"Ted was an original; not a traditional, modest self-effacing hero
but brash, profane, outspoken, and guileless. Self-taught and
inquiring ... he was always his own man, never a phony ..."
but brash, profane, outspoken, and guileless. Self-taught and
inquiring ... he was always his own man, never a phony ..."
Ben Bradlee Jr.'s The Kid: The Immortal Life Of Ted Williams is a fascinating, engrossing, and epic examination of the never-dull life of the Red Sox outfielder and self-proclaimed "greatest hitter of all time".
Bradlee spent ten years researching and writing this monumental (nearly 800 pages) biography, interviewing more than 600 people from every corner of Williams's life. Bradlee also had access to Williams's private papers, letters, and journals, and he has presented the most complete picture of Williams to date.
Theodore Samuel Williams was brash, loud, and honest to a fault, though his bravado and bluster was often a screen to hide his raging insecurity. He could be generous with his time and energy, especially with children, yet he neglected his own three kids. He prized loyalty, capable of ending long friendships over real or imagined slights.
Williams's infamous volcanic anger often stemmed from his inability to satisfy the perfectionist ambitions he set for himself. Whenever he failed to meet his own expectations, no matter how innocuous the activity, he could snap. "I didn't feel good because I did something successfully," he once said. "I felt bad if I failed to do something I was expected to do."
During his baseball career, Williams was incredibly sensitive to the way he was portrayed in the press. Bradlee writes: "He was a prickly prima donna whose much-chronicled 'rabbit ears' had an unerring ability to zero in on even a few scattered boos amid all the cheers. ... A voracious consumer of his own press, Ted ignored all the positive coverage and focused only on the negative."
I was struck by the many parallels between the young Williams and the young Babe Ruth. Both were neglected at home, but grew up in environments that enabled them to play baseball nearly year round. Both were bumpkins when they debuted in professional ball, and prone to daffy behaviour. When Williams broke in with the Red Sox in 1939, he would sometimes take a gaggle of kids to the amusement park at Revere Beach, an echo of Ruth inviting scores of orphans out to his rural Massachusetts farm for the day. And as adults, both Babe and Ted would do enormous amounts of charity work, spending untold hours with sick children. (Williams was insistent that his visits to children receive absolutely no publicity, and for the most part, sportswriters complied.)
Williams's mother, May Williams, was famous in San Diego for her work with the Salvation Army, but young Ted was embarrassed by her religious devotion. Indeed, he remained ashamed of his upbringing throughout his life. For years, Williams was terrified that if his mother's ethnic background - she was born in Mexico - became widely known, it would severely damage his chances at playing professional baseball.
His mother's charity did not extent into her own home, however, as she spent little time with her husband and two sons. According to Steve Brown, a friend of Williams late in life, "His mother never showed him love, yet she showed those street urchins love like you wouldn't believe." Sadly, Williams would go on to enact this same dynamic in his own life, ignoring his three children while lavishing attention on hundreds of other youngsters through his work with various charities, including the Jimmy Fund.
The epicenter of Ted's young life was the University Heights playground in San Diego where he first discovered the joy of hitting a baseball. From an early age, he was obsessed with hitting, carrying his bat with him to school every day and sleeping with it at night. He would often stop and practice his swing whenever he passed his reflection in a storefront window. While he was generally too busy playing baseball to follow the major leagues, Ted was captivated by Bill Terry's .401 batting average in 1930. (The young Williams was also intrigued by aviation as a child.)
Ted, as a scrawny 15-year-old, was soon playing against men in their late 20s and 30s. In January 1936, San Diego was awarded a franchise in the Pacific Coast League, and Ted signed with them out of high school, partially to please his mother (the club's owner was a big Salvation Army man). Scouts from the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Yankees were the first to notice Williams; Boston's Eddie Collins had been asking after Williams for awhile, and the Red Sox were given the right of first refusal when San Diego was set to sell Williams's contract. At the time, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey was fixated on building his team's farm system and had to be convinced to sign Williams.
