December 7, 2013 Leave a comment
Excellent book review in today’s WSJ about the new Ted Williams book:
How does a baseball player evolve into a folkloric figure? He has to touch a nerve in society through means more compelling than athletic prowess. Babe Ruth embodied the flamboyant excesses of the Jazz Age. Joe DiMaggio was a Hemingwayesque hero—even to Hemingway—displaying grace under pressure. Ted Williams’s metamorphosis into a legend was much more idiosyncratic. As Ben Bradlee Jr. shows in his superb, sometimes troubling biography, “The Kid,” Williams was the apotheosis of the workaholic, the American autodidact-craftsman writ large—very large.
Ted Williams—the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame—wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. Many think he succeeded (I’m one): The last major leaguer to hit .400 (.406 in 1941), he recorded a .344 lifetime batting average, plus 521 home runs, six batting titles, two Triple Crowns, two most-valuable-player awards, 19 All-Star Game appearances and a .482 on-base percentage, the best in baseball history. If he hadn’t lost three years of his career to World War II and almost two to the Korean War, he would certainly have collected more than 3,000 hits and might have hit more homers than Babe Ruth’s 714.
His beginnings weren’t auspicious. He was born in 1918 in San Diego and grew up there. His mother, May, of Mexican heritage, was fervently devoted to her work with the Salvation Army; she was known as the “Angel of Tijuana.” (Her son refused to acknowledge his Mexican antecedents for most of his life, concerned that publicity about his ancestry would harm his career.) Williams’s father, Sam, ran a seedy photography studio and had a drinking problem. Money was scarce, and both parents were emotionally and often physically distant from Ted and his younger brother, Danny.
Danny became a ne’er-do-well, a petty criminal. Ted’s salvation was baseball. From boyhood on, he loved the sport more than anything or anyone else. (He once told a woman he was discussing marriage with that she came third, after baseball and fishing. She didn’t marry him.) While playing minor-league ball with a local team, he was signed by the Boston Red Sox. Williams grew to be 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 and had exceptional reflexes. But what made him truly extraordinary was the remarkable way he studied the art of hitting, analyzing its physical and mental elements, scrutinizing pitchers and hitters, testing his tenets, incessantly practicing. (He not only wanted to be good, he wanted to look good.) “Williams,” Mr. Bradlee writes, “always believed there was no such thing as a natural hitter. . . . There was only one way to really be great: through hard work and practice.”
Williams would eventually have an infamously difficult relationship with Boston and its press—he played for the Red Sox his whole career—but his first year in the majors, 1939, was an exhilarating one. He hit .327 with 31 homers, drove in 145 runs to lead the American League, and constantly, happily acknowledged the crowds in Fenway Park. Trouble began the next year. Williams failed to hit as many home runs as was expected of him and was accused of being lackadaisical at times. Fans and reporters started razzing him, and Williams, a world-class injustice collector and a man with a hair-trigger temper and an immature streak, reacted petulantly—and worse. An ugly pattern was established that would persist, at least with journalists, until Williams retired in 1960. (On Ted’s part, he believed that anger made him a better hitter.) Williams would, notoriously, spit toward fans and journalists from the field and sometimes tried to hit balls at particular tormentors in the stands.
Williams served as a Navy and Marine aviator during World War II. He never saw combat but became an excellent pilot, grasping arcane subjects like celestial navigation despite his flimsy formal education. In 1946, he appeared in his only World Series; the Red Sox lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Williams had a terrible series, going five for 25, with no extra-base hits. He had an injured elbow but never used it as an alibi.
Williams did see combat as a fighter pilot during the Korean War. He was 33 when he was recalled, and Mr. Bradlee writes that “Williams was not alone in suspecting a Marine ploy to use his star power as a recruiting tool.” He was almost killed on his first mission when his jet took ground fire. After 39 missions, suffering from pneumonia and its complications, he was sent home.
When Williams returned to the Red Sox, the team, not to mince words, stank. This meant that the local press, with not much else to write about, concentrated on the activities of the club’s only star—Ted—a circumstance that inevitably exacerbated the mutual hostility. But Williams went about his business and became a superlative “older” hitter. In 1957 he hit .388; in his last season, 1960, at the age of 42, he hit .316 with 29 homers; and in his last at bat in the major leagues, he clubbed a home run.
Williams didn’t disappear after his retirement. He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible. He “wrote” (i.e., provided reflections and information to co-authors) five books. He managed the Washington Senators (later the Texas Rangers) for four years. Williams won a Manager of the Year award after his first season; the other three weren’t as successful. He refined his already superlative fishing skills and designed outdoor gear for Sears. A staunch Republican, he campaigned for George H.W. Bush and his son; the first President Bush would present Williams with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He opened the Ted Williams Retrospective Museum and Library in Hernando, Fla. (Ted lived much of his adult life in Florida, for the fishing.) He acquired wealth through the sports-memorabilia business. And Ted became a beloved figure for generations of baseball fans who had never seen him play.
