autobiography, "I'd have done it again."

His 37 homers also led the league, as did his 147 walks and 120 runs. And his on-base percentage of .553 is still a major-league record.

He had three infield hits all year. And under 1941's rules his six sacrifice flies counted as at-bats, meaning his average today would be .411.

Somehow he lost the MVP balloting to Joe DiMaggio, who hit in 56 straight games that summer. During his famous streak, DiMaggio batted .408, Williams .412.

Exiting the ballpark Sunday in the North Philadelphia gloaming, Williams was met by 2,000 fans.

"[They] pinned him against the wall and made him autograph every conceivable kind of paper, book or scorecard," the Bulletin reported. "A couple of cops rescued him. . . . But he enjoyed the ordeal and left only when he was pushed into a taxicab."

On this night, mission accomplished, Williams didn't feel like walking.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz