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John Underwood, who hit grand slams with Ted Williams books, dies at 88

The Sports Illustrated writer wrote two books with the Red Sox slugger, including ‘The Science of Hitting,’ considered one of the game’s bibles

John Underwood in 1981. (Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
7 min

John Underwood, a star writer during the early days of Sports Illustrated who formed an unlikely bond with the irascible Red Sox slugger Ted Williams that led them to co-write two acclaimed books about baseball, including “The Science of Hitting,” died April 12 at his home in Miami. He was 88.

His wife Donna Underwood confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.

Williams, known for his temper and impatience with sportswriters, was well into his Florida retirement in 1967 when Mr. Underwood approached him about a profile for the magazine. The young sportswriter had a fish up his sleeve: He asked Williams, an outdoorsman who loved fishing as much as hitting, if he wanted to go angling for tarpon in the Florida Keys.

“Come on down,” Williams replied.

The result was “Going Fishing With the Kid,” which Sports Illustrated editors have included several times on lists of the magazine’s most famous stories.

“An open boat with The Kid does not happen to be the place for one with the heart of a fawn or the ear of a rabbit," Mr. Underwood wrote. “There are four things to remember: 1) he is a perfectionist 2) he is better at it than you are 3) he is a consummate needler and 4) he is in charge. He brings to fishing the same unbounded capacity for scientific inquiry he brought to hitting a baseball.”

Amid tales of Williams reeling in tarpon, Mr. Underwood showed readers what life was like for the last man to hit .400 — especially his relentless pursuit of privacy.

“His phone is unlisted,” Mr. Underwood wrote. “It is not even printed on the receiver. When it gets to be too well-known, he changes it. To get in touch with him requires liaison with his secretary. Then he calls you. And when he says he will call at 7:30, he calls at 7:30, on the dot.”

Williams loved the piece. Mr. Underwood’s editors sensed they had a chance to reel in an even bigger story. Ask Williams, they said, if he’d agree to a four-part autobiographical series on his life. Williams said yes.

Mr. Underwood interviewed Williams for months, recording on reel-to-reel tapes the ex-slugger’s thoughts on baseball, his difficult upbringing, fighting in World War II, fishing, hunting, women, sportswriters, Boston fans and much more.

“We got along fine,” Mr. Underwood said in an editor’s note that introduced the series. “He gets gruff at times. He gets into these little black rages. You have to bark back sometimes to let him know you're alive.”

Williams did most of the barking. The woman Mr. Underwood hired to transcribe the tapes quit after a day; she had never heard such foul language. Mr. Underwood cleaned up the curse words but fashioned Williams’s stories as bluntly as he told them.

“I wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived,” Williams said in the first installment. “A man has to have goals, for a day, for a lifetime, and mine was to have people say, ‘There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.’ Certainly nobody ever worked harder at it. It was the center of my heart, hitting a baseball.”

Mr. Underwood and Williams turned the series into a best-selling book, “My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life.” In its review, the Cleveland Plain Dealer said, “Williams emerges as an honest chronicler of an interesting American career, with the blemishes plain as well as the mighty accomplishments.”

Their second book, “The Science of Hitting,” is a technical bible on what Williams thought was the most difficult thing to do in sports: hitting a small round object moving extremely fast. The book’s original cover features a famous graphic that Williams put together himself showing the batting average for balls in every inch of the strike zone.

Mr. Underwood said Williams’s goal with the book was to puncture myths about hitting. “There's been a lot of excrement [except he didn't say excrement] written about it,” the sportswriter wrote, “stuff that's dead wrong and needs correcting.”

Perhaps the biggest source of excrement were theories about the correct angle to hit the ball.

“The ball angles down, not straight or up,” Williams told Mr. Underwood. “You don’t need calculus to see it. It’s obvious. And it means the best way to hit it is to swing slightly up, not level or down. Meet it squarely along its path. They got that wrong for years, ever since Ty Cobb.”

John Warren Underwood was born in Miami on Nov. 25, 1934. His father was a charter boat captain, and his mother was a homemaker.

In seventh grade, John and his friend Don Wright started their own newspaper. Wright, who drew cartoons for the paper, went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartoons at the Miami News.

While studying English at the University of Miami, Mr. Underwood worked for the Miami Herald and joined the paper full-time after graduating in 1956.

He moved to Sports Illustrated in 1961 and was known, along with Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins, as one of the magazine’s premier writers. While Deford and Jenkins were given to more showy writing, Mr. Underwood had “an unpretentious style, both graceful and crisp, consciously studious,” Michael MacCambridge wrote in “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine.”

MacCambridge said Mr. Underwood also had “a starched-shirt moralism” that “brought a brisk air of rectitude” to debates in sports, especially, in his view, the corrupting forces of money, gambling and the commercialization of youth sports.

Mr. Underwood “looked and acted more like a country lawyer than a sportswriter,” MacCambridge added, “and he wrote more like a professor, evincing a stern but rational tone that was all too rare in a field still dominated by holier-than-thou grandstanders and everybody-does-it cynics.”

His criticism of professional football as overly violent and inherently dangerous foreshadowed the current debate over concussions and other severe head injuries. “The Death of an American Game: The Crisis in Football,” his 1979 book based on a series in Sports Illustrated, “may well prove to be to the football industry what Ralph Nader’s ‘Unsafe At Any Speed’ was to the auto industry 15 years ago,” the Journal of Sport and Society said in its review.

In addition to the books with Williams, Mr. Underwood co-wrote books with University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and Archie Manning, the quarterback who fathered two other quarterbacks — Peyton and Eli Manning. He resigned from Sports Illustrated in 1985 to freelance.

Mr. Underwood’s marriage to Beverly Holland ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, the former Donna Simmons, and their children Caroline Burman of Coral Gables, Fla., and Joshua Underwood, of Miami.; four children from his first marriage, Lori Gagne of Port St. Lucie, Fla., Leslie Cahill of Cumming, Ga., Dee Dee Justice of Hobe Sound, Fla., and John Underwood Jr. of Coral Gables; 12 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Underwood described Williams as a kind of uncle. Even after their books were published, they continued to fish and hunt with each other around the world. After Williams died, Mr. Underwood eulogized him in the New York Times, remembering a hunting trip they had taken to Zambia when the ex-slugger was managing the Washington Senators.

“I can still see his silhouette gyrating against the night light of a tent siding,” Mr. Underwood wrote. “He was lying on his cot late one night remonstrating over the miserable hitting he had seen that year, and before long I could hear him grunting softly. I opened my eyes to look and he was on his feet in the tent, swinging away.”