by Mark Richardson
“Many experts believe that we are born to have heroes. A hero is some one who saves the day, they make a timely arrival, and do ‘deeds’ that other people can’t or won’t do.They exhibit a special kind of courage, fortitude, resiliency, especially in difficult, even dangerous circumstances. Heroes can inspire us to become better people.”– Dick Enberg
Ted. The Kid. The Splendid Splinter (or, after one unfortunate incident in which he expectorated in the direction of the fans, The Splendid Spitter). Teddy Ballgame (his personal favorite). No matter what the sportswriters called him, they were writing about The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived—all he said he ever wanted to be, though he was, in fact, more. Much more. He was a kind friend to critically ill children and a tireless fund-raiser for the same, a hero in two wars with three medals of valor for his bravery in combat, a fisherman par excellence, a loud, bombastic, charismatic hulk of a man whose presence dominated every room he entered, and once his friend one was a friend forever. His best pals, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and above all, Dominick DiMaggio—“Dommie” to Ted—became his friends as youngsters, teammates as young adults, and the pillars of his life thereafter. They were still there fifty years later, at Ted’s bedside as he lay dying. So how did he get the reputation for brash boasting, misdirected anger, and an unwillingness to devote himself to anything on the ballfield other than hitting a baseball? Well…he was all that. too. Ted Williams was a very complex fellow.
The Kid burst onto the scene in 1938, having arrived as The Next Big Thing in the spring training camp of the Boston Red Sox, who had acquired his contract from his hometown San Diego minor league team. The Red Sox had such imposing future Hall of Famers as pitcher Lefty Grove and first-baseman Jimmie Foxx, the reigning home run king on their roster. “Wait ’til you see Foxx hit,” one veteran said to Ted as he approached the batting cage on his first day in camp. Displaying the brashness that would come to rankle so many in the years to come, Ted answered, “Wait ’til Foxx sees ME hit.” Unfortunately, despite showing the greatness as a hitter that couldn’t be disguised, Ted’s immaturity and unwillingness to work hard in the outfield led to him being optioned to the minor league Minneapolis Millers at the end of spring training. But he would return in 1939, a year older if not much wiser, and this time he would stick. He set a rookie standard with his 145 runs batted in, while homering 31 times and batting .327. He scored an incredible 131 runs! To say the least, The Splinter (this nickname came from the rail-thin frame he brought into the major leagues with him-he was lithe and remarkably strong, and tall at 6’2″, but he was so skinny he had to run around in the shower to get wet) had not been overwhelmed by big league pitching.
There were problems, though. This rookie season also saw the beginnings of what would be a career-long battle with the sportswriters, whom Ted derisively referred to as “The Knights of the Keyboard.” Criticism of any kind was unwelcome to him, and many of the old sportswriters disliked the brashness and confidence displayed by the youngster. His reaction was to launch a retaliatory war on the writers, one that lasted for nearly twenty-five years. One Boston writer in particular, a columnist named Dave Egan, who like to call himself “Colonel Dave,” despite having no military background, took an immediate dislike to Williams. Egan would spend the next twenty years waging a personal crusade against Ted in his daily columns , calling him out over the pettiest of things, distorting facts and misusing statistics to try to rile the city of Boston into an anti-Ted frenzy. Too often, his tactics worked, and some fans began to ride The Kid mercilessly. Friend and teammate Johnny Pesky recalled, “We all tried to tell Ted to ignore them, but he just couldn’t do it. Ted had rabbit ears. There could be 40,000 fans in the park cheering for him and one fan booing, and all Ted could hear was the one booing.”
In 1941, the last golden season before the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, Ted put together a season for the ages. In a year that saw him face off against his teammate and best friend Dom DiMaggio’s more famous older brother Joe, Ted bashed his way to becoming the last hitter ever to hit over .400, while Joltin’ Joe set another still-standing batting mark, hitting safely in a mind-boggling 56 consecutive games. Famously, on the final day of the season, with his batting average standing at .3995, which would have officially been rounded up to .400, Ted’s manager, Joe Cronin, told Ted he was going to keep him on the bench for both games of the season-ending doubleheader in order to preserve his average. Ted said, “The hell you are. If I can’t hit .400 playing all the way, then I don’t deserve to be a .400 hitter.” Heroes don’t take days off. The Kid went 6 for 9 in the twin bill, raising his average to .406, and nobody has ever approached that mark since. (Contrast this with Ken Griffey, Sr., who in 1976 entered the season’s final game with a five point lead over the Cubs’ Bill Madlock. Griffey decided to sit out the game in a less than Williams-like attempt to back into the batting title, but Madlock got four hits to take it away.)
