Joe DiMaggio, who knew something about the subject, called Ted Williams “by far the greatest natural hitter I ever saw.” The Kid lost five productive years, serving as a military pilot during two wars, but his career numbers are still astounding: .344 batting average, 521 home runs, 1,839 RBIs. He was the last player to hit .400 (.406 in 1941) and won election to the Hall of Fame in 1966 by a near-unanimous vote.
Even a .344 hitter, however, makes an out almost two-thirds of the time. Williams had 709 strikeouts, and in the 10 most important games of his career — the 1946 World Series, season-ending losses in 1948 and ’49 — he hit only .205. During his entire tenure with the Boston Red Sox, from 1939 to 1960, they never won a championship.
Baseball is a game of repeated failure punctuated by occasional success, and no other enterprise is quite like it. No one keeps track of how many notes a concert pianist misses, and then flashes the number on a huge scoreboard above the stage, or how many misjudgments a book reviewer makes, for that matter.
For true baseball fans — and I have been one for more than 60 years — it is that sense of frailty and frustration that makes the game so engaging. So I approached Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Williams with great anticipation.
A former writer and editor at the Boston Globe, and a son of The Washington Post’s former executive editor, Bradlee grew up going to Fenway Park and still has a ball Williams signed for him more than 50 years ago. I’m a Yankee fan, but I admire the loyalty and devotion of Red Sox Nation. I also admire Bradlee’s dedication as a writer, spending more than 10 years on a book that is full of compelling stories and revealing insights. But it is far too self-indulgent. The Civil War might be worth more than 850 pages; perhaps Lincoln or Roosevelt would justify that treatment. A baseball player? No way.
The author thanks his editor at Little, Brown for slicing “the fat” out of this manuscript, but the knife was not nearly sharp enough. Bradlee tells us countless times, for example, that Williams “was always ashamed of his upbringing” — an absent father, a criminal brother, a distracted mother far more devoted to the Salvation Army than to her family.
He never felt loved and could never love others or himself. He was the Kid who never grew up: an emotional child who had three marriages, three divorces, many failed romances, “a vicious hate for women” and a lifelong contempt for sportswriters. “As a father I struck out,” he once told a cousin.
Okay, we get it. He had a heart like one of his beloved bats. Solid wood.
Yet Bradlee fixates on Williams’s three children, especially John-Henry, his only son, a thoroughly despicable “bad seed” who stole from his father and denied his last wish — having his ashes scattered over his favorite Florida fishing grounds. Instead John-Henry had his father’s body decapitated and frozen, a procedure that is described in disgusting detail.
Despite these flaws, I learned a lot. Bradlee emphasizes something Williams always tried to hide, his Mexican heritage on his mother’s side. Says an old friend: “It concerned him. He was afraid they wouldn’t let him play.”
But that background of bias “likely shaped his views on race,” Bradlee writes. At his Hall of Fame induction, Williams bravely urged the admittance of Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — and it happened a few years later. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate, and when they finally brought up a black infielder named Pumpsie Green in 1959, it was Williams who “set an example by playing catch with him in front of the dugout during warm-ups.” Williams also cared deeply about sick children, visiting local hospitals, paying bills for cash-strapped parents and raising money for Boston’s Jimmy Fund, which covers treatment for kids with cancer. “If on some deep, emotional level he didn’t feel good about himself,” the author writes, “maybe being in the company of people who were really suffering made him feel better.”
While Williams played his entire career in Boston, he spent three years as manager of the Washington Senators from 1969 to ’71, just before they moved to Texas. Always a strong conservative, the skipper hung a picture of Richard Nixon in his office at RFK Stadium and even put the president on the cover of the team’s 1970 program with the caption, “Our No. 1 Fan.” But Williams was no better a manager than Nixon was a president, and as the losses piled up he went to war with local sportswriters, just as he had in Boston. Shirley Povich, the distinguished Post columnist, dubbed him “Pope Theodore II” and wrote acidly, “There can be only one oracle in the stadium and he wears a No. 9 on his back.”
To his credit, Bradlee gives a balanced account of the greatest baseball debate of the era: Who was better, Williams or DiMaggio? His hero was the premier hitter, the author concludes, but he was also a sloppy fielder and an egomaniac who cared more about his own statistics than about his team’s record. DiMaggio, a brilliant defender, was the “better all-around player.” And don’t forget the World Series rings: Joe had nine, Ted none.
The publisher boasts that this book “clears the fences.” I think it clangs off the Green Monster, the famous left-field wall in Fenway. “The Kid” might make a good holiday gift for a devoted Red Sox fan, but for the rest of us it’s only a double, or perhaps a single if the slow-footed Williams were running. It’s too long to be a home run.
The Immortal Life of Ted Williams
By Ben Bradlee Jr.
Little, Brown. 855 pp. $35