MY TURN AT BAT

The Story of My Life

By Ted Williams with John Underwood

Fireside. 320 pp. Paperback, $7.95

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Ted Williams' fruitful collaboration with John Underwood returns in a new edition, revised and expanded to include a few pages on his five-year sentence as manager of the Washington Senators: an experience, he tells us, he enjoyed. "My Turn at Bat" is every bit as much a pleasure now as it was in 1969, and its reappearance is a singularly happy way with which to welcome the pitchers and catchers to spring training and, thus, to mark the beginning of the 1988 baseball season.

Beyond a doubt, "My Turn at Bat" is one of the relatively few as-told-to sports autobiographies that rise above the singular limitations of the genre. In part this is to the credit of Underwood, a former writer for Sports Illustrated whose smooth prose style adapts easily and unobtrusively to Williams' own speech patterns. But in largest part it is due to Williams himself; in the nearly three decades since his retirement he has shed the shell of hostility he wore in his playing years and has revealed himself to be one of the most interesting, forthright and -- yes -- likable people baseball has known.

If Williams was "in a shell an awful lot," the fault was by no means entirely his own. To be sure he was an innocent and immature kid from San Diego when he joined the Boston Red Sox in the spring of 1939, and often that immaturity took the form of brashness that did not sit well with fans or the press. But he got virtually no help from Red Sox management, which took a hands-off position "when I needed and should have had some protection," and it certainly is true that he "was not treated fairly by the press," in particular the band of incompetents and nasties who worked for the Boston papers in the '40s and '50s.

The fact is that by today's standards Williams' behavior was, if not precisely exemplary, well within the bounds of what we have come to expect of athletes: He made mildly obscene gestures a few times, he spat a few times, and he declined to tip his hat to the stands after hitting a home run. None of this was exactly a big deal, but the knights of the press box managed to turn it into one, and in the process to drive Williams bananas. Did this incessant goading make him a more determined player, or did it distract him from the business at hand? He doesn't say, but it's hard to believe it helped much.

What is indisputable, though, is Williams' greatness as a player. He was a better fielder and base runner than was generally acknowledged, and he was unquestionably the greatest hitter of his time. If he did not fulfill his boyhood ambition to be the greatest player in the game's history, it was only because "counting injuries and my service hitches, I lost six full seasons of baseball." Four and a half of those years were lost to World War II and Korea; these wars probably deprived him of 830 hits (as it is, he had 2,654), 170 home runs (he had 521) and 560 runs batted in (he had 1,839). No player, Bob Feller included, suffered so much statistical damage in the service of his country.

Yet though he complains, with good reason, about being hauled back into the Marines during the Korean War to placate the politicians (who used Williams to demonstrate that athletes were not exempt from military service), on the whole he accepts his fate with equanimity and resignation. He knows that he had a wonderful run for two decades, and that he was privileged to play in baseball's great postwar years. "I don't think baseball has ever been played any better than it was from 1946 to 1950," he writes, "everybody fired up, a lot of good teams, excellent hitting, fine pitching, and it just wasn't so easy to win." He's right; rather than the '20s, the years from 1946 to perhaps 1954 were baseball's true Golden Age.

And Williams was the era's Golden Boy. It's difficult to imagine that a baseball fan could be treated to a more agreeable or memorable sight than that of Williams at bat: coiled into the distinctive stance that managed to be simultaneously tight and loose, his eyes following the pitched ball along every millimeter of its trajectory, his bat lashing out at the last possible instant and crunching the ball into play on a stately, beautiful line. There may have been others of his day whose games were more thoroughly rounded -- Musial, DiMaggio, Mays -- but at the plate Williams was master of them all.