Then, Ted went off to war. While most big leaguers who entered military service were given duties such as playing ball on service teams, teaching playing skills to others, and making goodwill tours through the ranks, Ted Williams studied aerodynamics and became a bomber pilot. His keen intelligence allowed him to absorb information quickly and thoroughly. One of his flight instructors, when asked if Williams could have succeeded in the academic world, said, “He would have graduated magna cum laude. He was the brightest guy I ever trained.” This study of science led, later in his life, to a teaching moment for Ted. Invited to speak at a conference of physicists in refutation of their contention that the curve ball is but an optical illusion, Ted addressed his adversarial crowd with his usual confidence. He was a man who lined up his facts before arguing his point. He told this austere group that they were too focused on the questionable application of a law of physics to the pitch while ignoring the real answer, which lay in the laws of aerodynamics. Ted, of course, was well-schooled in the laws of aerodynamics. He explained his theory, and why it was clear that a breaking ball did indeed break, to the rapt attention of his very surprised audience. One physicist left the building telling a reporter, “I think Mr. Williams may have changed more than one mind tonight.”
Ted returned from the World War, and resumed his place at the top of the game’s hitters. He had lost 3 1/2 years of his career, and these at his peak. But he didn’t get to enjoy his civilian status for very long. In 1950, another war came along, and, there being a serious shortage of trained bomber pilots at the time, Ted was called upon to put his baseball career on hold again so Uncle Sam could have his hero back. Ted went to Korea, where he became wing-man and close friend forever after to future astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. One fateful day, over the skies of Korea, one of Ted’s engines caught fire. Glenn reacted immediately, got his plane into such a position that he could guide a landing, and led Ted to a safe grounding of his plane. Ted claimed that Glenn had saved his life. The two remained, of course, close friends right up to the time of Ted’s death, as was nearly always the case with Ted. He held onto his friends, he kept them close, and he loved them.
By the time Ted returned from Korea to once again play ball, he had lost nearly five full years to the two wars in which he fought. He was now in his mid-thirties, and, while still a magnificent hitter, he was no longer the player he had been. He could no longer add additional points to his batting average by beating out slow rollers for infield hits, and his formerly thin body was a little heavier and even more muscular. Columnist Dave Egan, not caring a whit about Ted’s new status as an American hero who had twice left the game over which he ruled to fight his country’s foes, was as relentless as ever. Until his death in 1958, Egan would cheer every Williams failure, deny every Williams success, and influence many people who knew little of the history of the Colonel’s deep enmity for Ted. Williams won a Triple Crown, leading his league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average, and he was not selected as the Most Valuable Player because one sportswriter, in whose hands the voting for such awards resided, left Ted off his ballot. Even a tenth place vote would have given Ted the much deserved award, but one writer couldn’t bring himself to vote the man who had been the best in the three most significant categories of offensive production as one of the ten best players in the league. This was the second time that Ted had just missed out on a deserved MVP Award, and it only solidified in his mind the notion that he had been justified in his war on the press.