With the Minneapolis Millers in 1938, Williams was "untamed and crude", prone to "startling displays of immaturity, self-absorption, and lack of concentration". He would swing an imaginary bat while standing around in the outfield (sometimes tucking his glove into his back pocket), or he would be doing jumping jacks, talking with fans, even turning his back on the infield. For Williams, hitting was the essence of the game; as he often remarked, baseball teams didn't pay off on fielding.
The following spring, set to play in Boston, Williams was asked, "You think you'll hit up here?" His reply: "Who's going to stop me?" And, indeed, no one did. Williams finished the year with a .327 average and became the first rookie to lead the American League in RBI, knocking in 145 runs. He finished 4th in the MVP voting.
Williams's exuberance, color, and candor was music to the Boston press's ears, but a fundamental and irrevocable shift in Williams's mood towards the media occurred in his second season (1940). He got off to a slow start and was booed at Fenway Park and when reporters noted that he did not hustle on every play, Williams unveiled his darker side. In late May 1940, sportswriter Harold Kaese ended a column with the cheap shot that Williams had not visited his parents over the previous winter. "This was an unpardonable sin," Bradlee writes, "an unacceptable invasion of his privacy". Kaese's article turned "what had been a simmering feud with sportswriters into a vitriolic campaign that he chose to wage his entire career". Williams referred to the writers as jackals and more formally as the Knights of the Keyboard.
In August of that year, Williams vented to another writer for 20 minutes, listing all the things he couldn't stand about Boston: the fans, the press, the entire city. He said he had asked Yawkey - many times - to be traded. If free agency existed and every team made him the exact same offer, Williams said he would choose the Dodgers. "I know I'd be a hero in Brooklyn," he said. Although Williams finished 1940 with a .344 batting average, the story of his season was his "psychic tailspin, an evolving public meltdown that had played out in, and been shaped by, Boston's newspapers".
Bradlee offers a detailed and fascinating history of the Boston media during this time and says the feud was "a conflict largely manufactured by Williams to fuel his drive to excel". Williams believed he hit better when he was angry, if he felt he had something to prove. Teammate Birdie Tebbets would goad Williams by reading the sports pages out loud to him in the locker room; another player noted that Williams read all of the city's dailies "just to find someone to get mad at".
For the writers, their daily encounters with Williams were a tumultuous mixture of riveting theater, sheer excitement, and resentment at having to absorb a matinee idol's torrent of bile and abuse. But their front-row seat also gave them a fascinating perspective on the development and evolution of Ted's mercurial and fragile persona.In spring training one year, a reporter thought Williams seemed more approachable. "I'm always nice enough in the spring," Ted explained, "until I read what those shitheads write about me." Williams was always tagged as a selfish player, more concerned with his own stats than the team's performance. The criticism, while mostly false, had some merit. In 1940, when he was moved from hitting behind Jimmy Foxx to batting in front of him, Williams moaned, "there goes my runs-batted-in championship".
In January 1941, Williams registered with his draft board. He was "willing to serve my country if they want me", but added that he would "like to cash in on another season's salary". Although he was sidelined and troubled by a fractured ankle, Williams famously finished the season with a .406 batting average. "I wasn't saying much about it," he said when the year was over, "but I never wanted anything more in my life." Williams also led the AL in runs, walks, home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. He batted .428 at Fenway, .380 on the road.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, there was no rush to enlist among ballplayers. Williams, as the sole supporter of his mother, had been listed as 3A, but was reclassified after Pearl Harbor. A miffed Williams consulted a lawyer and filed an appeal (a fact that was denied publicly). His deferment was a hot topic in Boston, setting off arguments about self-interest versus the national interest. Yet early fan reaction, even among groups of soldiers, was pro-Ted. Williams eventually agreed to enter the service after the 1942 season, a year in which he won the AL Triple Crown (.356-36-137).
