Finding the Real Ted Williams
By: Scott Conroy
For a sports-obsessed kid like myself, growing up in what is arguably the nation’s most sports-obsessed city, Ted Williams’ very name conjured a mythic quality.
In the pantheon of historical significance, he placed somewhere between Joan of Arc and George Washington — and was just as unknowable.
I never saw more than a few seconds of archived footage of the legendary Red Sox left fielder in action, but I knew a few facts about the man, which were as ingrained in my mind as my own date of birth.
Williams was the last player to achieve a .400 batting average, which he pulled off during the 1941 season — a singular accomplishment in a sport that venerates individual statistics.
He hit a home run in the last at-bat of his 19-year career, every inning of which he played in a Red Sox uniform.
And, most importantly, Ted Williams was “the greatest hitter who ever lived.”
This laudatory and unnuanced appraisal was regarded — in my world, at least — as a matter of undisputed fact. Any peer who might have argued otherwise during an elementary school recess or a backyard Whiffle ball game would face ridicule as biting as if he had claimed that 1 + 1 = 3.
The Kid is the culmination of a decade-long effort by longtime Boston Globe reporter and editor Ben Bradlee Jr. to provide a comprehensive look at the man whose posters adorned his bedroom walls as a Boston-area child in the 1950s.
The result, an engrossing and exhaustively researched biography, applies plenty of ink across its nearly 800 pages in documenting Williams’ Hall of Fame playing career — the facts of which back up most of the legends about him.
While Bradlee eagerly touts Williams’ peerless attributes as the player who could hit for both power and average better than anyone in baseball history, he also engages in some welcomed myth-busting.
Among the Ted Williams “facts” that youth baseball coaches like to trumpet in batting cages up and down New England: his vision was so phenomenal that he could actually see the seams of the ball as it hurtled toward him at upwards of 95 miles per hour.
As it turns out, Naval doctors determined that Williams’ vision was 20/15 — an excellent mark that put him in the top 95 percent of young men his age, though not quite in the realm of superhero acuity.
Though Bradlee’s recounting of Williams’ career is candy for any baseball fan, The Kid shines brightest in detailing the paradoxical character, cinematic life and sad circumstances surrounding the death of the Splendid Splinter.
That Williams spent much of his life either hiding or downplaying his half-Mexican heritage is perhaps unsurprising given the biases that permeated his southern California upbringing and the segregated sport in which he became a star.
But the extent to which his ethnic background has remained obscured is striking. If one were to gather a roomful of passionate baseball fans today, I’d confidently wager that more than half would have no idea that Teddy Ballgame was among the first great Hispanic ballplayers in the big leagues.
Bradlee is at his most compelling when detailing the circumstances surrounding Williams being drafted into the Navy in World War II, just months after his .406 season — and a time when he was entering what should have been the prime years of his career.
After originally being granted a Class 3-A deferment, on account of being the sole economic provider to his mother, Williams quietly asked his attorney to challenge the U.S. government’s decision to change his draft status to Class 1-A (available for unrestricted military service) — an appeal that the Selective Service rejected.
Williams’ initial attempts to avoid leaving the batter’s box for the cockpit were catnip for Boston’s aggressive newspaper reporters in the post-Pearl Harbor patriotic melee. In the months before he reported for duty, he received a bevy of letters in support of him and more than a few that questioned his courage.
One unidentified heckler mailed the All-Star left fielder two sheets of blank yellow paper — a message intended to remind Williams of the color of cowardice.
“I’ve noticed that the mud-slingers border on the illiterate side,” the famously prickly Williams, who often viewed himself as a victim of overly aggressive media, said at the time. “The encouraging letters come from well-bred persons.”
Once he reported for duty, Williams took the hard road — becoming a commissioned second lieutenant in the Marines Corps. He did not see combat over the Pacific — a disappointment for a man who, once he was on active duty, envisioned “downing a Zero” (a Japanese fighter plane) as something of an all-time life achievement.
Instead, Williams spent the last months of the war as the U.S. military’s most famous flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla., where he was somewhat of a ringer while playing for the base’s recreational baseball team.
After returning to baseball and eventually entering the latter stage of his playing career, he did not mask his fury over what he considered unfair treatment: He was recalled to fly combat missions over North Korea in 1952.
During his very first engagement of the Korean War, Williams’ fighter jet was hit by small arms fire. He considered ejecting, but fearing that a crippling injury would make his return to the diamond impossible, he made a daring emergency landing.
