If you grew up watching Ted Williams hit a baseball, well, you simply kept watching, even after he stopped hitting. That was the way it was. From the day he arrived at Fenway Park in Boston in 1939 as a slender 20-year-old outfielder with a swing for the ages until last Friday, when he died of cardiac arrest in Inverness, Fla., at age 83, he was part of your life.
As years passed, he might have changed, and you might have changed, and times might have changed, but he always was a fascinating character. He was a superstar before the word was invented. He was a man's man, icon of all icons. Watch? You had to watch.
At least I did....
July 14, 2002
The postcard from Ted Williams came to 80 Howe Street, New Haven, Conn., on a late summer day in 1953. That's the best I can figure. I tried, just now, to pull the card carefully from the lined, loose-leaf notebook page on which I had glued it apparently 49 years ago, but the postmark was lost in the process.
I say the late summer of 1953 because that was when I was an autograph demon. Most of the other cards in my old notebook—George Kell, Maurice (Mickey) McDermott, Jimmy Piersall, a bunch of forgotten Boston Red Sox names—have postmarks from the summer of 1953. I was on the case in 1953. I was 10 years old.
I lived in a six-story apartment house, an only child, and I somehow discovered, alone in my bedroom, that if you wrote to your athletic idols, they sometimes wrote back. I was a writing fool. My basic message on a penny postcard was "Dear So-and-So, I am your biggest fan! You are great! Please send me your autograph!" I finished with my name and address, sent out the card and waited with the anticipation and faith of a trout fisherman on the banks of a fast-running brook on a Sunday morn.
The arrival of the mail every day became true adventure. I would riffle through the bills and the circulars, the grown-up and the mundane, looking and looking until one magical day ... a postcard from Ted Williams.
He was the biggest fish of all. I might not remember the exact date his postcard arrived, but I remember the feeling. Even now I can't think of another piece of mail that has made me feel happier, not college acceptances nor good reports from doctors, nothing. The Ted Williams postcard was unadulterated bliss, wholly equivalent to a letter straight from heaven. Better. Straight from Fenway Park.
I had never seen a major league player in person, had never been to a major league stadium, had never seen a major league game. Television hadn't arrived at my house. Williams was a mythical figure, a creation of radio words and black-and-white newspaper pictures. He had the purity of Sir Lancelot, the strength of Paul Bunyan, the tenacity of, say, Mighty Mouse. Distance, to be sure, made heroes much more heroic than they ever can be today.
Williams had returned from the Korean War that July. He was almost 35 years old. He had been flying F-9 Panther jets for a year in Korea, fighting the Communists in their sneaky MiGs. He was back, and he was hitting as well as ever: a .407 average in the final 37 games of the season, 13 homers, a .901 slugging percentage. He could do anything, everything. He was number 9. He was the Kid, Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter. He hated to wear a tie! (I hated to wear a tie!) He was invincible.
I remember staring at the postcard for hours. Had he actually signed it? No doubt. The blue ink was a different color from the rest of the black-and-white card. On the front of the card was a black-and-white picture of Williams finishing a swing. His eyes seemed to be following a baseball he had just hit, probably into the bullpen in right. He seemed focused, serious, divine. I imagined him reading my own card by his locker, thinking about me. Should he reply? He could tell by my writing that I was an honest kid, a hard worker in school, obeyed my parents. Of course he should reply. I could see him pulling out this postcard from a special place, taking out his pen.
"Capital T," he wrote, with a big flourish, "e-d. Capital W," another flourish, "i-l-l-i-a-m-s." He dotted the i's high.
"You know," an older sportswriter told me a number of years later, "he never signed any of that stuff. The clubhouse guy, Johnny Orlando, his buddy, signed everything. Johnny Orlando could sign Ted Williams's name better than Ted Williams could."
I look at the postcard now. I somehow have kept it through college, through marriage, divorce, changes of jobs, changes of residence. Forty-nine years.