Williams missed three full seasons while fighting in World War II - his age 24-25-26 seasons - three prime years. As Bradlee covers Williams's time in the military, both in World War II and Korea, he also throws cold water on widely-held perceptions regarding his service. Williams was reluctant to serve his country in both cases, and sought any legal means to stay with the Red Sox and continue playing ball. Williams was especially bitter at being recalled for service in Korea, seething at what he perceived as an injustice since he believed "Korea wasn't a declared war" and thus did not qualify as an emergency for which reservists such as himself should be recalled to duty. While he did not voice these resentments publicly, except for a few occasions, he complained to friends for years that his baseball career has been interrupted twice
[I]n time, Williams would come to realize that the positives of being called back - taking his medicine, sacrificing career goals to serve his country, and surviving a spectacular crash landing - outweighed the negatives of time missed, the lost at bats, and the lost chances to set records. Korea was an undeniable plus, as it gave him heroic legitimacy. So gradually, the bitterness evolved into an ambivalence about his military service and finally into a sense of great pride and accomplishment. Fortunately for Williams, his quiet efforts to avoid being recalled and the unappealing bitterness he later expressed publicly would be largely forgotten or ignored.(Williams noted that after Korea, baseball was never as much fun. For the final eight seasons of his career (1954-61), the Red Sox were no better than mediocre, never finishing higher than third and never fewer than 12 games behind the pennant-winning team.)
Williams had yet another spectacular year, winning the MVP and leading the Red Sox to their first pennant since 1918. However, in an exhibition game to stay loose before the World Series, Williams was hit on the right elbow by a pitch. Nursing a painful bone bruise, he batted only .200 (five singles and five walks in 30 plate appearances) against the Cardinals, as Boston lost the series in seven games. It was his only postseason appearance.
The Red Sox lost a one-game playoff to Cleveland for the 1948 American League pennant and lost the 1949 pennant to the Yankees on the final day of the season. Those defeats "crystallized emerging Red Sox lore that would remain fully entrenched until 2004: Boston was a club that for all its talent always found a way to lose in critical situations". The following year, the Globe's Roger Birtwell believed the team was not sufficiently bothered by a losing streak and referred to the players as "baseball's Country Club set". According to Bradlee: "This listless, fat-and-sassy image of the Boston players as pampered and overpaid by [owner Tom] Yawkey would linger and define the team for a generation."
Bradlee offers some background on Jackie Robinson and his 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers (the Red Sox had the opportunity to sign him about two years earlier). Tom Yawkey was influential in keeping the game segregated during the 1940s. He served on a committee advising Commissioner Happy Chandler on a variety of topics, including "the race question". One report, kept out of the public for decades. noted that allowing black players in the major leagues would drive white fans away, thus diminishing the value of franchises.
Williams was always open to blacks in professional baseball, sending a letter of congratulations to Robinson and making a special effort to befriend Cleveland's Larry Doby, who became the American League's first black player a few months after Robinson took the field with the Dodgers, in July 1947. The Red Sox added a black player to their roster (Pumpsie Green), an astounding twelve years after Robinson's debut. Williams often played toss with Green before games in front of the home dugout. In 1966, Williams used his Hall of Fame induction speech - heard by a then-record crowd of more than 7,000 - as a platform to push for the inclusion of Negro League players in Cooperstown. It was a radical (and completely unexpected) statement from a professional athlete.
Williams was always looking for an edge. For a time, he heated his bats in a big clothes dryer at Fenway, on the theory (conveyed to him in a letter by a 14-year-old boy named David Pressman) that the heat removed all moisture and lessened the bats' weight, and possibly improved performance. The Red Sox went out of their way to placate Williams. They brought in the fences in right field, building the two bullpens that remain there to this day. When Williams complained that the advertisements on the big left field wall were a distraction while hitting, the team removed them. In 1950, at Williams's suggestion, a new policy was instituted, barring the press from the locker room for an hour after games (the time was later shortened to 15 minutes).
While the Boston sportswriters did their part to push Williams's buttons, Ted often created his own trouble with fans at Fenway. During the first game of a May 1950 doubleheader, Williams dropped a fly ball in left field and was booed. On his way back in to the dugout, he gave fans two middle fingers. In the second game, he booted another ball and flipped the bird to all sections of the park. "I didn't mind the errors," he said afterwards, "but those goddamn fans, they can go fuck themselves." There were numerous incidents in which Williams spat towards the fans, who seemed to heckle him simply to get a reaction. In one remarkable instance, a sportswriter sat out in left field and heckled Williams himself. Williams despised the fans' fickle reactions - how they would boo him in one at-bat and then cheer him for a hit in his next time up.
