Keeping Score: Number nine
One summer day during my youth I saw Ted Williams hit an arcing fly ball that disappeared into the afternoon sun and reappeared on its way into the bleachers. Seeing a Williams home run was like glimpsing a shooting star, but my grammar school friend Crosby Hunt did me one better that day. He was hit in the face by a Williams’ line drive during batting practice. “It caromed off an empty seat and off the side of my head.”
His father, Deerfield Academy English teacher and track coach Mo Hunt, went scrambling after it. “Somebody else snagged it but the doctor who checked me out gave me a ball signed by Williams. It lasted until the day we needed it and eventually was lost in the undergrowth of those ancient homes in Old Deerfield.”
To say that Williams was the Big Papi of his day would be to do him a disservice. Beside belting a baseball, he was a world class fisherman, expert marksman and wartime aviator.
He was Davey Crockett, shooting a rattle snake and stretching it around his neck, and he was Tarzan, catching an alligator and throwing it in the trunk. He was a brash huckster with a German shepherd named Slugger. During off days he’d shoot the pigeons in right field and once blasted out a light on the left field scoreboard with a handgun from inside the Red Sox dugout.
He was generous, funny, immature, irreverent, angry, sensitive and profane. “If I could get a quote out of him that was printable through all the four-letter words, I was golden,” said the Boston Herald’s Tim Horgan.
He was a loner. “I’d rather sit home and watch a good TV program than go to some phony-baloney cocktail party and listen to a lot of bull.”
All things considered he was the quintessential man’s man, whose passion above anything else was baseball. He’d swing at bushes on his walk home. He stashed his bat under his desk at school and during games told the batboy to rub a rabbit’s foot on it. He talked in his sleep about baseball. “Roger,” he once told the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, “I didn’t get laid for the first time until the All-Star break of my second year in the majors. I was thinking about hitting.”
Williams was born in San Diego and named after Teddy Roosevelt. Yankees and Tigers scouts thought he was too slow and Red Sox scout Eddie Collins said he “almost laughed” when he saw the 17-year-old “skinny beanpole” batting for a minor league team called the Padres. That was until he lined a double over first base and Collins said, “In that fleeting moment I became convinced that here was one of the most natural hitters in baseball history. I’d have staked my life on it.”
Thus was the genesis of Ben Bradlee Jr.’s magnificent 775-page biography “The Kid. The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” published by Little, Brown and Company ($35). Bradlee grew up outside Boston in the mid-1950s and kept pictures of Williams plastered on his bedroom walls.
He worked 25 years at the Boston Globe as a reporter, editor and deputy managing editor and he began writing the book shortly after Williams’ death in 2002, a project that took nearly a decade to complete.
Besides culling information from the seven previous books about Williams, Bradlee mined heretofore unreported nuggets by interviewing hundreds who were on the periphery of Williams’ life: doctors, dentists, TV repairmen, flight instructors, the niece of the woman Williams’ father ran off with, Johnny Pesky’s wife’s sister, and so on.
The resulting 34 chapters include comprehensive material about the convoluted relationships Williams had with his children Bobby-Jo and John-Henry, his war years that began at the Turners Falls Airport flying a 700-pound Piper Cub and nearly ended on a South Korean airstrip crash landing a F9F Panther fighter jet. “If that son of a bitch up there believes in me, he’d better save my ass now!” Williams said on his final descent.
A chapter about Williams’ vitriolic dealings with sportswriters includes notable prose by scribe Austen Lake who wrote that the murmur of the crowd when Williams approached the plate was “like the autumn wind moaning through an apple orchard.”
I was particularly intrigued by the chapter about Williams’ passion for fishing that began on a lake near his childhood home where he’d practice fly casting from the front porch. He caught walleye and northern pike in Minnesota and hauled in a 394-pound tuna off Cape Cod. Once during a game a fan jumped onto the field and ran over to Williams and said, “I just want to tell you that the fish are really biting at Cape Cod Canal.”
Williams tied his own flies and could cast up to 90 feet using an 81/2 -foot rod. He logged the type, size and location of each fish he caught, prompting New York Times columnist Red Smith to call him fishing’s Triple Crown winner for catching over a thousand each of bonefish, tarpon and Atlantic salmon. The latter species was his favorite, catching them on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick where he owned a cabin on a one-mile stretch of riverfront property.
“No stuffy characters,” he said of fishing. “No formal dinners. No ties around your neck. Just good, clean fresh air and the gamest opponents in the world.”
A fishing partner described a bonefish expedition with Williams. “We were out there and Ted said, ‘Here they come, two o’clock, 40 feet out.‘ I’ve got polarized glasses on, and I don’t see a goddamn thing. So he throws his line out and boom!”
A fishing guide said of Williams’ fishing persona: “When he was pulling on a fish he would use more expletives in one sentence ... It was almost poetic, it was lyrical, he didn’t do it vindictively he was just being himself. It was your mother, my mother, his mother ...”
Bradlee’s sizable feast is a perfect antidote for what’s been a cold and endless Hot Stove season, meant for perusing either during a snowstorm or rekindled during a summer’s rain delay.
Good writing and dogged fact-finding are the hallmarks of non-fiction, and with this book Bradlee swept both ends of the doubleheader.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.