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As great as Ortiz is, Teddy Ballgame is still No. 1

The sweet swings of David Ortiz and Ted Williams are unmistakable to Red Sox fans — but how comparable are the players?globe staff (left); associated press

Who is the greatest Red Sox player of all time?

I can’t believe I’m even posing the question. It’s ridiculous. It feels like a sin against the church of Boston baseball.

New England baby boomers forever know the answer. We grew up in homes that had two photographs hanging in the parlor or kitchen: John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Theodore Samuel Williams.

In our world, Teddy Ballgame will always be No. 1. Just as Bobby Orr will always be tops with the Bruins, Bill Russell with the Celtics, and now Tom Brady with the Patriots. Our regional sports Mount Rushmore is etched in stone . . . and memory.


I spoke to Carl Yastrzemski about it Tuesday.

Yaz, as ever, was succinct. And correct.

“It’s got to be Ted,’’ said Yaz. “I mean, he was the greatest hitter who ever lived. And he missed all those years serving his country in two wars.’’

Right. But this is the age of “hot takes” and short/no memories. It’s an age of fanboy baseball experts who’ve never left the house. Factor that in with the amazing (truly unbelievable) late-life surge of Ortiz, and you arrive at our preposterous poll question. In fact, I was actually asked this question on a television sports debate show last week.

The same folks who think Bernie Williams was better than Mickey Mantle, and that maybe Derek Jeter was every bit as big as Babe Ruth, want to tell us that David Ortiz is the greatest Sox player ever. Because he is an amazing hitter, a community pillar, and — unlike Ted — he has three championship rings.

Ortiz is doing things no 40-year-old slugger has ever done. In his 20th big league season, he is performing at a level that suggests he might be the best hitter in the game right now. And so our Generation Xers and Millennials — folks with no memories that precede Nomar Garciaparra — actually believe Big Papi is the greatest Red Sox player of them all. Now is better because it’s . . . now.


Heinous. Preposterous. If arguing about the greatest composer of all time, would we invite any mention of the late, great Prince while making the case for Ludwig van Beethoven?

Evidently, it’s an argument that’s going to be in play as Ortiz terrorizes big league pitching at an age when most players are long retired.

Ortiz is hitting .321 with 9 homers and 29 RBIs. His OPS is a whopping 1.089. He hit two homers at Yankee Stadium Sunday night, ripping a 94-mile-per-hour fastball deep to right. At the age of 40, he is hitting the ball harder than any other player in the big leagues. Harder than Giancarlo Stanton. Harder than Bryce Harper.

Ortiz’s average “exit velocity” on balls struck is 95.7 miles per hour. Best in baseball. He has hit 44 balls more than 100 m.p.h. The next-best slugger is Miguel Cabrera with 37. This is truly unbelievable.

Ted Williams managed to hit .388 at the age of 38 in 1957, but he never had Ortiz-like power numbers at the end of his career. There are no measurements of bat speed from the Eisenhower years, but it’s doubtful The Kid was cranking the way Ortiz is now.

Hitting was a science to Ted Williams, who went so far as to weigh his bats to make sure they weren’t an ounce off.Associated Press/File 1948/Associated Press

All that said, statistically speaking, this is a non-argument. The Globe’s estimable Alex Speier, no stranger to modern metrics, acknowledged, “Put simply, I don’t think there’s any statistical case for Ortiz being the better player than Ted. The distance between Ted and the other best hitters in the game was so enormous as not to be remotely surmountable.’’


Thank you. Over 19 seasons, Williams averaged .344, 37 homers, and 130 RBIs per season. Ortiz over 20 seasons comes in at .285, 36, and 118. Ted’s career on-base percentage is .482, tops in baseball history. Papi is at .378. Ted’s OPS is 1.116. Ortiz’s is .927.

Williams was MVP twice and finished in the top 10 12 times. He finished second in the MVP race four times. Ortiz never won an MVP, finished second once, and finished in the top 10 six times. Williams won two Triple Crowns and once hit .406 for a full season. He was not MVP in any of those three seasons.

Red Sox legends
Comparing the career numbers of Ortiz and Williams.
David Ortiz Ted Williams
Seasons 20 19
BA .285 .344
OBP .378 .482
SLG .549 .634
HR 512 521
RBI 1,670 1,839
XBH 1,128 1,117
Source: baseball-reference.com

Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum in Boston, said, “I know folks want to say Ortiz. But I would still say Ted is my choice, for many reasons.

“Ted was the reason people went to Fenway from 1939 to 1960. Citizen Ted was a soldier and did more for the Jimmy Fund than any individual. Citizen Ted trumps them all. The combination of the two — Superstar Ted and Citizen Ted — make a pretty damn compelling case.

“More trees were sacrificed covering his career than any player other than Babe Ruth. If you ask whose story would make the better Hollywood script, Ted Williams or David Ortiz, it isn’t even a contest. It’s Ted.’’


Among today’s sluggers, David Ortiz may stand alone, but historically speaking, that’s not the case.jessica rinaldi/globe staff/file 2015

There are many intangibles, of course. Ortiz got all the big hits when the Sox perpetrated their Biblical championship run in 2004. Big Papi rallied our region with his expletive-punctuated defiance after the Boston Marathon bombings, hit the grand slam that essentially won the 2013 pennant, then hit .688 in the World Series.

Ted never did any of that. But if championship rings are your only measurement, then Mark Bellhorn (one) is better than Ernie Banks (zero), and Sam Jones (10) is almost twice as good as Michael Jordan (six).

Sorry, but this is still a stupid argument. In these final months of Big Papi, let’s not embarrass him by even raising the question. Ted Williams, was, is, and forever will be the greatest Red Sox player of all time. It’s not even close.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.