Ted Williams hit his famous last at bat home run on September 28, 1960, three years before I began following the Red Sox. He played at Fenway in a 1982 Old Timer’s Game but I can’t find footage of that anywhere. Yaz was certainly a fine left fielder follow-up and quickly became my favorite player, but a longing to watch Williams work a pitcher and uncoil that gangly masterpiece of a swing never dissipated. Ted can now be found on What’s My Line? or giving a mini-hitting clinic, but despite the recent flood of vintage baseball game broadcasts spilling onto YouTube, a complete “live” Ted Williams at bat is still the rarest of video commodities.
So we’ve been relegated to Ken Burns slides or reading about Theodore S. Ballgame, and there seems to be no let-up in that department. I was mostly entertained by Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero back in 2005, but there have been five more Williams books published since that one came out—one of them for children.
Everyone can stop writing them now. The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee Jr. (Little, Brown, 2013) is the largest, latest, and I assume crowning achievement of the bunch. Weighing in at 864 pages (or 775, minus the notes, appendix and index) no worm-covered rock in Ted’s life is left unturned. It’s an exhaustingly researched biography that never slacks, and oddly manages to be two great books in one: an exciting portrayal of the greatest pure hitter who ever lived, and a gothic, increasingly disturbing family saga like something out of Downton Abbey or Frankenstein. As Bradlee is careful to point out, Williams reaped what he sowed, He couldn’t be the self-absorbed bat-swinging genius he was without leaving a trail of broken marriages and homes behind. His own broken childhood provided the blueprint for his loud, larger-than-life persona, and The Kid reveals this in factual, beautifully-rendered increments.
Bradlee’s research turns up a bevy of great anecdotes I was unaware of: that in his senior year at Hoover High in San Diego he also pitched and went 12-1, striking out nineteen Redondo Beach batters in one game; that the Yankees came close to signing him and later, trading Joe DiMaggio for him; that he preferred using lighter bats, some even 31 ounces, and starting in 1948, put them in the clubhouse dryer to heat them up and increase their potency; that the famous Lou Boudreau shift against him died out in the late 50s when Ted’s age and a heavier bat caused many of his hits to go to left field; that umpires had a great fondness for Ted because he understood the strike zone and never showed them up. (This led to umps often giving Williams tips on what certain pitchers were throwing, until the league forced them to stop.)
We knew about his rocky relations with the “knights of the keyboard,” and here it’s given an entire chapter, detailing what it was like for a famous player in a city that had eight major newspapers between 1939 and 1960. He led a charmed life with them early in his career, but his haphazard, disinterested fielding, anger at booing fans, and “failings” to bring the Sox a title, particularly in the late 40s, turned many of the scribes against him.
The contrast Williams and Joe DiMaggio is also starkly examined. The two stars couldn’t have been more different. While they respected each other’s abilities, Joe was an introverted cheapskate and Ted a flamboyant, generous kook. “He throws like a broad and runs like a ruptured duck.” DiMaggio said of him once, while Ted had nothing but praise for the Clipper. Not that it got him anywhere. Williams’ acerbic relations with the press likely cost him three MVP awards, after he won the Triple Crown in 1942 (losing to Joe Gordon‘s inferior stats) after he again won the Triple Crown in 1947 (losing to DiMaggio’s inferior stats) and in 1957, when he hit an amazing .388 at the age of 39.
Williams’ two stints in the military could be a book in itself, from his near-deferment before entering World War II and becoming a successful Navy pilot, to his return engagement in Korea (which he was furious about) and surviving his plane getting shot down. While his service years certainly robbed him of even more statistical greatness in baseball, they did uplift his image with the press and public considerably. By the end of his career, all booing had ceased.
And there’s so much more. His non-stop womanizing and germaphobia. The establishment of his baseball camp in Lakeville, MA, which is still there, and of course his Hall of Fame fishing career, which Bradlee wonderfully captures, especially his time spent on Maine’s Miramichi Rver. The fact Ted also caught fish off the coasts of Peru, New Zealand, Iceland, Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, Australia and the Fiji islands is only given a whiff of sweet mention but is still mind-numbing.
Ultimately, Bradlee’s book does a fantastic job of analyzing Ted, but never smacks you over the head with it. By merely describing the different early traumas in his life—the shame he felt about his half Mexican heritage, the anger at his missionary mother for caring more about helping the poor to her own son, the anger at his father for being absent and finally just leaving—it’s easy to see why his involvements with women were so turbulent and his children emotionally suffered.
Which is why the latter part of this tale, which could be called The Pit, the Pendulum, and John-Henry Williams, is the stuff of nightmares. Growing up in Vermont with a crazy mother and missing father, the young, handsome John-Henry developed a bizarre fixation on Ted by making a small fortune off his name, taking over all of his finances, and largely shutting him off to the outside world. Near the end of Ted’s life in 2002, despite being confined to a wheelchair and hooked up to oxygen, the Splinter was still signing bats, balls and photos for his son.
John-Henry died of leukemia complications just two years after his father, which liberates Bradlee to give us an honest and very through portrayal of his slimy exploits. He stops short of calling him “the most despicable piece of human garbage I’ve ever met in my life” by quoting Mark Ferrell, one of Ted’s son-in-laws, saying it.
John-Henry’s rank deeds were numerous, but his most egregious may have been the signed “pact” between Ted, John-Henry, and daughter Claudia allowing his body to be sent to Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, AZ following Williams’ death. Ted had told everyone he wanted his body cremated and his ashes scattered in one of his favorite fishing spots off the Florida Keys, and the “pact document” comes off as a forgery for many reasons that Bradlee methodically outlines.
Thankfully, Bradlee opens the book with a brief, clinical description of Williams’ arrival and head-removing procedure at Alcor, which keeps the incident from being a lingering distraction throughout the long narrative. It isn’t easy to separate Ted’s immortal abilities on the baseball field from his exuberant but flawed and sad existence off of it, but The Kid does an expert job of documenting this full, heroic, and nearly unbelievable life most of us missed.