Monday, 1 April 2013


NOTE: Tonight I am doing a broadcast on BBC Radio, of the Red Sox season-opening game at Yankee Stadium against the Evil Empire. If you are a Red Sox fan, as I am, you will appreciate the appropriateness of April Fools Day to start the Sox' season, but in the eternal spirit of hope, I thought I'd post this obit, which I recently found in my files, of the greatest Red Sox of all, Ted Williams.

This one was written for the Guardian,with a British audience in mind, as a stock piece for their files before Williams died. But when Ted did finally pass away, on 5 July 2002, the Guardian's news desk thought it was important enough to run a short wire-service piece in the news pages, and the obits desk decided that was enough attention for one baseball player, although, of course, Williams was much more than that. I've left it as I wrote it, except to fill in his age when he died. The Red Sox did finally win another World Series, in 2004, and then again in 2007, but in the process somehow found themselves morphing into the Yankees-lite, anathema to old-school Sox fans like me. I've since written, though the Independent hasn't yet published it, an obit of Richard Ben Cramer, whose tremendous piece in Esquire's June 1986 special issue, The American Man: 1946-1986, is one of the best profiles ever written (you can link to it here). Look at the picture of Ted in the follow through of his swing.  That's the Ted Williams I will always remember, though I never actually saw him play.

TED WILLIAMS was born in 1918, the last year the Boston Red Sox won baseball’s World Series. The next winter, the Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, where he became the game’s greatest star, and launched a dynasty of Yankee championships that continues to this day. Boston fell under the so-called Curse of the Bambino, which not even stars as great as Williams were able to overcome. Now Williams has died aged 83, and his Red Sox are still without another championship.

Williams was America’s real-life John Wayne: baseball prodigy, war hero, record-holding fisherman. How many men could make reasonable claims at being the world’s best at three different things? He embodied a masculine image which became deeply unfashionable, yet in recent years a society which lavishes huge rewards on mediocrity came to re-evaluate his accomplishments, understand, and even embrace his uncompromising personality. What was brash in a youngster becomes lovable in an aging icon. In this he came to symbolise Boston, where he was destined to play tragic hero: the young god whose hubris was repaid by the denial of World Series glory with his cursed Red Sox. 

Williams epitomised some classic New England values, working with dedication to become prodigiously skilled at his craft. Using a narrow cylinder of wood to hit a baseball bearing down at your head at speeds above 95mph is arguably the single most difficult task in sports, but no one made it look easier than Williams. Ruth may be the sport’s greatest player, but for pure hitting talent, Williams is the only man who could argue he was Ruth’s better. He could also sacrifice. Although he was accused at one point of dodging military service (he was his mother's sole support) he eventually lost much of his baseball prime to military service. And he was loyal. Despite his feuds with the Boston press, the so-called 'knights of the keyboard' he despised, and despite his love/hate relationship with Boston's fans, he played all 22 seasons of his career with the Red Sox.

But Ted never possessed another New England trait: self-restraint. He never learned the grace, the taciturn style, the faux-worldliness, of New York’s glamorous Yankees like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. He debuted for the Red Sox in 1939, a 21 year old rookie calling himself “the Kid”. He resembled Wayne playing the Ringo Kid, tall, lean, and impossibly handsome: a combination of youthful innocence and lethal skill. He could count the stitches on a baseball hurtling at him, and uncoil his slender body like a finely-wound spring to make contact with it. Great players demand multiple definitions: soon they were calling him “The Splendid Splinter", later he would add "The Thumper".
His perfectionism contrasts with cricket’s equally obsessive Geoffrey Boycott. Like Boycott, Williams waged a career-long battle with the press, who accused him of placing individual success above his teams’ goals. When Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau shifted his fielders to pack the right side of the diamond, Ted refused to alter his technique and hit the opposite way. It would have stopped him taking his perfect swing. But unlike Boycott, Williams was exuberant in his abilities, generous with his chosen art to both teammate and opponent. His childish glee as he danced around the bases after winning the 1941 All-Star Game with a late home run earned him yet another nickname, “Teddy Ballgame”. “Jeffy Cricket-match” lacks the same ring. But Williams steadfastly refused to compromise for acceptance: he wouldn’t wear ties and he couldn’t pander to public relations; he never had an empathy for those who lacked the absolute sense of security his ability gave him.

Williams’ came by obsession naturally. His father abandoned his mother, a fanatical organiser for the Salvation Army. She in turn left him to his own devices; he haunted San Diego’s sandlots, hitting baseballs whenever he could persuade someone to pitch them. He was already playing semi-pro while still a high-school star, and at 18 turned pro with the San Diego Padres, then a top independent minor league team, in the Pacific Coast League, who eventually sold him to the Red Sox.

In 1941 Williams became the first player in almost 20 years to hit over .400 for the season. Where three safe hits every ten at-bats (.300) is considered excellent, the .400 barrier is regarded as nearly impossible. Before the season’s final day, Williams’ average stood at .3995. He refused his manager’s offer to sit out the final two-game double-header to protect his average, which would have been rounded up to .400. Instead, he stroked 6 hits in 8 at-bats, raising his mark to .406. No one has reached .400 since. Typically, however, 1941 was also the season DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and the Yankee Clipper captured the Most Valuable Player award. The two engaged in a triumphant reunion tour fifty years later, still New York chalk and Boston cheese. But by then, both they, and America, had learned to relish the contrast.

Williams’ career statistics fall short of many of the game’s greats, mostly because he lost five peak seasons to wars. He was so skilled a Marine fighter pilot that he was forced to spend World War II as an instructor. Recalled to Korea, he flew as John Glenn’s wingman. The future astronaut, Senator, and “right-stuff” test pilot called Williams the best combat flyer he had ever seen. 
In private Williams, whose ne’er do well brother died at age 39 of leukaemia, was a driving force behind the success of the Jimmy Fund, the Red Sox “pet” charity for children’s cancer research. In public, he used his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame as a platform to call for the inclusion of Negro League stars, denied by segregation their chance to play in the majors.
But if baseball was his obsession, fishing was his passion. He retired to Florida where he could indulge himself with deep-sea fishing, where he held a number of world-record catches, and was equally adept with a fly rod, the same vision, coordination and patience that made him a great hitter of baseballs made him a great caster of lures.

Aged 38, and slow afoot, Williams still batted .388. Two years later, he retired. John Updike chronicled his final game in a famous New Yorker magazine essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”. In his final at-bat in Boston’s Fenway Park, Williams hit a home run. After he took his place in left field, he was replaced, allowing the fans the chance to give him one final ovation. He trotted back into the dugout, without tipping his cap, and disappeared. Despite prolonged cheering, he never returned. As Updike explained, “Gods do not reply to letters”.

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