Think of how often it is that we admire someone’s worldy accomplishments, and shake our heads at how emotionally screwed-up they are. So it is with Ted Williams, a baseball great I didn’t know much about until I read Ben Bradlee Jr’s lengthy and deeply personal account of the man they called “the kid.”
Bradlee is my guest today on Fresh Air, and it’s worth a listen.
There are great ballplayers, and then there’s Ted Williams. In his 22-year career with the Boston Red Sox, Williams staked a credible claim to being the greatest hitter who ever lived. He won six batting titles, including one when he was 40. He’s the last player to hit .400 in a season, and he retired with baseball’s highest on-base percentage ever.
Williams hit for power, too. His 521 career home runs places him among the top 20 all time, despite missing three seasons serving in World War II and most of two more as a pilot in Korea.
Williams had a swing so sweet and pure that when the Red Sox played the Yankees, Mickey Mantle would stand and watch him take batting practice. When Williams homered in his last at-bat in 1960, the on-deck hitter, catcher Jim Paglioaroni, dropped his bat and started to cry.
But Williams was also a tormented soul who hurt a lot of people, including himself.
Though he quietly committed countless acts of kindness and generosity, he also railed at sportswriters, cursed and spat at fans, and took out his rage on those closest to him, hurling profanity at his wives and children and ripping phones out of the wall.
Williams married three times and two other long-term relationships with women, along with countless casual affairs. He had a daughter with his first wife and two children with his third, but he wasn’t much of a presence in any of their lives until he got older, when his efforts to make amends led to some serious mistakes.
His desire to connect with his son, John Henry, led to the truly bizarre ending to his life’s story: John Henry had Ted’s head and body cyronically frozen in Scottsdale, Arizona, generating a bitter family dispute that played out in the Boston media.
Bradlee’s book is The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. You can hear him today on Fresh Air, which airs at 3 and 7 on WHYY. If you’re listening outside the Philadelphia area, find a station here.