Early on in his career Ted had befriended the Red Sox clubhouse boy, Johnny Orlando. Orlando, like Ted, remained a presence in the Boston clubhouse for many, many years, and he cherished his friendship with Ted. “I saw an awful lot of great ballplayers come and go over the years, but none of them ever treated me like he did. He didn’t just toss me a dollar and say thanks. He invited me to go to dinner with him. We went out to eat together all the time. He’d invite me to birthday parties and get togethers. No other player was ever really and truly my friend like Ted was.” Orlando wasn’t the only one who benefitted from this unlikely friendship. In truth, the rest of the world did, too. Orlando introduced Ted to Boston’s Jimmy Fund, a fundraising effort on behalf of children afflicted with leukemia. Orlando asked Ted if he would be willing to visit a sick child in the hospital. Ted said yes, did so…and never stopped. His big heart was touched deeply the first time he sat and spoke with a sick child, and he began visiting children in Boston hospitals, with a special urgency to visit those with cancer. He made Orlando agree that his visits would never be publicized and would never be known in advance. A mother told Leigh Montville, Boston Globe sportswriter, about the time that her leukemia-stricken little 8 year old son, a Red Sox and Williams fan, awoke in his hospital bed to look up and see his hero and hear him roar, “What’s your pet’s name?” (That’s how Ted nearly always began conversations with children. No “How old are you?” or “What grade are you in?” for Ted.) The little boy took one of Ted’s fingers in his hand and didn’t want to let go. Ted sat in a chair next to his bed. He didn’t want to disturb or disappoint the little boy by taking his finger away. The mother told Montville that Ted sat there with the child holding his finger for almost 5 hours. He asked the mother not to tell anyone, and she didn’t, for over forty-five years. Ted soon took over the fundraising responsibilities as head of the Jimmy Fund, and he stuck with it until he was so old and weak that he couldn’t do it anymore. He had visited hundreds of sick kids over the years, and at one point, Orlando thought it was time that Ted’s detractors knew of his kind generosity towards these kids. He made Ted’s visits public, telling a Boston newspaper about the effect Ted’s care and concern had had on the kids. Ted, for one of the few times in his life, nearly cut off a friendship. He felt betrayed. He had asked Orlando to keep his secret, and Orlando had not done so. It didn’t matter, at first, to Ted that Orlando had only the best intentions. Ted had wanted no one to know of his devotion to the kids because he didn’t want to be seen as seeking publicity for something that he cared so deeply about. Over time, though, and after some reflection, Ted forgave Orlando and their friendship resumed. Another Boston sportswriter, Dan Shaughnessy, (author of the world famous book that gave rise to the legend of The Curse of the Bambino), also had a sick child. He tells the story of how he had ripped Ted in a column, penning an unflattering article. A few days later, Ted visited Shaughnessy’s son in the hospital. Shaughnessy entered the room while Ted was there. Ted never mentioned the article. It was something he wouldn’t do in front of Shaughnessy’s child. He made the kid feel like a king, and then left the father and son to themselves. Shaughnessy reflected, “I couldn’t believe he could be so kind to my son, and really, to me, too, after what I had written.”
In 1957, at the advanced age of 39, Ted hit an other-worldly .388, a mark that no one else within five years of that age has ever approached. He followed that with a poor season, the worst of his career, and seriously pondered retirement. But his fierce pride would not allow him to bow out after his horrid .254 season, and he decided to come back for one more year. He bounced back with another fine season and put a real crown on his career.
The Kid finished his career in 1960 in a way that only heroes can. As though it had been scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter, Ted homered for the 521st time in his final major league at bat. It was a storybook moment captured for posterity by the noted American author John Updike, who was present that day and published his now classic essay, “Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu” in the pages of The New Yorker. Ted, after hearing the boo birds as a rookie, had vowed never to tip his cap to the crowd after a home run, an act that was customary. For the next twenty-two years, he never did. On this final trip around the bases, Updike, like everybody else watching the game, wanted desperately for Ted, finally, after all these seasons, to do so. Ted himself later acknowledged that he thought about it. But, as Updike noted in the closing line of his splendid article, “Gods do not answer letters.” Ted kept his head down, not tipping his cap. He later said, “I wanted to, but it just wouldn’t be me.”
Perhaps no one ever studied hitting the way Ted Williams did. His analytical mind dissected every aspect of his swing. He always maintained that “consistently hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely” is the most difficult thing to do in sports. He studied the plane of his swing, the effect of drag on pitches thrown, the optimum trajectory of his swing at the moment of impact, and a thousand other details of a scientific approach to batting. His phenomenal memory allowed him to recall pitches thrown to him by every pitcher he faced, and he cataloged these memories in his mental library of information. (When he was 80 years old, he would routinely recall with perfect accuracy the pitch sequences thrown to him by certain pitchers 55 year earlier. Comedian Billy Crystal, a lifelong baseball fan, tells the story of meeting Ted in the 1990s, and saying to him, “I saw you strike out in 1958 against Bobby Shantz in the second game of a doubleheader.” Williams said, “Curveball. Low and away.”) In 1986, Ted gathered his encyclopedic knowledge of batting into a book called “The Science Of Hitting. It was an instant best seller, and it remains the standard of sound hitting principles today. It has influenced generations of young ballplayers, including Freddie Freeman and Kris Bryant, superstars in today’s game, who have both referred to Williams’ book as their “bible.” (Bryant’s dad was a minor league player in the Red Sox farm system, and he received personal batting instruction from Ted during two spring trainings, leading Bryant, Sr. to a lifelong worship, and adherence to the teachings, of The Kid.)