I don't know. Johnny Orlando?
I think Ted might have made an exception. Just once.
The sound of his voice preceded him. Or at least that's what I remember.
The year must have been 1978. Or maybe '79. The Red Sox clubhouse at Chain O' Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla., was divided into two rooms. The smaller room was reserved for selected veterans and the coaching staff. They shared the space with a pair of enormous washing machines. The machines were at work, taking out the stains from another spring training day. I was a sportswriter now, working for a Boston newspaper.
"Tell me this," the new voice said, loud, very loud. "What detergent do you use to clean these uniforms?"
Everybody turned toward the noise because there was no alternative. There he was, Ted, himself, huge, instantly dominating his surroundings. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He would have been 59 years old. Maybe 60. He was tanned and robust, looking as if he had just returned from the high seas or the deep woods. A pair of sunglasses hung from his neck on a piece of fishing line.
"Tide," an equipment man said. "We use Tide."
"Now why do you use Tide?" the voice boomed. "Is it better than all the other detergents? Is it cheaper? Is there some secret ingredient? Why do you use Tide?"
The fun began. Somehow I had never been in the same room with Ted Williams, never had talked to him, never had been around him. Would he fill out the picture I'd had in my head for so long? Or would he—like so many famous figures encountered without their press agents and handlers—be a mean-spirited disappointment? What? At first glance I had to say he looked like John Wayne. He talked like John Wayne. He was John Wayne.
He was on the scene as a hitting instructor. For a number of years he had skipped the rituals of the baseball spring and gone off to fish for salmon or bonefish or do whatever he did, but for some reason he'd decided to return for this season. He would show up every morning in his old Ford station wagon, identifiable by the IF GUNS ARE OUTLAWED, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS sticker on the rusty bumper. He would change into his uniform and head to the minor league complex.
"What's your name?" he would ask some kid in a batting cage. "Get over here. Where are you from? Mississippi? Let's see what you're doing here."
He would jump from the cart, adjust the kid's stance. He would take the bat, squeeze it hard, swing with emphasis. See? Pow! He would talk baseball, baseball, more baseball, laying out hypothetical confrontations between pitcher and batter, each ball and strike forcing the pitcher to alter his strategy, so that at 3 and 2 he had to come in with a fastball, and, oh, brother, here it comes. Pow! The kid from Mississippi would return to work looking slightly dazed.
I stood with other members of the new generation of the Knights of the Keyboard, Williams's term for his longtime adversaries in the press box. I listened to his declarations. (If you were anywhere in the state of Florida, you couldn't avoid them.) I did the obligatory Ted-is-here column.
He was charming and frank. He actually listened to the questions, actually thought out the answers. He laughed easily in large sonic booms. The writers who had tormented him during his career, Colonel Dave Egan and Mel Webb and the rest, were dead. The torment also was dead. The uncomfortable star, sensitive to all criticism, spitting in the direction of the clacking typewriters, was long gone. Williams wore his advancing age as if it were a bathrobe and slippers. He couldn't care less what anyone wrote.
He would pose for pictures with a daily stream of worshipers, penitents, strangers. ("You gonna take that lens cap off before ya take the shot?" he would bellow. "Here, let me do it.") He would argue with anyone about politics, sports, detergents, anything. He would question. He would tell stories. He would interact, hour after hour. There was a liveliness about him that was different from the ordinary. He was larger than larger-than-life, if that makes any sense. He was Ted Williams, and he knew who he was. He played his own role. Himself.
The highlight of the spring came when he set up a public tennis match against Carl Yastrzemski, then the Red Sox' elder statesman. He didn't just challenge Yastrzemski to the match, he promoted it for an entire week. He told the world. Time, date, place, probable outcome (a huge Williams win). When the great day came—Yastrzemski, 21 years Williams's junior, won easily, making the big man move too much and lurch for shots—there must have been 1,000 people surrounding one of those apartment-complex courts, all to see an event that Williams simply invented.
