Ted Williams is my all-time favorite baseball player. I love the way he used to swing the bat (with a slight uppercut). I love the integrity he exhibited at the plate (if wasn’t a strike, he wasn’t going to swing, the runner on second be dammed). Only in my dreams am I as brash as Teddy Ballgame (“When I walk down the street I want people to say there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived”).
No doubt, the Splendid Splinter is at the top of my list of ballplayers. Yet I never saw him play … not with my own eyes, anyway.
I have seen many of Ted Williams' marvelous at-bats through the eyes of the authors and writers who chronicled his career. There are numerous worthwhile Williams biographies — and since his death on July 5 additional volumes have been published.
This week I got my hands on one of them: Richard Ben Cramer’s “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” The book is a remembrance of Ted Williams and his life, inside and outside the foul lines. The book includes Cramer’s acclaimed Esquire profile on Williams as well as additional essays.
It’s a slim volume, just 114 pages, and I savored each one of them. The book is small enough that you can stick it in your winter-coat pocket and read it while your spouse is taking in yet another holiday shopping stop that you could do without. It’s portable Ted, and I highly recommend taking it with you (but if your spouse has a problem with that, it wasn’t my idea).
Cramer is a talented writer and a more skilled reporter. He gets inside a person and yet doesn’t beat readers over the head with his pop-psychology theories. “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” is not a comprehensive look at Williams’ life, but it does include several insightful illustrations — about his military service, his passion for fishing, his rarely seen tenderness and his unpublicized generosity — that have not been so aptly stated in more exhaustive biographies. Sure, all baseball fans knew that Williams’ lifetime marks were diminished because of seasons lost to war-time duties. We know Ted is the only baseball Hall of Famer also inducted in the fishing Hall of Fame. We knew these factoids because that’s what we have been told. In this book, Cramer shows us pictures we haven’t seen.
There are activities I enjoy more than fishing, among them are extracting my own molars or pulling my hair out by the handful. I respect people who like to sit in the middle of a lake with a pole in the water, but the only thing less fascinating is talking about people who like to sit in the middle of a lake with a pole in the water. However, I could listen to Ted Williams talk about fishing for hours. I could listen to Ted Williams talk about anything that interested him. His single-mindedness of purpose is so rare that it’s hard not to respect his approach to anything he deemed worthy of his attention. He attacked fishing as he pounced on an inside fastball, with passion, verve and an intelligence that belied his lack of formal education. Ted Williams did what he wanted to do and he didn’t do anything — hit a baseball, fly a jet fighter or fish in Florida — unless he strived to be the best. Ever. That’s why I keep reading his biographies. It’s worth the time to find another example of his devotion to craft.
One of the famous stories about Williams that makes me chuckle is about his approach to outfield play during the 1938 season, when Williams played with the Minneapolis Millers. In between pitches, Ted could be seen taking imaginary swings in the outfield. His pursuit of hitting perfection was unyielding. Cramer tells the story of how late one night Williams was up swinging his bat while his Boston Red Sox roommate was asleep. Ted inadvertently took a swing that caught his roommate’s bedpost and it was destroyed by the impact. After his roommate suddenly woke up to see what had happened Ted simply said, “What power.”
I think if Williams played today, with the hitter-friendly parks, the watered-down pitching staffs and juiced-up ball, he’d regularly hit .380 or better with at least 55 home runs. In my mind, he is rivaled only by Babe Ruth in terms of hitters in the history of the game, Barry Bonds included. Even if Williams was at times unruly — spitting in the direction of fans as a show of contempt; constantly fighting with the “Knights of the Keyboard,” as he did — it’s too hard to hate great. It is so rare in life that we know for certain someone is the very best at what he or she does. It is rarer still that person can articulate their genius and determination in terms we mere mortals can understand. That’s why I love reading about the Thumper. He was a walking encyclopedia of hitting and also its greatest practitioner. I wish I could sit in Fenway just once to watch him battle a worthy pitcher. The next best thing is reading about Williams’s ability to so frequently win those battles.
“There are no statistics on fans, how they felt, what they took from the game,” Cramer says in “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” “How many of their days did he turn to occasions? And just with hits: there was a special sound from a crowd when Ted got his pitch, turned on the ball, whipped his bat in that perfect arc—and missed. It was a murmurous rustle, as thousands at once let breath escape, gathered themselves, and leaned forward again. To see Ted suffer a third strike was an event four time more rare, and more remarkable, than seeing him get a hit.
“When Ted retired, some owners feared for attendance in the league. In Boston, where millions came through the years to cheer, boo, to care what he did, there was an accretion of memory so bright, so bittersweet, and strong that when he left the light was gone. And Fenway was left with a lesser game.”
Of course, there are many books about Williams. I also recommend “Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams” by Ed Linn and “I Remember Ted Williams” by Tony Cantaneo. You could also read “My Turn At Bat,” and the “Science of Hitting,” two books Ted wrote with John Underwood. There are at least two other books about Williams that I’ll add to my reading list as soon as I get my hands on copies: “Ted Williams: The Pursuit of Perfection” by Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime; and Michael Seidel’s “Ted Williams: A Baseball Life.