Ted had always been an avid fisherman, going back to his time as a 19 year old in Minnesota. It became a lifelong passion, and he travelled the world fishing in sometimes dangerous, always adventurous, situations. He became known as very good fly fisherman, then a a great one. Many considered him to be the greatest fly fisherman ever. He went to work for the Sears company, endorsing their fishing equipment, and the partnership lasted for many years, to the profit of each side. In 2000, he was elected to The International Game Fish Association’s Hall of Fame, making him a two-sport Hall of Famer. Not only that, but one who many, many aficionados of each sport regarded as the greatest of all time.
Ted’s legacy, though, is about baseball, about the 521 homers and the .400 batting average. His statistics, compiled over two decades, stand among the greatest ever produced by any player. Of course, one cannot help but speculate on what the possibilities may have been if five years of prime production had not been lost to two wars. Very clearly, Henry Aaron would have been chasing Ted, rather than Babe Ruth for the all-time home run title, and the RBI record would never have been in doubt, either. But, as our old friend Harry Caray used to be fond of saying, “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day’d be Christmas.”
Ted’s record, missing seasons notwithstanding, stands alone as a magnificent tribute to greatness. He did what he said he wanted to do: he became known as The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived. He did it on his own terms, angering some along the way but also drawing millions of admirers. He did not compromise, and, as he aged he owned up to some regrets. But no one was ever more true to his principles than Ted Williams. His legacy must also include reflections on his generosity, his loyalty, and his bravery. He played for the last team in major league baseball to integrate their roster with African American players, and this was always a source of great shame for Ted. When the Red Sox finally called up their first Black player, Pumpsie Green, in 1959, Ted was the first player to approach him, shake his hand, and invite him to play catch to loosen up. Green said it meant the world to him to have the great superstar treat him like an accepted teammate. It set the tone for the rest of the team’s treatment of their new mate. Nobody in the clubhouse was going to go against Ted’s wishes. For as long as Green remained with the Red Sox, he was Ted’s catch playing partner. In 1966, when Ted gave his now renowned Hall of Fame acceptance speech, in which he took advantage of the opportunity to excoriate baseball for it’s historical treatment of African American players, and lobbied for the inclusion of Negro League stars in the Hall, he once again angered many people. And, once again, he didn’t care. Soon, baseball began to feel external pressure, brought on by Ted’s stance, and they opened the Hall voting to Negro League players of the past, to finally become an inclusive Hall that pays tribute to ALL of the game’s best. Ted did what he did because he thought he was right, and that being so, there was no possibility of doing otherwise. He marched forward, to the beat of his own drum. Heroes do that.
In 1999, Boston’s iconic Fenway Park hosted the mid-season All-Star Game, and 81 year old Ted Williams, now, following a stroke, confined to a wheelchair, was seated in the center of the diamond on which he had performed so magnificently for so long. The all-star players, gathered on the field for a pre-game ceremony, clamored like eager little boys to get up close to Ted, to speak with him. He was in heaven. He spoke to them as though they were the icons and he the adoring fan. They fawned over him. He talked hitting with them, with multi-batting crown winner Tony Gwynn in particular, and his fan club grew by fifty, the number of all-stars present. The fans let out numerous roars of love for him, then gave him a standing ovation, and Ted Williams, yes THAT Ted Williams, tipped his cap.
Sources: The Kid, by Ben Bradlee, Jr.; What Do You Think Of Ted Williams Now?, by Richard Ben Cramer; Baseball and Other Matters in 1941, by Robert Creamer; Being Ted Williams, by Dick Enberg with Tom Clavin; The Teammates, by David Halberstam; Facing Ted Williams, by Dave Heller; Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams, by Ed Linn; Ted Williams, by Leigh Montville; Ted Williams, by Edwin Pope; Ted Williams, by Ray Robinson; Ted Williams, by Michael Seidel; The Curse of The Bambino, by Dan Shaughnessy; Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu, by John Updike (essay in The New Yorker); My Turn At Bat, by Ted Williams; The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams; and Ted Williams’ Hit List, by Ted Williams and Jim Prime.