---- — Ted Williams is an American icon. As the mainstay of the Boston Red Sox from 1939-1960 he was one of baseball’s all-time greats, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and perhaps the greatest hitter the sport has ever known. He was admired for his devotion to the game, his service to his country, and his support for children with cancer. But there was an ugly side to him too. Williams’ life was a set of contradictions where his talent and humanity were offset by fits of rage and cold-heartedness.
The word that might best describe Williams is “intense.” He was not only a great hitter with tremendous eyesight (20/15), but he worked on his hitting all the time. He would simulate his swing in front of a mirror, study pitchers endlessly, and talk hitting with anyone who would listen. He would take the same approach to his lifelong love of fishing where he became one of the best fly fishermen in the country.
It’s not surprising that Williams is baseball’s last .400 hitter, batting .406 in 1941. In 1957, at the age of 39, he led the majors with a .388 average. His lifetime average of .344 ranks fourth all-time and he hit 521 home runs. He was coveted with such nicknames as “the Kid,” “Teddy Ballgame” and “the Splendid Splinter.”
Williams is also remembered for his charitable acts towards children with cancer. He would make countless visits to hospitals to visit sick kids without any publicity whatsoever. In fact, he threatened any journalist that he would stop going if it was publicized. He was clearly a man with a warm heart.
On the other hand, he also had a dark side. Williams had a temper that was over the top. He would offend friends, family and innocent bystanders for no good reason. He once punched out his beloved dalmatian. A psychologist referred to him as a “swinging door, bipolar personality.” For all his good works they were more than offset by his abuse of people (and one dog).
Williams was married three times and had three kids (two daughters and a son). He was so into his own thing that he missed all three of his children’s births because he was off fishing. He once told a prospective bride that she would be his third priority behind baseball and fishing. He was distant, unfaithful and an absentee father, yet his wives, girlfriends and kids all remained devoted to him.
Even in death Williams could not escape controversy. His son became a convert to Cryonics, the freezing of bodies after death with the hope that technology will eventually bring them back to life. Williams had always said he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered at sea, but he ended up frozen. His son had power of attorney and either did or didn’t convince his father to go along. That has never been settled.
A man with such a fascinating life certainly makes a great case study. Ben Bradlee Jr., a diehard Red Sox fan and journalist, undertook the task over a dozen years ago. The end result is his just published 800 page biography, “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.”
To say it’s the definitive work would be an understatement. Bradlee looks at all elements of Williams’ life, from his little-known Mexican heritage and upbringing in San Diego to his astounding career and feuds with the Boston media. Bradlee reveals the slugger’s bitterness with being recalled to active duty in Korea after serving for three years during WWII.
Bradlee talks about the devotion of teammates and friends who either never saw or simply ignored Teddy Ballgame’s illustrious temper. And he focuses on the relationships he had with his wives, girlfriends and children who always clung to him. Williams clearly radiated a certain charm.
Perhaps the saddest scene in Bradlee’s narrative is when young Williams and his brother were waiting on the porch at 10 p.m. for their parents to come home. It was a scene that was often repeated. His father was an alcoholic and his mother more concerned with her work at the Salvation Army than in raising her two sons.
His unhappy childhood may have affected his behavior as an adult. At least Williams found solace in baseball. His brother became a juvenile delinquent.
In one sense, it should be surprising that a perfectionist such as “the Kid” would focus on hitting yet ignore the fielding and base running parts of the game that make a complete ballplayer. But then, Williams’ whole life was a set of contradictions.
Whatever you make of the man, Williams had a remarkable life. Bradlee captures his essence for better or worse and his biography could easily become a classic.