Sam Snead and Ted Williams: What if we’d played each other’s sport?
From the archive (July 1960): How their skills would have translated in golf and baseball
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Legend has it that Sam Snead and Ted Williams once argued over which sport was harder—Ted said it was baseball because you have to hit a moving target, but Sam supposedly won the debate: “Ted, you don’t have to go up in the stands and play your foul balls. I do.”
Snead and Williams were old fishing buddies and business partners, and they once were pictured on a 1959 baseball card with rod and reel angling off the back of a boat. Snead admired the way Williams studied a pitcher and compared his own observational skills for “reading” golfers. “I could walk into a locker room and name the golfer belonging to each pair of shoes on top of the lockers,” he once told me while we were collaborating on a golf betting book. “I knew the way every player walked and how their shoes would get worn down.”
In July 1960, Williams and Snead appeared on a Golf Digest cover with a pair of bylined stories inside, speculating on how each would fare in the other pro’s sport. It was the 10th anniversary of the magazine, and Golf Digest’s three founders were still in charge—Bill Davis, Howard Gill and Jack Barnett—all active sportsmen. Sam was a contributing editor and introduced them to Williams. The resulting stories were fairly laudatory, but I bet they would have been more salty on a fishing trip together. The two pros died in 2002, Williams at 83 and Snead at 89. —Jerry Tarde
Ted Williams: Golf’s first southpaw champion?
By Sam Snead
It isn’t hard to imagine Ted Williams as a golfer. Almost everything about him indicates he could have been the first left-handed golfer to really hit it big on the circuit.
You can’t say that about all good athletes, either. There are ball players around today drawing big money who obviously don't have the physical build and temperament to become highly skilled golfers. Golfers, maybe, but not great ones.
Watch Williams when he bats. He’s up there to knock that ball as hard as he can, and he puts all his muscle and concentration into every swing.
Williams’ wrist action is impressive. He has that “delayed” hit, holding those wrists back until the last second.
Golf is a hitter’s game, too. There never was a golfer worth his spikes who didn’t pulverize the ball. I don’t mean to say you should get up there with the idea that you can start hitting when you take the club back—but when the time comes, you gotta mash it.
Everyone knows that Ted is a left-hander and always pulls the ball to right field. He never would have any part of placing the ball to left, even though guys like Lou Boudreau would put all seven fielders toward right. The way Ted hits, the catcher might as well run out there, too. Maybe Boudreau missed a bet. To me this indicates that Williams would have had a natural hook on a golf ball. I don’t know anyone who became a national champion at golf who didn’t start as a hooker. Maybe they refined it to a fade or a straight ball later, but the hook came first.
Ted might be in trouble along the right side of the fairway some of the time. But he’d likely have been so long that he would have passed the normal traps and trouble out there. Even if he did get into the bushes out that way, he’d probably keep on hitting hooks. Ted’s sort of bullheaded that way—“Let ’em shift to right,” he’s told me. “I’ll hit right through ’em.”
How about those finesse shots around the green? Ted never bunts and never “finesses” the ball to left field, either. But I know he’d have a great touch on those chips and pitches—and putts, too.
I’ve seen his touch demonstrated. Williams and I are financially interested in a fishing-tackle business, and we’ve done a lot of fishing together. I’ll have to admit that he can usually out-fish an old cane-pole-and-pin man like me!
Fishing calls for plenty of finesse. I’ve seen Ted catch the heaviest fish on the lightest line possible. Those of you who know anything about fishing will realize that this means he has a delicate touch.
If Williams can bring in an 80- to 90-pound tarpon on a fly rod, he could chip and approach. He has that touch with his extremely sensitive fingers.
Ted gets a silo-full of walks every year. One reason, of course, is that pitchers don’t like to give him anything too good to hit. You can’t blame them for that—they’d prefer to have a head to set on top of their shoulders. But another reason is that Williams has such a sharp eye that he can tell in a split-second whether a ball is going to be a good one. He has to decide in a hurry because some pitchers can throw a baseball close to 100 miles per hour.
