All of us must deal sooner or later with the decline and death of a dear friend or relative, but there is no reason to do so when the person in question is someone we didn’t even know. That’s why Leigh Montville’s new book about baseball’s greatest hitter since Babe Ruth, Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero, should come with a warning label: “Ingesting this product may cause severe depression.”
I don’t know about you, but Williams, who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939 to 1960, remains one of my all-time sports heroes. When it came to driving baseballs hither, thither and yon, he was the best I ever saw. Nobody else comes close–not Mantle, not Aaron, not McGwire, not Bonds.
And that’s how I want to remember the man who called himself “Teddy Ballgame,” swinging a bat with that lovely, compact stroke and driving hapless horsehides into the right-field bullpen at Fenway Park. I definitely don’t want to remember him as an enfeebled, nearly blind, 130-pound man in his 80s being manipulated by his avaricious son, the recently deceased John-Henry Williams, into becoming a money-making machine on the sleazy memorabilia front.
Yet that’s how we might envision Williams after plowing through this 513-page opus by Montville, a former Boston Globe sports columnist who grew up in New England idolizing Ted. The author left no clichÃ?Æ? Â©s unturned, no purple prose untyped in portraying his man as “a figure from mythology or fiction . . . Spiderman, Superman, Popeye the Sailor Man.”
Eat your spinach, Jimmy, and you too can hit .400 (although nobody has since Williams’ .406 season in 1941).
Perhaps Montville’s publisher, Doubleday, paid him by the word, because the book would have been better at half its length. The chapters about Williams’ baseball career cover familiar ground for most fans. After his retirement, we are subjected to endless descriptions of his fishing exploits, his explosive temper and, finally, his physical agonies brought on by strokes and other illnesses leading to his death at age 83 in July 2002.
Of course, there are rewarding passages for baseball fans.
Williams batted .344 for his career, during which he lost nearly five full seasons because of military service in both World War II and Korea, and his ability to hit never deserted him. When he returned to Fenway late in the 1953 season after not picking up a bat for 18 months, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey asked him to hit a few in batting practice. Williams demurred, pleading that “my hands are too soft.” Yawkey persisted. So Ted, grumbling all the way, put on a uniform and stepped into the batting cage. He hit the first nine pitches thrown to him over the right-field wall.
Some years later, when Williams was fat and nearly 54, he brought his ballclub (now the transplanted Texas Rangers) to Fenway to play the Red Sox. There was a pregame home run contest, and the Boston fans yelled, “We want Ted!” So Williams picked up a bat and commenced to smash line drives all over the place as his players gaped. Then, without a word, he threw down the bat and stalked to the clubhouse. Big deal. Teddy Ballgame was supposed to hit.
In his playing days, Williams endured a prickly relationship with Boston sportswriters– and the adjective was appropriate on both sides. He refused to tip his cap to the fans because a few had booed him–and wouldn’t even take a curtain call despite repeated pleas from the assembled multitude after hitting a dramatic home run on his last time at bat in September 1960.
As author John Updike explained in “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” his famous New Yorker magazine piece describing that day, “Gods do not answer love letters.” That’s how I love to think of Ted Williams–a true blue superstar of sport and life (CQ) before the word was even invented. That’s all we need remember, and to heck with Leigh Montville’s tome.