"Is he always like this?" I asked Joe Lindia, a guy from Providence who was Williams's driver, old friend and roommate for the three weeks of spring training. "Is he always ... Ted?"
"Always," Lindia said. "You go with Ted, anything can happen."
Lindia told a story: In one of Williams's last seasons as a player, the Red Sox trained in Scottsdale, Ariz. Lindia went out to visit. One day, an off day, Williams said they should take a ride. They drove to the far edge of the town and went to a seedy motel. Williams directed Lindia to a certain room at the back. Lindia had no idea what was happening. Williams knocked on the door. An old man, looking as seedy as the motel itself, answered. "Joe," Williams said. "Say hello to Ty Cobb."
They went into the room with Cobb. A bottle of whiskey was opened. Cobb and Williams talked baseball for a number of hours. Cobb, it seemed, had one theory about hitting. It was directly opposite to Williams's theory. The argument became intense. The two men were shouting at each other. They looked as if they might come to blows. "Look, I know how we can settle this," Williams finally said. "Ty, you say one thing. I say another. Joe, what do you say?"
"Funny, huh?" Lindia said. "The two greatest hitters in the history of baseball. I'm the one who's supposed to break the tie. I couldn't hit a baseball for a million dollars."
On one of the last days of training camp, I went to dinner with my young family at one of those steak houses with an all-you-can-eat salad bar. My son was five years old. Maybe six. I guided him to the salad bar to fill up his plate. On the way back to the table, I noticed Williams was in a booth with four or five people. Lindia was one of them. I was going to keep going, but Lindia waved and said hello. I waved back. Williams looked and saw my son.
"Hey," he said in that loud voice, "that's a great-looking kid."
My son had no idea who the man was. He smiled.
"I mean he's exceptional," Williams said, even louder now. "A great-looking kid."
I could feel the eyes of everyone in the restaurant turning in my direction. It was like one of those "My broker says ... " commercials. People were looking at Williams, then staring at my son. People were nodding their heads in agreement. Yes, a great-looking kid. My son.
"Looks like he'd be a pretty good hitter," someone at the table suggested.
"I don't give a s--- about that," Williams said, loudest voice yet. "I'm just saying he's a great-looking kid. Look at him."
It was a moment. My son is 30 years old, and I still talk to him, maybe once a year, about what happened. He rolls his eyes.
The idea was that Ted was going to be dead pretty soon. That was what the producer said. Ted was going to hit his 80th birthday in a couple of weeks, he'd had the three strokes, he was half blind, and he didn't get around much, didn't submit to many interviews. Anything could happen, you know. This might be the last television interview he ever would do.
This was the summer of 1998. I was the interviewer. I showed up with two cameramen and the producer around noon on the appointed day at Williams's house in Hernando, Fla. The house was relatively new, part of the Citrus Hills development, which featured a bunch of streets named after former Red Sox players and officials. It wasn't the kind of house you would imagine for Williams. There was a commercial aspect here, a lack of dignity.
Buzz Hamon, then the director at the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame, also located on the Citrus Hills property, briefed us on what to expect. There would be 30 minutes, no more than 45, with Williams. His attention would wander after that. He would be ready for his afternoon nap. He had a cook and an aide who helped him. Hamon said it had been a tough stretch for Williams. Not only had the strokes affected him, virtually all his friends had died. Joe Lindia had died. Williams's longtime companion, Louise Kaufman, had died. His dog had died. He pretty much had outlasted his generation.
I feared the worst. When Williams came into the den, where we had set up our lights, he was using a walker and was helped by the aide. He was shrunken, frail. The robust character of 20 years earlier was gone. The baseball god of 40, 50 years ago was long gone. He was helped into the easy chair and landed with a grateful thud. And he was wonderful.