Heck, on a green he’d have all the time in the world to pick out a line to the cup. No problem at all.
The big guy wouldn’t have any problems with galleries, either. If he can concentrate on the action with a whole bleacher-full of baseball fans needling him out loud, he ought to be able to concentrate on a golf ball with no one saying a thing.
If Williams had become a golfer I don’t think the game would ever have seen a more positive player. I think Ted would have inclined to be a gambler—going for the pin with every shot. Sure, this attitude might knock the pins out from under him once in a while, but nobody wins ’em all. Even Arnold Palmer finally lost one the other week.
Anyway, with his quick temper, I would have enjoyed seeing Ted and Tommy Bolt paired in a golf tournament. Why, I’d even give up one of my tomato cans to see that!
Sam Snead: A king-size Yogi Berra?
By Ted Williams
How would you like to have a king-size Yogi Berra on your baseball team?
That’s what some lucky major-league team probably would have had if Sam Snead had turned to baseball instead of golf. Hitting, no doubt, would have been Sam’s forte, although his physical and mental makeup would also have assured him success as a catcher, or possibly an outfielder.
How could he miss as a hitter? Consider his deserved reputation as one of golf’s longest drivers. With all of his massive strength and fluid coordination, Snead would have terrorized pitchers for years.
Snead is graceful in everything he does. No doubt he would have been able to hit until the time his legs finally gave out under the stress of everyday baseball. Because of his muscular harmony, Sam would have lasted longer than most baseball stars, although maybe not as long as the 20-plus years he has been atop the world of golf.
Among Snead’s greatest assets in golf are strong wrists and forearms and sensitive hands. Can you imagine the impact he would be able to produce with a bat?
Take a look at a fellow like the Chicago Cubs’ Ernie Banks. Here is a comparatively slight player who has such tremendous wrist action and coordination that he is sure to go down as one of the game’s most powerful hitters. Snead has those wrists, plus almost 190 pounds of weight. Banks, on the other hand, checks in at 175 pounds.
Snead would have been able to hit to all fields. His balance is so unusually perfect that he would have been able to time most pitches.
Being a “commercial” golfer, Snead has learned to place the golf ball where he wishes. I don’t believe he would have been tempted to hit a baseball to only one field. His power, of course, would be to left field, but why couldn’t he slice one down the right-field line at will, or poke it to dead center?
Temperament, too, plays a big part in hitting. Sam has learned to take the good with the bad in golf, so if as a baseball player he had fallen into a slump, he wouldn’t have worried himself sleepless over it.
Snead might have set some kind of record for getting walks. His eyes are capable of detecting the slight difference in the undulations of the greens. I’ve also seen him shoot a bird on the wing without getting his gun to his shoulder. He’s a fast thinker!
It follows that he would have been able to restrict his baseball swings almost 100 percent to pitches within the strike zone.
Positioning Snead on the baseball field enters more into the realm of conjecture. However, it would seem that a good spot for him would have been behind the plate. What a target he would have made! Sam has learned to size up situations on the golf course at a glance, both as to how to play and how to consider his opposition. One trip around the horn and he would have had every hitter “typed.” Sam would have been of great help to any pitcher.
A catcher must be agile enough to run down pesky pop-ups and frisky runners. Sam’s physical attributes would have made even the most daring runner think twice before barreling into him at home. He’s enough of a natural winner to never let anyone bowl him over or kick the ball out of his hands.
I doubt if many runners would have been able to pull a double steal on Sam. I can just picture him faking a throw to second, then whipping the ball like a howitzer into the third baseman’s mitt in time to pick off the runner there.
Sam tells me he did play baseball in high school. There are no known records of his prowess as a prep diamond star, but someone told me they’re still finding baseballs atop some West Virginia mountains!
Baseball missed a great player in Snead. But then, what would golf have done without him?