Eye on the Ball

Adam M. Grossman

ON THE AFTERNOON of Sunday, Sept. 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 Boston’s 23-year-old slugger, Ted Williams. It was the last day of the regular season, and Williams’s 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 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 six for eight. 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’s average stood at .406, ensuring that his .400 season would be recorded by history without any qualification. Writing about Williams’s performance, Stephen Jay Gould called it “a lesson to all who value the best in human possibility.” And Williams’s record still stands today. No other player has hit .400 in the 76 years since.

What does all of this have to do with personal finance? Few of us will play in the major leagues, but I see three universal lessons:

1. Focus, practice and then practice some more. Ted Williams’s 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, hitting as much as he could. The lesson: Find your area of expertise and then strive for continuous improvement. Do everything you can to read about, learn, practice and deepen your skills.

2. Be strategic with your time. Microsoft founder Bill Gates likes to do the dishes at his house. He does it for a specific reason: It gives him time to think. I suspect Bill Gates never wastes time.

Ditto for Ted Williams. His eye was, literally, always on the ball. The lesson: Structure your work time so that you avoid the mundane, either through delegation or through outsourcing, and instead maximize the time devoted to what’s most important.

3. Be strategic with your education dollars. Williams was a perfectionist, but he was a perfectionist focused on polishing a specific and highly marketable skill. Similarly, 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 make education choices that have 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 for college, you also want to be practical.

Adam M. Grossman’s previous articles include Pouring Cold Water, Tax Time Robbery and Six Figures, Tiny Taxes. Adam is the founder of Mayport Wealth Management, a fixed-fee financial planning firm in Boston. He’s an advocate of evidence-based investing and is on a mission to lower the cost of investment advice for consumers. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrossman.

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