I have a copy of the tape. From the core of that besieged and worn-out body, Ted Williams emerges. The voice is still loud, challenging, authoritative. It's him. His right hand might wander, almost out of control, and he might dab now and then at a little saliva coming from the side of his mouth, but he's funny and definitive and in charge.
I have my little list of questions, but they are mere starting points. He drives the conversation wherever he wants it to go. I'm only along for the ride. "Oh, brother.... Now here's something interesting! Glad you brought that up!... Oh, that's in all the books. Go read about it.... Where are you from? This is inside stuff you're getting, buddy."
He talks about fishing with Bobby Knight in Russia. He talks about how he thinks George Will knows a lot politically but not too much "baseballically." He talks about Joe Jackson and how he should be in the Hall of Fame, damn it! He talks about Mark McGwire, loves Mark McGwire, talks about Nomar Garciaparra, loves Nomar, talks about Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr., loves Ken Griffey Jr.
He takes a myth and deflates it. Remember the old story about the final doubleheader in 1941, when he could have finished with a .400 average simply by sitting out? The story is that manager Joe Cronin gave him the option, and Williams scoffed. Sit it out? He played the two games, went six for eight, finished at .406. He upheld the sanctity of the game, something no one would do in modern, stat-conscious times. Wasn't that how it went? Yes, but....
"I never thought about sitting out," he says. "Not once. But I gotta say this. I didn't realize how much .400 would mean to my life. I mean it had happened only 11 years before I did it, and I thought someone else would do it pretty soon. I felt there certainly would be other .400 hitters. I said that. Always said that. Now here it is, 50, 60 years later."
He talks about hitting the slider, invented during the middle of his career. That new pitch. He talks about hitting against the Williams shift, stepping back an inch or two from the plate to be able to punch the inside pitch to left. He talks about flying in Korea in the squadron of future astronaut John Glenn. He talks ... and then he stops.
"You've got enough," he says. "Bye."
Just like that. Fifty-one minutes, 22 seconds. Exactly.
The tape doesn't show the conversation after the interview was finished. He talked informally for another 10 or 15 minutes. He was lively, friendly. He was funny. He took out the needle. "This isn't a paid interview, is it?" he said. "There's no money for this. Right?"
I said there wasn't. No.
"Well, I enjoyed it, and I'd do it again," Williams said, "but the next time there should be a little remuneration. Do you know what I mean? Remuneration. Some compensation."
"Maybe we could send you a hat," I suggested.
"You know where you could put that hat," Williams said.
He asked me who my boss was. I said I had a lot of them. He asked who was the biggest boss, the boss of all the bosses. I said I guessed Ted Turner was the biggest boss. This was a CNN deal.
"Well, you tell Ted Turner that Ted Ballgame would like some remuneration, O.K.?" Williams said. "Tell Ted that Ted would like something he could fold and put in his pocket. You know?"
I said that since this was an interview to celebrate his 80th birthday, maybe we could work something out, come back for his 100th. He laughed. He said, Ha, if we were back for that, he would do that interview for free. Ha. For sure.
The good news was that he didn't die soon after that day. The interview was far from his last. Within a year he seemed to be everywhere. He was the lead character in all celebrations for the Team of the Century. He was at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway. He was at Cooperstown. He was at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, N.J. He was with Ted Koppel late at night, with the Today show in the morning. He talked cooking with Molly O'Neill in the pages of The New York Times Sunday Magazine. He had a last triumphant tour.
I remember him going to his bedroom with the walker for his afternoon nap at the end of the interview. Final picture. The big event at night was going to be a Red Sox game on television, off the satellite. He wanted to rest. The cameramen were breaking down the equipment. Suddenly chimes rang out from the bedroom. They played the tune, "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here." They were a signal that Williams required assistance. The aide hurried to the room. A minute later he returned. He was laughing.
"Ted just wanted me to tell you one thing," he said. "Don't forget the part about the remuneration."
Not a disappointment. No. Never.