There is nothing average about hitting .400.
It has not been achieved since 1941, when Ted Williams became the eighth player in the modern era to do so, finishing at .406 for the Red Sox. The only serious challenges since then have come from Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn (.394 in 1994), George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Rod Carew (.388 in 1977).
Less than two months into this season, Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon is hitting .425 after going 1-for-5 Saturday against the Braves and 3-for-5 the night before.
Coincidentally, Williams also was hitting .425 after going 1-for-4 against the Indians on May 16, 1941.
But don't try to ask Gordon -- son of former Yankees pitcher Tom Gordon -- if he can do what Williams did 74 years ago. He dislikes talking about himself, especially his stats. According to The Associated Press, when a TV cameraman asked him before Friday night's game how he has gotten so hot at the plate, he said pleasantly: "Wrong question. I don't want to talk about it."
But Brett talked about it to Newsday, noting that Gordon's speed has helped him. "He's hitting .350 and running 80. He's got a lot of bunts and infield hits," Brett said. "But I think it's too early to start talking about .400.''
Tony Gwynn Jr., whose Hall of Fame dad died last June, was Gordon's teammate when both played for the Dodgers. "It's going to take a guy like that who has multiple ways of getting base hits other than lining a baseball,'' said Gwynn, now playing for the Nationals' Triple-A affiliate in Syracuse. "But at the same time, I don't think he walks enough to do it.''
Pete Rose, baseball's all-time hits leader with 4,256, never approached .400 for a single season. His best was .348.
"They've already started to say Gordon can go for 0-for-75 and hit .300,'' Rose said. "There's a lot of guys that are in front in the race at the Belmont, then that last eighth of a mile gets them. I don't care who you are. You have a tendency to get tired. The games and at-bats mount up.''
.400? 'It's a different era'
Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones, among the American League leaders in batting this season, said today's hitters do not even think about reaching .400. "Miguel Cabrera could get close because of his ability to purely hit,'' he said. "A few guys could give it a run, but giving it a run, they're going to be at .350 -- and that's unbelievable. It's a different era. You got so many variables that prevent you. Shifts are costing people batting averages.''
In 1980, Brett had a torn ligament in his ankle in the first half of the season. He was limited to 118 games and did not reach .400 until Aug. 17 after a four-hit game against the Blue Jays. Just over a month later, he went hitless in four at-bats against the A's and never reached .400 again.
"I've talked about not hitting .400 more than I've talked about hitting .400,'' Brett said from Kansas City, where he is the Royals' vice president of baseball operations. "Obviously, I wish I would have done it. I was poised and ready to do it. It was a great run. I had a wonderful run at it.''
Brett said the ever-stronger bullpens of today mitigate against anyone approaching .400. "You get five innings from your third through fifth starter and eight guys are in the bullpen licking their chops to get a hold or a save,'' he said. "In 1980, you had your starter and a guy like Dan Quisenberry who would pitch 32/3 innings. That's not going to happen again.''
Jim Frey, who managed Brett in Kansas City, said he does not foresee anyone reaching .400. "The proof of the pudding is that nobody's done it for almost 75 years,'' he said. "The greatest hitters in baseball have tried and it gets harder and harder, and in my opinion, it's going to get harder and harder.''
Gwynn said his father was disappointed that he never got to finish his run at .400. He played in 110 games before the 1994 season ended in August because of a strike by the players. "Of all the things I ever heard him go back to, that is the one thing he talked about,'' Gwynn said. "I remember those days very clearly. It seems like he was always going 2-for-4, 2-for-5. But the actual hitting of a moving ball, he always made clear to me, it wasn't by any means easy. It's a game of failure.''
Billy Bean, Gwynn's teammate in '94, said, "I believe with all my heart that he would have hit .400 that year. He was hitting the baseball hard three times a game. He was flirting with history in a way that was magical. That guy could center a baseball the minute he fell out of bed in the morning.
"Tony didn't walk around [after the strike ended in 1995] saying 'I got screwed over,' but I think it burned him because you know those moments are fleeting."
Williams one of a kind
Gwynn said his father often consulted with Williams, who had played in the Pacific Coast League with the San Diego Padres. Williams' daughter Claudia said, "My father absolutely took Tony Gwynn underneath his wing. I sent Tony a letter saying my father admired him and was pulling for him'' to hit .400.
In an interview, Gwynn Sr. once recalled that he asked Williams about his 1941 season and his .400 average. "Ted looked at me and said, 'If I knew that hitting .400 would have been so damn important, I would have done it more often.' ''
Williams passed away at age 83 in 2002. Gwynn died last June at 54 of salivary cancer.
Frank Howard, who played with the Washington Senators when Williams was the manager, said the Splendid Splinter used to take batting practice. "At 53, he had a sting to his bat,'' Howard said. "He had great eyesight, 20-10 in his left eye. He was light years ahead of anybody else in the art of hitting a baseball. He was a firm believer in knowing what the [pitcher] was throwing.''
Williams was not in agreement with the philosophy of popular hitting coaches Charley Lau and his disciple, Walt Hriniak. "Ted thought we wanted players to swing down, but that was misunderstood,'' Hriniak said. "We wanted guys to use the whole field. Ted wanted everybody to pull the ball.''
Former St. Louis Browns first baseman Chuck Stevens, 97, played against Williams in high school in California. "No one knew he would knock down every fence in America,'' he said. "I remember saying it was going to be magically impossible'' for Williams to hit .400. "For those guys, the ball looked like a softball. For me, it looked like an aspirin.''
Williams said her father was in his 70s before he acknowledged his .400-plus average as being significant.
"I believe in the face of his own mortality he probably realized it would never happen again,'' she said. "He would sit at the dinner table and say, 'I don't think they're going to do it.' And in the very next breath, he'd attribute it to the pitchers.''
Williams was hitting .3996 entering the final day of the 1941 season, and the Red Sox were playing a doubleheader at Shibe Park in Philadelphia. Manager Joe Cronin gave Williams the option of not playing because his average would have been rounded to .400, making him the first to reach that mark since Bill Terry hit .401 for the Giants in 1931.
"My father gave him the opportunity to sit out,'' said Cronin's son Corky. "But being courageous and a straightforward guy, he went out and increased his average by [going 6-for-8] that day. It's clear it's not impossible to hit .400 . . . he did it. The question was is anybody else ever going to do it again? I think my father would probably say: ' . . . but I don't know who and I don't know when.' ''