Ted Williams: The Biography of An American Hero
By Leigh Montville, Reviewed by Paul Wysard
There are almost as many books and articles about Theodore Samuel Williams
as there were base hits in his remarkable resume. Much of Leigh Montville's 500-page
study trods along familiar ground, but earlier works are informatively surpassed
in the coverage of a turbulent personal life and in updating the reader on the bizarre
circumstances following the iconic hitter's death some two years ago.
What we already knew: Hundreds of previous pages over the years have told
us about the dysfunctional family life, featuring the distant and alcoholic father, the
tambourine-tapping Salvation Army mother, a feckless brother, and the home on
Utah Street in San Diego, which was modest at best and embarassing at worst.
We learn again about the lonely pre-teen, whose first and only love was hitting
baseballs, and who was taken under the wings of several kind neighbors and park
supervisors who were never forgotten, even during the decades of super-stardom
and celebrity. And we have long been familiar with the eighteen-year-old-string-bean,
who became a schoolboy legend and whose prodigious homeruns attracted
the attention of, first, the local Padres of the Pacific Coast League, and then the
Boston Red Sox of the faraway dreamland of the Major Leagues.
A brief Triple-A career ended at 20 1/2 in the spring of 1939, when he put on the
Sox uniform, but a reputation for selfishness and inattention accompanied him to
Fenway Park. The rookie year, .327 with a league-leading 145 RBI, almost buried
shortcomings, as observers gave him slack and viewed him as eccentric but talented.
The trouble began during Spring Training in 1940. His confidence and exuberance
and off-the-cuff remarks rubbed many folks the wrong way, especially several
men in the Boston print media. They expected him to "pay more dues," expected
deference in recognition of his young status and their self-perceived baseball wisdom.
They nipped at him in the columns; he fired back. And so began the Twenty Years
War of Ted Williams vs. those he called "The Knights of the Keyboard." The residue
of that conflict never really abated until all parties embraced the sentiment associated
with certain public appearances toward the end of his life.
The superb baseball year of 1941, Williams' .406, and the final doubleheader in
which he went 6 for 8 to move from .399+ to the .406 are recalled, as is his first
Triple Crown season of 1942. We are reminded that the 1942 performance was
significant in that it was built amidst controversy regarding military service. Of four
of the game's finest players, two - Greenberg and Feller - were already in uniform.
The other two - Williams and Joe DiMaggio - seemed reluctant, although the latter
was much more sour on the whole idea and was bitter and restless during his whole
tour. Williams never objected to service; he was deferred due to marriage and the
supporting of his mother, which he felt should be continued in 1942. During that year,
he signed up to enter Naval(later Marine) Air as of the end of the baseball season.
Williams' service as a flyer in World War II and Korea, and the famous crash land-
ing in the second conflict, were integrated with his baseball prowess to elevate him
as an American hero. He never saw it that way, never bragged about being the sup-
erior pilot he became. He did often say he wanted people to say of him, "There goes
the greatest hitter who ever lived," but that was baseball, not patriotism. He did fuss
about being recalled at age 34, believing others in their 20s should take their turn,
but he went, and, while in, little further was heard from him on the issue.
The great hitting years of the later 1950s, through aging and injury, are also well
remembered by most fans and historians, especially the .388 while he turned 39 in
1957. Only Henry Aaron, and now Barry Bonds, have performed as well as position
players at such an advanced baseball age.
Finally, there was the stint as Manager of the Washington Senators. This venture
seemed to be, and was, an oddity. There was success, with younger players and in
the standings, during the first year. After that and the move of the franchise to Texas,
the managerial experience became a burden. It was as if, having proved he could do
it, patience and interest waned. It was one of the rare occasions in which the perfectionist
did not perservere until he got it right.
What we didn't know: Montville's commendable research and scores of interviews
have added substantially to the story of Ted Williams. There are so many
brief but important glimpses, so many sidelights, that time, space, and the limits
of your interest preclude attempting to share even as few as half of them. Instead,
the book, although in parts somewhat longer than palatable, is entrusted to your
perusal as most worthwhile. To whet the appetite, following are eight general
aspects of Williams' life and personality about which Montville has provided fresh
and valuable substance.
The pursuit of perfection was most evident in the science of hitting, but it spilled
over into hobbies and other activities such as photography, and, most especially,
fishing. Even at the expense of missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fan
and follower of baseball, if offered the chance I would NEVER fish with Ted
Williams. The slightest mistake or mishandling would have been met with scorn
and insult. Like smaller boat captains, most fishermen want things done perfectly
and exactly. With Williams, it was location, analysis of the situation, error-free
casting, but also the creation and tying of all manner of flies. Woe be to
those who cannot perform; neophytes and even semi-experienced anglers need
not apply. Accounts of those who accompanied Williams into streams or onto
more open water - even licensed and veteran guides - were frightening. To the
end, the man who was considered among the very, very best at hitting a baseball
or hooking an Atlantic salmon would argue and pontificate. "The most important
thing is to get a good pitch to hit." "YOUR rod is a piece of crap!"
