On July 14, 1946, Ted Williams was tearing the cover off the ball against the Indians.
In the first half of a doubleheader at Fenway Park, Williams knocked in eight runs, and the Red Sox needed every one of them in an 11-10 win over the Tribe. In the second game, Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau had an idea.
Left fielder George Case was left in his position, while Boudreau and third baseman Ken Keltner moved over to the right side of the infield. First baseman Jimmy Wasdell was right down the line, third baseman Ken Keltner was just inside second base, and Boudreau was between them. Second baseman Jack Conway was in shallow right, behind Wasdell.
“When we went into the shift, he thought we were joking,” Boudreau recalled in a radio interview. “He even asked the plate umpire, Bill Summers, to move us back into our original positions.”
Williams, who had just come back from flying fighter planes in World War II, was never one to back down from a challenge. He could have dropped a bunt down the third-base line for a hit, but he swung away instead – right to Boudreau, who threw him out. Williams went 1-for-2 with two runs scored in a 6-4 win to secure the twin bill sweep, but Boudreau said it was more of a psychological gambit than anything else.
It wasn’t a new idea – National League managers stacked the right side of the infield for the Phillies’ Cy Williams in the 1920s – but it wouldn’t go away. That fall, the Red Sox made their first World Series appearance since 1918, and would face the St. Louis Cardinals. Manager Eddie Dyer employed the shift a couple times, and Williams, who was playing injured, was held to a .200 average in the series with five walks.
Williams had a Triple Crown year in 1947, so the shift couldn’t have cost him that much, but he continued to develop his ability to hit toward all fields, and was determined to show it to Boudreau.
In a June 16, 1948, game at Municipal Stadium, Williams tagged Bob Feller for a home run, two doubles and a single – with all but the single going to left field. Williams said he could have started punching the ball toward left, but he believed that would have done more damage overall to his hitting ability for any short-term gain he might have received. Ultimately, the shift fell into disuse – at least, on Williams.
Ten years after he tried it on the Splendid Splinter, Boudreau – then the manager of the Kansas City Athletics – tried it on Mickey Mantle. The Mick struck out twice against the shift, but he, too, went on to win a Triple Crown that year. But the idea of stacking one side of the infield against a pull hitter hasn’t really gone away – and has gained more traction as statistical models have replaced anecdotal evidence. Baseball Info Solutions estimates that 3.3 runs are saved per 100 times the shift has been employed, and the amount of shifts used has tripled in the past four seasons.