Williams has rightly been lauded for batting .406 in 1941. Yet he believed what he did in 1957, at the age of 38, was a greater achievement. Williams had secretly switched to a slightly lighter bat, which helped him stay back in the box, leading to more line drives to left and left-center. Although Williams had no infield hits at all during the 1957 season, he finished with a .388 average. Five more hits would have pushed him to .400. Williams batted .453 after the All-Star break, but lost the AL MVP to Mickey Mantle because two out-of-town writers listed him 9th and 10th on their ballots.
When Williams retired after the 1961 season, he was 4th all-time in all-time batting average (.344; more accurate research now has him tied for 7th), 3rd in home runs (521), 1st in on-base percentage (.482), and 2nd in slugging (.634).
Unlike most star athletes, Williams's fame grew after his career was over. As one writer put it, Williams "succeeded in bending life to his own prodigious will". He became a spokesman for Sears hunting and fishing equipment, he managed the Washington Senators for three seasons (though seemed to enjoy only the first year), and he helped run a baseball camp on the shores of Loon Pond, in Lakeville, Mass. He also, famously, became an expert fisherman.
What was it about fishing that enthralled Williams? For one thing, it gave him solace and a refuge from the celebrity glare. But it was much more than that. He loved the beauty and authenticity of the outdoor life: "No stuffy characters. No formal dinners. No tight ties around your neck. Just good, clean, fresh air and the gamest opponents in the world," as he put it in 1952. That was a sharp contrast to how he felt about people. Williams liked to call himself "a Will Rogers fisherman: I've never met a fish I didn't like."Despite his Republican leanings - he publicly supported Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush - Williams became an ardent, if not militant, conservationist on behalf of Atlantic salmon, speaking out against Danish commercial boats operating off Greenland. Williams believed a healthy supply of salmon was important for the New Brunswick economy, as well as for fisherman such as himself.
A chapter entitled "Transitions" outlines Williams and the various women in his life, including his three wives. Bradlee writes that Williams saw women "primarily as sex objects or glorified domestics". One common Williams wisecrack was: "If you couldn't fuck 'em, they wouldn't be worth anything." He was unenlightened, to say the least. Williams expected women to defer to him, but he hated the surrender of sycophants. Numerous friends believed his poor relationship with his mother fueled a lot of his animosity towards women as an adult. (When one of Williams's female friends dated Boston catcher Sammy White, Ted was aghast: "I don't know what you see in him. He can't hit!")
Later in his life, many of Williams's affairs were controlled by his son, John-Henry. Bradlee's chapter on John-Henry does not contain many kind words about Ted's only son. John-Henry was desperate to prove himself as an individual, to fashion his own life outside of his father's long shadow. Yet he comes across as vindictive, exploitive, wasteful, and entitled. Obsessed with money, he headed numerous memorabilia businesses, cashing in on his father's reputation. As Williams's health began failing, John-Henry cut his father off from just about everyone, taking complete control of his life.
It was John-Henry who first became interested in cryonics, described by Bradlee as "a fringe movement that believes people can be frozen after they die in the hope that advancing science and medical knowledge will one day be able to bring them back to life". Whenever John-Henry would bring up the subject, Ted dismissed it as "a crock of shit". Bradlee notes many times throughout the book that Williams specifically and repeatedly told friends and family that he wished to be cremated. Yet immediately after Williams died on July 5, 2002, his body was sent to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, in Arizona. Afterwards, John-Henry produced an agreement supposedly signed by Williams, agreeing to the cryonics procedures. It was met with extreme skepticism. Bradlee gives ample space to Claudia Williams, Ted's youngest child (who initially refused to be interviewed for this book), who lays out the case for her father and cryonics over four pages.
Yet for all his exploits as a ballplayer, one of the most striking things about Ted is how much he excelled at almost anything he undertook in a serious way, like flying, fishing, and photography. His innate talents took him only so far. His drive, determination, curiosity, and passion for learning took him the rest of the way. This notion of being distinctive at anything he undertook resonated with people.At one point during his retirement, there was talk of making a movie about his life. The project never really got off the ground, but Williams summed up what the essence of the film would have been: "the story of a desperate, dedicated kid who wanted to play baseball more than anything else in his life".