Unfortunately, his death, at the age of 83 in 2002, seemed less than dignified because of a peculiar incident. Williams’s son, John-Henry, was a fierce believer in cryonics, described by Mr. Bradlee as “a fringe movement that freezes people after they die in the hope that medical technology will someday advance to the point where it will be possible to stop or reverse the aging process and cure now incurable diseases.”
John-Henry dispatched his father’s corpse to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, where his head was severed from his body and both were frozen. Williams’s son claimed that he was carrying out his father’s wishes and offered as proof a piece of paper, dated 2000 and signed by John-Henry, his sister Claudia and their father, stating that all three wanted to be preserved. Williams’s other daughter, Bobby-Jo, was adamant that these weren’t her father’s wishes, and Mr. Bradlee interviewed a number of people who worked for Williams during the last years of his life who insisted that he wanted to be cremated.
Reading about this episode—the decapitation is graphically described in “The Kid”—is chilling, no pun intended. Mr. Bradlee concludes that John-Henry loved his father and that his “cryonics decision for Ted was not about exploitation. It was about not wanting to let go.” But to me, John-Henry appears much more sinister than sympathetic. My hunch is that the cryonics venture was more about perpetuating the Ted Williams “brand” than about perpetuating Ted Williams.
Williams had a profoundly fragmented personality. The good Ted was farsighted and benevolent. When Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrated the major leagues in 1947, Williams sent a congratulatory letter to Robinson and made Doby feel welcome whenever the Red Sox played Doby’s Cleveland Indians. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate, in 1959; Williams went out of his way to be friendly and helpful to Pumpsie Green, the club’s first black player. Ted was also a prodigious fundraiser for cancer research. He was wonderful with sick children and thought nothing of visiting them in all parts of the country, insisting that his good deeds go unreported. And he was extremely generous with his money, not only with family and friends but with strangers he might hear about who were in need.
The bad Ted was an incorrigible adulterer when married (three times) and an insatiable philanderer when he wasn’t; moreover, his attitude and behavior toward women were swinish. Williams was an absentee father to his son and two daughters. He was also a quintessential control freak. That certainly contributed to his success at hitting, fishing and flying. But when things didn’t go his way, when someone disappointed him—even disagreed with him—he would often go berserk, venting streams of invective. Sometimes he went beyond verbal abuse: One ex-wife accused him of socking her on the jaw during an argument, and he punched his beloved dog, Slugger, while fulminating about his son.
Ted Williams hated what he considered invasions of his privacy, but perfectionist that he was, he would probably have to concede that the work ethic that underpins “The Kid” is exemplary. Mr. Bradlee, who was a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe for 25 years, spent 10 years researching and writing this book; he interviewed about 600 people and seems to have read everything about and by Williams. (There have been numerous previous books about Williams, including another doorstop biography, Leigh Montville’s 2005 “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero.” Williams was also the subject of John Updike’s celebrated 1960 essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” An account of Ted’s last game, which Updike attended, it displays the author’s usual scintillant style but is a little too hero-worshipful for my taste. Williams liked it, though, and asked Updike to co-write his memoir.)
But research alone doesn’t make “The Kid” a first-rate biography. The author was able to organize the great mass of data into a lucid and readable whole and—most important—bring his subject and the people around him to provocative and stormy life. When I began reading this book, I thought that only baseball fans would find it interesting. But after finishing “The Kid,” I suspect that even those indifferent to the sport might find its human drama absorbing.
My one complaint is that Mr. Bradlee doesn’t discuss Curt Flood’s brief tenure as a player for Williams’s Washington Senators. It was a clash of generations and values: Flood, while a Senator, had a lawsuit working its way through the courts challenging baseball’s reserve clause, which gave team owners the right to trade or keep a player at their discretion (he eventually lost in the Supreme Court); Williams favored retaining the clause. Ted didn’t want Flood on his team, and it was true that he was washed up. But in his prime, Flood was one of baseball’s best center fielders ever, and he deserved more respect than Williams showed him.
Williams’s odious personality traits haven’t marred his posthumous reputation. Decades after his playing days, Ted was and is considered an American hero and will, I’m sure, remain so for a long time to come. Sublime mastery of devilishly difficult, crowd-pleasing techniques has trumped significant character flaws. Though I never saw Ted play, since I was a teenager I have viewed baseball through the medium of Williams’s theories of hitting, presented in his memoir “My Turn at Bat” and “The Science of Hitting.” (Both are still well worth reading, and the memoir is a lot funnier than “The Kid.”) When, for instance, I see the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira kill a rally because he is unable or unwilling to hit to the opposite field against the defensive shift always used against him, I ardently wish that Ted was still around to explain the facts of life—hitting division—to him. For me, Ted Williams lives, cryonics be damned.