On the afternoon of Sunday, September 28, 1941, it was cool and damp in Philadelphia. Inside Shibe Park, where the hometown Athletics were suiting up to face the Red Sox, all eyes were on the Sox’s 23-year-old slugger, Ted Williams. It was the last day of the regular season, and Williams’ average stood just a hair short of .400, at .39955. According to baseball’s official rules, this would have rounded up to an even .400 in the record books, putting Williams in elite company with Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson and just a handful of others. Williams knew this. The fans knew it. And Red Sox management knew it. In fact, with an eye on his own legacy, team manager Joe Cronin suggested that Williams sit out the last two games of the season, to avoid risking his .400 standing. But, Williams refused: “I’m going to play. I either make it or I don’t. If I’m going to be a .400 hitter, I want more than my toenails on the line.”
And play he did. Over the course of that day’s doubleheader, Williams hit a remarkable 6 for 8. As if to punctuate the event, Williams smashed his final hit of the day high into right field, where it crashed into a loudspeaker, causing it to break into pieces. At the end of the day, Williams’ average stood at .406, ensuring that his .400 season would be recorded by history without any qualification. Writing about Williams’ performance, Stephen Jay Gould called it “a lesson to all who value the best in human possibility.” And, Williams’ record still stands today. No other player has hit .400 in the seventy-six years since.
What does all of this have to do with your personal finances? Few of us will play in the major leagues, but I see several universal lessons:
Focus, practice, and then practice some more: Ted Williams’ teammates noted that he was bored by discussions about defense. He was a hitter, period, and he was a perfectionist. For hours each day, Williams would practice his swing. If a bat wasn’t available, he would use a broomstick or even a hairbrush. He would arrive hours before each game and would stay after as well, hitting as much as he could. The lesson: Find your own area of expertise, then strive for continuous improvement. Do everything you can to read and learn and practice and deepen your skills.
Be strategic with your time: In a past article I talked about how Bill Gates likes to do the dishes at his house. And, while that’s true, the reality is that he does it for a specific reason: because it gives him time to think. When he’s at work, I suspect Bill Gates doesn’t waste time on unnecessary activities. And neither did Ted Williams. His eye was, literally, always on the ball. The lesson: Structure your work time so that you can avoid the mundane, either through delegation or through outsourcing, so that you can maximize the time you spend on what’s most important.
Be strategic with your educational dollars. While Williams was a perfectionist, it’s important to note that he was a perfectionist with a marketable skill. When it comes to your or your children’s education, remember that it’s workers with specialized skills who have the easiest time in their careers, especially during recessions. For that reason, try to choose a college or a program or a major that has an obvious associated career path. Yes, the liberal arts are wonderful and contribute to our society in many intangible ways. But, when you’re paying close to $70,000 per year, you also want to be practical.
To be sure, Ted Williams was a giant. At the same time, a large part of his success came from the focused and disciplined way that he lived his life. In that respect, any of us can follow in his footsteps.