July 16 , 1946 – Indians Beat Red Sox by Employing the “Ted Williams Shift”
Baseball’s stars mostly returned to the game in 1946. On this Tuesday afternoon, Bob Feller was on the hill for the Indians against Tex Hughson at Fenway Park. Another all-time great who gave up three years of baseball to serve in the Marines would step into the box against Feller–Ted Williams.
Two day before, the Indians had a doubleheader with the Red Sox. In the opening game, player-manager Lou Boudreau went 5-for-5 with four doubles and a homer. Ted Williams hit three home runs and went 4-for-5. All of his hits were to right field. This was not the first or the last time Boudreau’s hitting was overshadowed by Williams.
Boudreau led the AL with a .327 average in 1944; however, this honor always came with the asterisk that Williams was busy serving as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in between winning his six batting titles.
Between games, Boudreau proposed a radical solution. When Ted Williams came to the plate in the second game, the Indians defense changed their alignment drastically.
When Williams saw the shift for the first time, he turned to the umpire and said, “What the hell is going on out there? They can’t do that.”
They could, though. Boudreau had checked the rules. The current edition of the MLB Rulebook is 184 pages long. The clause that implicitly allows a defensive shift is rather succinct:
5.02(c) “Except the pitcher and the catcher, any fielder may station himself anywhere in fair territory.”
The Tribe shifted on Williams and held him to only one hit in the second game of the double-header, but managed to lose 6 to 4.
Seeing the success of his new strategy, Boudreau continued to apply the shift two days later in Game 83. The Indians got on the board early when a long fly out by Pat Seerey allowed George Case to tag and score. Ken Keltner made the lead 2-0 with a home run to lead off the top of the second.
Heinz Becker led off the Indians’ half of the fifth with a double and was driven in by catcher Jim Hegan. Pat Seerey led off the top of the sixth with another home run to make the score 4-0.
In the bottom of the sixth, Ted Williams beat the shift with a line drive to center field that went for a triple and scored Johnny Pesky from second.
Jim Hegan answered with a triple of his own in the top of the seventh, which again plated Becker.
Williams singled to left in the bottom of the eighth, but it came to naught as Feller retired the next three Red Sox in order. Overall on the day, Feller gave up three runs on nine hits but it was good enough to get the complete game win after squashing a late comeback attempt that included a two-run double by Dom DiMaggio in the bottom of the ninth. Williams went 2 for 5 with the triple noted above as the only highlight.
Boudreau would continue to use the shift against Williams throughout the mid-40s. Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer would use a similar tactic against Williams to win the 1946 World Series. Eventually he trained himself to be less of a pull hitter, but that required major adjustments to his approach.
Of course, statistical analysis and sabermetrics has made the shift commonplace over the past 10 years or so. As FiveThirtyEight noted, this was likely due to changing perceptions rather than a change in effectiveness. The shift has always been a good idea–the manager just looks silly when it fails. The team that has embraced defensive shifts most fully is probably the Astros, who have used a very similar extreme shift against pull hitters such as Joey Gallo.
It is hard to overstate how shocking this was to the baseball establishment at the time. Lou Boudreau is remembered not only as a talented hitter in his own right, but also as an innovative manager who knew the rules and how to bend them.