Book review: Definitive portrait of baseball's greatest hitter
"The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams" (Little, Brown and Company), by Ben Bradlee Jr.
Ted Williams would have loved to see his Boston Red Sox go from worst to first and capture their third championship in a decade. Arguably baseball's greatest hitter, Williams appeared in only one World Series during his 19 years with the team, and his lackluster showing contributed to its 1946 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
But the beards that the 2013 Red Sox sprouted to demonstrate team solidarity would have been a different story for Williams. A stickler for short hair and neatness, he demanded that his older daughter's first husband shave his beard and ordered haircuts for shaggy youngsters at the baseball camp that he ran during his retirement.
Fans seeking a complete picture of the beloved star who inspired a slew of nicknames the Splendid Splinter, the Thumper, Teddy Ballgame and The Kid now have but one place to turn. This complex figure comes to life in "The Kid," an absorbing 854-page biography by longtime Boston Globe reporter and editor Ben Bradlee Jr. Based on some 600 interviews that reflect more than a decade of research, this is surely the definitive Ted Williams book.
Williams was a mass of contradictions. His insecure and volatile personality helped make a mess of his relations with hecklers, the women in his life and the sportswriters he derided as the Knights of the Keyboard. But his explosive outbursts and churlish behavior were balanced by countless acts of kindness and generosity, directed most often toward critically ill children. Those acts usually escaped public notice because of his insistence that they remain below the radar, but they yielded a legacy that lives on as the Jimmy Fund and they are as enduring as his feats on the diamond.
The author attributes much of Ted's dysfunction to his unhappy childhood in San Diego. His mother, a Salvation Army zealot, and his father, a drinker who had little time for his children, were seldom around, so the tall, lanky teen found a home on the ball field. His mother was half-Mexican, and he concealed that part of his heritage for fear it might prejudice his career.
His relentless quest to become baseball's greatest hitter yielded a combination of stats that may never be equaled: a lifetime .344 batting average, 521 home runs, a .482 on-base percentage and the epic 1941 season in which he hit .406. If Joe DiMaggio's fielding and base running made him the better all-around player, for pure hitting Ted gets the nod.
His career-long concern was to avoid humiliation and embarrassment, so it's perhaps ironic that only after his death did the macabre news that his remains had been whisked to a cryonics center in Arizona for freezing in hopes he could someday be brought back to life made Ted and his family a butt of jokes on late-night TV.
Bradlee's book opens with a detailed account of the grisly process by which Williams' head was severed with a carving knife and a bone saw; the final chapters read like a Shakespearean tragedy as Ted's heirs conspire against their father as he nears death. Williams' only son, the greedy and rapacious John-Henry, choreographed the plot to disregard his father's oft-expressed desire to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over his beloved Florida fishing waters.
The author cuts John-Henry some slack, concluding that his push for cryonics was not simply another attempt to cash in on his father's fame but rather a young ne'er-do-well's devotion to his dad. It also reflects an attempt at amends by an aging hero who recognizes with regret that he struck out in his three trips to the plate as husband and father.
The frozen remains are yesterday's story, but the saga that endures is that of a driven perfectionist whose performance in the batter's box, with rod and reel in hand, and in the cockpit of a fighter aircraft during his service as a Marine pilot during two wars does more to assure immortality than whatever may emerge from the Arizona desert.
Bradlee's brilliant account is required reading for any Red Sox fan. It's also a fascinating portrait of a complex character that a baseball agnostic or even a Yankees fan will find hard to put down.