Ted Williams: A Larger Than And Often Troubled Life

May 12, 2014

He was the last player to bat over .400, a record that’s stood since 1941. He hit 521 home runs in his career, and who knows how many more would have been added to that total if he hadn’t lost five of his prime playing years to military service in World War II and the Korean War. He homered in his final at-bat after a career that spanned more than two decades, but refused to tip his cap to the fans who were there to watch the feat.

He was the greatest hitter who ever lived. He was Ted Williams, and his mythical status as a ballplayer was actually equaled by a life beyond the game that was marked by rancor, charity, bombast and regret.

The story of Ted Williams on and off the field is told in a huge tome befitting its subject called, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, written by Ben Bradlee, Jr., former editor and reporter for the Boston Globe.

Much of the book focused on Ted Williams’ private life, which was unsettled.

“It’s because of the anger that he struggled with all of his life. The source of the anger was rooted in his troubled relationship with his mother,” Bradlee said.

Williams grew up in San Diego during the Great Depression and his mother worked for the Salvation Army saving souls and that was what was important to her in life, to the exclusion of all else, including Ted and his brother. Their father was largely absent.

“His anger became a double-edged sword. It helped him on the field, because he always said that he hit better mad, and would go off on a tear and hit .500 for a month. But in his personal relationships, his anger would bubble up at inappropriate times and places, and caused him great difficulty,” Bradlee said.

That anger was also at times focused on the sports writers.

“He wanted fame, but not the inconvenience of celebrity,” Bradlee said. “He couldn’t appreciate that he was a public figure, a hero to many, and that the public had a legitimate interest in wanting to know something about his life off the field.” If a reporter pursued a story like that and called his mother for a quote, Williams would go crazy and confront the reporter, saying he had no right to write about his private life.

Folks today, especially Red Sox fans, are well acquainted with the Jimmy Fund for cancer research, which Ted Williams made possible. Bradlee said it was an example of his kindness and his decency. “I think it’s the redemptive part of the Ted Williams story.”

At Williams’ induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, he surprised many by focusing on minority athletes.

“It’s ironic because Ted was Mexican-American. His mother was Mexican and he concealed the fact that he was Mexican-American all of his life, worried that prejudice of the day would hurt his baseball career,” Bradlee explained. “He did this pointed digression from thanking everyone who was responsible for his career, to calling the lords of Cooperstown to right a fundamental wrong which was that they had excluded the old Negro League players from consideration for the Hall of Fame merely because they were black.” Bradlee said this was a bold move, and the commissioner, who had enormous respect for Williams, adopted the recommendation.

The death of Ted Williams was difficult for Bradlee to write about, because it was an indignant end to such a larger than life figure. Ted's son John Henry, after Williams' death, had his father's head removed from his body and had both cryogenically frozen in the hopes that future technology would make it possible to revive Williams.

Many of Williams' former Red Sox teammates, including Johnny Pesky and Dom Dimaggio, didn't want younger generations who didn't know Williams the ballplayer to focus on the ghastly cryonics episode as a way to remember Williams, but Bradlee says it was impossible to write a full biography of Williams without including the grotesque detail. He says he tracked down a number of people who knew Williams who said his actual wishes were to have his body cremated and the ashes strewn over the Florida Keys, where he loved to fish, but that the cryonics was likely the result of family pressures. 

Ben Bradlee Jr., author of The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, will be speaking on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 p.m. at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier.