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Mary McGrory

The Insult to Ted

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, July 14, 2002; Page B07

When asked about the freezing of Ted Williams, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said only that he could "think of a lot of people he would rather see frozen." He spoke for all of us.

In a week of outstandingly bad ideas -- Daschle spoke during a break in the debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, while the House was voting for guns in cockpits -- the idea of delivering Williams's remains to an Arizona businessman who runs something called the Alcor Life Extension Foundation was indisputably the worst. The ballplayer of the century, who carried himself like a king as he went to bat for the Red Sox in Fenway Park, is now reportedly turned upside down in an iced tube.

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Williams's son, John Henry, arranged to have the body snatched from the Florida hospital where his father died. He has not explained his grotesque decision. Is Ted Williams considered a candidate for resurrection in his new hall of infamy, or is his body destined to be a merchandise mart for a parasitical offspring planning to peddle his father's DNA -- or sell off his remains inch by inch?

Boston's Red Sox fans, which means everybody, are beside themselves. Williams's death at 83 was long expected, but when it happened, the Boston Globe put out an extra edition. Williams wore the Red Sox uniform for 19 years, with time out for service in two wars. He brought glory to his team and his town with his .406 batting average; but the relationship between him and the fanatics in the stands was stormy. Williams thought the only thing the fans should ask of him was that he play the game well. He did that superbly. But Boston fans, who are of a special order of fanaticism in sports as in politics, thought he should share in his triumphs -- specifically that he should tip his cap after he hit a home run. Williams thought that he had done all that could be expected of him and that taking bows was pandering. No one expected the poet Yeats to join the PTA.

Loyalty to the Red Sox is something pervasive and enduring. I know because I was born a Sox fan, and in spite of myself, I have primal reactions to their fate. I could not give you a statistic if my life depended on it, but I am always glad to hear they have won; on the dark side, I am ashamed to say that I cannot scrape up a flicker of compassion for Darryl Strawberry when he gets into new trouble. I have not forgotten that he was involved in the 1986 World Series, which we should have won.

I wish that touchy Ted had been a little more amiable, but I admire single-mindedness in the pursuit of excellence, although I cannot condone spitting at hecklers in the stands, as he did, or throwing a baseball bat into a crowd. Once, when Williams was manager of the Washington Senators, a sportswriter asked him if he could get along with a player as temperamental as Ted Williams, and he answered dead on: "If he could hit like me I could."

For the ultimate explanation we are indebted to author John Updike, who was in Fenway Park when Williams played his last game, on Sept. 28, 1960. His last time up, Williams hit a homer -- and went straight to the dugout. Prolonged cheers could not summon him back. Updike: "Gods do not answer letters."

But Williams, irascible god, had a human side. Unlike many stars, he was a dream teammate, kind and generous. When the Sox finally hired their first black player, Pumpsie Green, Williams took the trouble to play catch with him -- to let people know he wanted no sauce. And he melted at the plight of sick children -- just ask Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy: Williams befriended his 8-year-old daughter Kate when she was stricken with leukemia and sent her autographs and cheer. Without publicity, he raised millions for the Jimmy Fund, which benefits child cancer victims.

Boston tipped its cap to Williams when it named its new Logan Airport tunnel after him. Williams accepted the announcement of the honor with his usual cool. The hero of a defiantly Democratic town, he let his benefactors know he was an in-your-face Republican, for George Bush against the state's governor, Michael Dukakis. Rep Richie Neal (D-Mass.) remembers that Tip O'Neill and Joe Moakley were pretty sore about it but of course said nothing.

Baseball has a special place in our hearts. It is the game that shows us as we would like to be. But baseball disgraced itself while we were mourning Ted Williams and his frigid fate. The All-Star Game, which was supposed to confer a most valuable player award named for Williams, was called off after 11 innings. The pitchers were saving their million-dollar arms, maybe for the picket line they threaten. The award was not given. It's just as well. Williams played his heart out at every game. Declaring a game over when it wasn't finished would have outraged this most valuable player.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company