Williams was also one of the greater champions in profanity. The Lord above,
the crudest Anglo-Saxon words for male and (especially) female anatomical
parts, sodomic acts - all were included in long but connected swearing diatribes,
more often than not peppered by the adjective "syphillitic." One would have to
prepare an advanced list to match what Williams could spew off the top of his
head and from the tip of his tongue. And what would set him off? Many times,
people closer to him - or not close at all - were never quite sure.
He admitted to victimizing others because of "demons" in his "dark side."
Having had a family member who acted in similar ways from purportedly similar
impetus, this reviewer heard familiar rings as he read along. And this type of
"demonized" individual often seeks some sort of forgiveness through oblique
gestures or surreptitious gifts, but never - ever - apologizes. That was Williams.
Baseball's last .400 hitter was a man of sumptuous appetites. He could take batting
practice for hours if the situation permitted. In his 50s, as a pre-game crowd urged
him on, he charged off the bench and into the batter's box and proceeded to smash
drive after drive, cussing and muttering throughout the fascinating session. He loved
steaks, shakes, and sex, the order of preference for those delights depending upon
his mood during that day or at that moment.
Ted loved women, and they responded to both his matinee idol looks and powerful
persona, yet he was never able to be long at peace with three wives and one live-in
companion who knew him for years and joined him later in his life. He wanted them
to enjoy his outdoor activities, but none did, with the exception of companion Louise
Kaufman, a sportswoman in her own right, who nevertheless stretched her strength
and interest in order to be with him and retain his attention. Third spouse Dolores
(Wettach), a beautiful country girl and model from Vermont, once gave an interview
with a free-lancing PR fellow. The comments she made were calm but brutal analyses
of living with Williams and in a world of celebrity. It would have been so sensational
that the interviewer never sold it and simply locked it away for thirty years.
All the wives agreed that although he insisted upon privacy, he made so much noise
and commotion in public places that seclusion became impossible.
With men, Williams displayed camaraderie and loyalty never expended on the
important women in his life. Many of his good friends were not famous people,
including folks from his youth in San Diego, from the military, and the likes of
baseball camp partner Al Cassidy and his son, businessman Bud Leavitt, long-time
Red Sox clubhouse man Johnny Orlando, Jimmy Fund(a favorite charity)
coordinator Jim O'Loughlin, male nurse George Carter, and scores of cab drivers,
bartenders, and smaller restauranteurs, who always honored the unwritten rule not
to talk about the star, or where he went, or whom he saw. Personal Note: This
reviewer's high school baseball coach and long-time friend was in the flight program
and on the baseball team at Chapel Hill, N.C. with Williams in 1943. A pitcher, five
years younger than Williams, Jim Doole had impressed teammates with a huge
curveball and a strong work ethic. When it came time to take several of the players
to an All-Star, war- effort game at Yankee Stadium, Williams went to the coach.
"Take Doole, too," he said. "He's looked good and deserves a shot." Doole went.
There were happy retirement years in the '70s and '80s in the Florida Keys and
on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, with fishing and related activity at the top
of the agenda. And then came the vehicle for a lot of good money but many bad
experiences: The Baseball Memorabilia business. Enter also John-Henry Williams,
the youngest child but only son, a product of the third marriage. There were endless
bat- and ball-signings, goaded along by John-Henry, who also threw gigantic tantrums
when his father gave away such souveniers to friends and acquaintances.
There was a failed memorabilia shop in the Boston area, and the son spent money
earned through his father's name on all manner of adult toys, trips, and entertainment.
Meanwhile, the aging star suffered a series of strokes, limiting his mobility and travel
but not, until the very end, his mental capacity. Two estranged daughters also came
into the picture. On the one hand, there were professions of love and understanding;
on the other, there were domestic explosions and threats of disinheritance. It was as
dysfunctional as Williams' early life had been, but in many ways so much more sad.
After heart failure began to set in, Williams was sent to hospitals from coast to
coast, with these odysseys taking up the better part of two years. There was a pace-maker,
medication, confinement and weakness for a man who detested his condition.
Like vultures, John-Henry and his full-sister led the death watch, cutting off old friends
and contacts, isolating the old man much more than necessary. A handsome young
man, John-Henry was an operator, but never as bright as his father and never as smart as he
thought he was.
And so the world learned of the Alcor scheme. Could bodies be frozen and DNA
brought back 50 or 100 years from now? All of this was like the scientific machinations
in "The Boys From Brazil" or the storage of the head of Adolf Hitler by neo-Nazis
in the thriller book, "The Day After Tomorrow." The public was disgusted.
The Arizona Attorney General threatened legal intervention. Readers should be
left to pursue the story of frozen cannisters and dismemberment. It is desecration,
all allowed by a scribbled Ted Williams signature on a scrap of paper. A fantastic
irony in all of this was the sudden death, of leukemia, of John-Henry Williams earlier
this year. Moral? One should be careful as to what one wishes for.
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