BOSTON -- Some 70 years ago this week, Ted Williams was hitting under .400. He'd gone 2-for-5 with a run scored in a rout of the Chicago White Sox, but all that did was improve his batting average from .39682 to .39688.
But then Williams really went on a tear. He collected two hits, including a home run, and drew two walks in a win over the Cleveland Indians on July 25. He collected three hits and walked again in another win over the Indians on July 26. He collected two more hits, including a double, and drew another walk on July 27.
All told, over the next week, Williams hit safely 13 times in 22 at-bats -- a .591 clip -- and boosted his batting average to .412. He eventually topped out at .414 on Aug. 21, a game at Chicago in which he singled twice and walked twice, before finishing the season at .406 with a memorable 6-for-8 effort in a doubleheader at Philadelphia on the season's final day.
No hitter has topped the .400 mark since.
Nomar Garciaparra was the last Red Sox player to make a run at Williams, hitting .372 in 2000. But he doesn't think anyone will top Williams' feat anytime soon. Adrian Gonzalez, who leads the majors with a .351 average this season, also doesn't expect anyone to make a run at Williams.
"It's pretty close to impossible," Gonzalez said.
Only 11 players since have hit as high as .370 since Williams' retirement in 1960. Tony Gwynn, who hit .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season, is the only player to top .390, but his batting average never climbed back over .400 after May 15. Ichiro Suzuki hit .372 in 2004, but at no point in that season did his batting average ever even top .379.
Garciaparra saw his batting average touch .403 in late July 2000, but it never got any higher than .394 in August or September. His .372 is still the highest figure for any Red Sox hitter since Williams' retirement.
As Garciaparra remembers it, he threatened .400 in large part because he didn't know he was threatening .400. He made a conscious effort to avoid looking at his batting average during the season, no matter how high he thought the number might be.
For some players, the chase for .400 has been something difficult in which to get caught up. Gwynn has voiced skepticism about how well he'd have handled the media frenzy that would have come with a pursuit of .400.
Garciaparra tried to ignore the number entirely.
"The worst place was the Chicago White Sox, because that's where the largest batting average is on the scoreboard," he said. "I knew the places where it was smaller, and I knew the places you had to keep your head down, and I know reporters probably got mad at me, but I was always like, 'Don't tell me my batting average.'."
Slumps are part of the reason so few players come even close to .400 these days.
But players went into slumps in Williams' day, too. When Williams hit .388 in 1957, he went 2-for-17 in one mid-May stretch and hit .242 in the first three weeks of June, torpedoing a chance to join the .400 club for a second time.
Williams did benefit from not having to face the relief pitchers so prevalent in the game today. The lefty specialists, the submariners, the one-inning fireballers the managers of today would have thrown at Williams were nonexistent in 1941.
Only two pitchers worked for Chicago in the game in which Williams saw his batting average reach .414 in late August, and one of those was a reliever who pitched the final seven innings.
"Rarely are you facing a starting pitcher three times in a game," Garciaparra said. "You're normally only facing him twice, and then you're going to face two other guys, whether it's a guy that's in the bullpen specifically to get you out or a closer or something like that. It's not like you can figure a guy out after two at-bats and come back and get that one knock."
The mountains of data available to pitchers and defenses -- spray charts, batting averages by pitch type, hours of video -- only make life more difficult for hitters.
"Take a guy like David Ortiz," Gonzalez said. "They play that shift. How many balls would he hit in the hole? There's so much video, so much analysis. People know your weaknesses from video and all that. They can exploit your weaknesses."
Nobody was looking at film of Ted Williams in late July in 1941. It's tough to know if any film analysis would have revealed any weaknesses, either.
"Not many people have come too close to doing it again, especially in this day and age," Garciaparra said. "It's just very difficult, obviously. It's a tough number to get to."