In all, Williams lost five of his prime playing years to military service — a fact that makes his final stat sheet all the more remarkable and that has long been a centerpiece in any discussion of his greatness.
After all, who could imagine a pro athlete in the modern era giving up all of the money and privileges of sports fame to serve his country?
Well, Pat Tillman may not have been a star approaching Williams’ caliber when he left the NFL to join the Army Rangers after the 9/11 attacks, but the $3.6 million contract the Arizona Cardinal safety turned down in favor of fighting in Afghanistan, where he gave his life, dwarfed Williams’ 1941 salary of $30,000.
That’s not to say that Williams’ wartime service was any less honorable, but Bradlee details the extent to which it was initially reluctant.
A hallmark of Williams’ post-playing career was his generous charity work on behalf of the Jimmy Fund, Boston’s leading foundation for cancer research support — time and money that he insisted not be accompanied by media attention.
Bradlee’s painstaking efforts to recount the macabre details of the family struggle that led to Williams’ body being cryonically preserved after his death in 2002 are difficult to digest but nonetheless serve as an essential postscript to this “immortal life.”
In 1993, Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld was tasked with naming the long-awaited tunnel that would connect South Boston to Logan Airport — a major component of the epically over-budget Big Dig project that would finally modernize The Hub’s traffic-plagued highway system.
After determining that there were already enough public infrastructure projects named after politicians, Weld decided to honor one of Boston’s sports heroes.
There were several more-decorated local candidates from which to choose. No athlete in the history of sports, after all, is more synonymous with the words “winner” and “dynasty” than Bill Russell, who led the Celtics to an astounding 11 NBA championships during his 13-year career. And three-time consecutive NHL MVP Bobby Orr revolutionized the defenseman position during his 10 seasons with the Bruins and scored one of the most memorable goals in hockey history in clinching the 1970 Stanley Cup.
Ted Williams, on the other hand, slumped his way through his Red Sox’s only World Series appearance, in 1946, and never won the fall classic.
Despite never having brought home the big one, no sports hero’s legend shines brighter in Beantown than the man who liked to be called The Kid. And so the cane-wielding 77-year-old was granted the honor of opening The Ted Williams Tunnel in 1995.
Even if that landmark must one day share valuable downtown real estate with Larry Bird Drive, The David Ortiz Parkway, or Tom Brady Bridge, Ted Williams’ mystique will remain unparalleled in Boston lore — and The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams is now the definitive biography.
Boston native Scott Conroy is the national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. Follow on Twitter @RealClearScott.
The perfect swing and complicated life of Ted Williams.
From: SLATE Book Reviews
There are a million ways to watch baseball. Many of them don’t even involve watching, technically. Come spring you’ll be able to find a graybeard on a rocking chair in Bar Harbor who will tell you, as he listens to Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien’s play-by-play come in through the static from Fenway, that he prefers radio to television, because just the sounds of the game—crack of bat, roar of crowd—put a picture of it in his mind. A friend of my dad’s used to say, “Just save me the box scores,” explaining how he followed the season, always a day behind, through the morning papers.
There are a million ways of writing about baseball, too—the prose poetry of Roger Angell, the clear-eyed analysis of Bill James, the storytelling of Michael Lewis. Baseball’s canon is vast and varied. And among the figures from the sport’s century-and-a-half history most worthy of all angles of study, few loom larger than Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox left fielder through the 1940s and ’50s, the last player to post a season’s batting average above .400, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, widely acknowledged as the greatest hitter who ever lived. There are many ways to write about Ted Williams. And longtime Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., touches them all with his exhaustive, 850-page tome of a biography, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.
It’s very long, this book. Too long, from an immediate-enjoyment standpoint: Some of the 126 pages leading up to Williams’s first major league at-bat bog down in picayune detail, and many of the 300 that chronicle his post-retirement years struggle to earn their keep. But the prose is breezy, the research and reporting are impeccable, and, taking a wider view, the length is easy to forgive. This book very much sets out to be the definitive document of a great, complicated, fascinating person—besides the baseball, Williams was a highly decorated fighter pilot and a world-class fisherman—and ultimately, it succeeds. If it sometimes strains to fit in absolutely everything anyone has ever known about Ted Williams, well, you come to see the value in its doing so. It’s a good book.
