The “Williams Shift” Is Born

The “Williams Shift” Is Born

July 14, 1946

No one will ever doubt that Ted Williams was one of the best hitters of all time. He broke the .400 mark, led the league in batting average six times and even won the Triple Crown twice.

But he wasn’t perfect. Teddy Ballgame was definitely a “pull hitter,” and Williams himself once estimated that eighty-five percent of his hits went to the right of the centerfielder. During the second game of a doubleheader on July 14, 1946, these tendencies inspired Cleveland Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau to try to stymie Williams by shifting most of his fielders to the right side of the diamond.

Both Williams and Boudreau had been incredible in the first game of the doubleheader. Boudreau had four doubles and a home run and Williams slammed three home runs, driving in eight. With the Indians in sixth place, Boudreau decided he had nothing to lose in the second game.

Williams’ first at-bat went normally; he ripped a base-clearing double. While Boudreau had been creative enough to come up with such a specific defense against Williams, he was not daring enough to do it with runners on base.

In Williams’ second at-bat of the night, however, Boudreau threw the shift at him. Indians third baseman Ken Keltner moved directly behind second base. Second baseman Jack Conway moved to shallow right field. Boudreau moved from his usual position between second and third to a spot between first and second — almost an opposite-field shortstop. First baseman Jimmy Wasdell moved behind the bag at first and played on the line, along with right fielder Hank Edwards. Centerfielder Jim Seerey moved to right-center, leaving left fielder George Case as the only player on the left side of the field.

The shift was no defense against bad pitching. Cleveland pitcher Charley Embree walked Williams on four straight pitches. Williams had another walk and a groundout to finish off the day.

Other managers soon followed suit and came up with their own shifts to stifle Williams. These unique defenses annoyed Williams, but didn’t affect his hitting.

Even though Williams’ production hadn’t slowed, there was no shortage of unsolicited advice on how to beat the shift. The media accused him of being too proud to hit to the now wide-open spaces in left field, and Ty Cobb sent Williams a two-page letter on how Cobb himself would have handled the shift. Paul Waner told him to just step away from the plate a little.

In a game against the Indians at Cleveland Stadium later that season, Williams showed up all his critics. Boudreau used an extreme shift against Williams with two out and none on in the first inning, bringing in left fielder Pat Seerey to cover the left side of the infield. The move had left field unprotected, and Ted hit a routine fly over Seery’s head that rolled to the 400-foot mark. While the ball was rolling, Williams raced around the bases for his first — and only — inside-the-park home run. That run won the game and clinched the pennant for the Sox in 1946.