The best of it is the baseball. Hitting, specifically. Brimming with accounts of Williams’s swing—a fluid, balletic motion regularly described as “the most natural” that various describers had ever seen—the book approaches the act of a hitting a pitched baseball as high art. Six-foot-3 and always spindly for an athlete, the “Splendid Splinter” mastered the mechanics of batting such that he generated torque wholly disproportionate to his muscle mass. Bradlee collects and assembles awestruck anecdotes from friends, teammates, coaches, and journalists about balls hit harder and farther than anybody had ever seen balls hit before. None of them are not fun to read.
One of the best anecdotes comes from Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who says the first time he saw Williams hit, “there was something about the way he tied into that ball which all but shocked me out of my seat. It was as though a shock of electricity had just passed through my body. In that fleeting moment, as he swung at the ball, I became convinced that here was one of the most natural hitters in the history of baseball. I’d have staked my life on it.”
Williams never liked the term: “Natural hitter my ass,” he said. He’d worked and studied, practiced countless hours, days, perfecting his swing. He was obsessed. The same way a million other American boys have been obsessed over the years, of course. But Williams’ drive, Bradlee argues, was intensified by the escape baseball provided from a neglected, impoverished childhood in southern California.
“When I wasn’t sleeping or eating,” he quotes Williams saying of his growing up, “I was practicing swinging. If I didn’t have a bat, I’d take any piece of wood, or make a bat of paper and swing it.” “Or,” Bradlee continues, for him, “he’d just swing an imaginary bat. If he passed a storefront that had a big, clear window, he liked to stop, take a few swings, and check his reflection out. When he did this, he’d be in his own world, oblivious to the merchants inside bemused by the vainglorious displays. The truth is, Ted didn’t want to just be good. He wanted to look good.” (It worked.)
Once Williams makes the majors—he joined the Red Sox for his rookie season in 1939—and Bradlee has national newspaper stories to draw from, the book really starts to sing. “In his third game, Ted had a double and single, but it was his fourth game, on Sunday, April 23, that served as his true Fenway Park coming out party,” Bradlee writes. “In his second time up against Philadelphia’s LeRoy ‘Tarzan’ Parmelee, Ted scorched a ball into the right-center-field bleachers, just to the right of the outfield triangle, about 430 feet away, for his first home run. Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald called it ‘as harshly a hit a line drive as anybody ever sent into that sector, not excepting even Babe Ruth …’ ”
Williams, handsome and charming—though egotistical, to put it mildly, and comically uncouth—was a magnet for press, an instant star. A slump at the start of his second season turned things sour, however, and an antagonistic relationship with fans and journalists alike became a dark theme of his career. Not that it hindered his production. He was an angry person, extremely self-critical and, at times, mean to others. It seemed to fuel his excellence.
He had a flair for the dramatic, and his heroics play out thrillingly on the page. The home run he hit to win the 1941 All-Star Game. The six hits he collected the last day of that season, after choosing to play in a doubleheader in Philadelphia, rather than sit out to preserve his (last ever) .400 average. The home run he hit on Sept. 28, 1960, in the last at-bat of his career. (That one immortalized, three weeks later, in John Updike’s classic New Yorker essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”) Bradlee relays such moments well. “The crowd screamed anew,” he writes of Williams’ exit off the field in the last inning of his last game, “but Ted ran right through the cheers, still unwilling to bow to convention. As he passed shortstop, he said to Pumpsie Green, ‘Isn’t this a crock of shit?’ Green laughed.” And the context Bradlee provides—the heavy detailing, the quotes and anecdotes—brings the reader inside Williams’ psychology, to the extent that that’s possible.
Sure, you might scratch your head on Page 34, when you learn that Williams’ paternal aunt Alice had a dog, part coyote, named Cap, that her friend Roselle Romano thought “was a nasty thing,” wondering why you’ve learned this—especially as it becomes apparent that you will be learning little else about Alice or Cap or Roselle, or many of the other myriad members of the extended family who get a quick sketch early on. And you might have trouble keeping straight which horrible thing Williams said to which of the three wives he divorced before he settled down with Louise Kaufman, with whom he lived for 24 years and to whom he also said some horrible things. But by the time you get to the sad, disturbing end of the story, where you learn lots of sad, disturbing things about Williams’ children, and the legal fight that broke out around his will, and a “cryonics” company called Alcor that freezes human corpses in giant thermoses called “Dewars” in the hopes of unfreezing them in the future, once medical science has advanced to a point where it can bring them back to life, and you read the unpleasant and difficult-to-believe sentence, “With these fundamental issues resolved, Darwin picked up a carving knife and began to slice off Williams’s head,” you’re happy for everything you’ve learned in this giant book. Because it has portrayed the man in full.