Buy the Book

A Big Man 
in a Big League

The immortal life of Ted Williams.

By From the March 2014 issue

Ted Williams swearing into the Navy 1942 (Wikimedia Commons)
Send to Kindle

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams
By Ben Bradlee Jr.

(Little Brown, 855 pages, $35)

The Kid, at 855 pages and weighing in at 2.7 pounds, is a big book. Indeed, it weighs 10 ounces more than Ted Williams’s weapon of choice against opposing pitchers, a 33-ounce Louisville Slugger. But then, Ted Williams was a big man, both on the baseball field, where he laid claim to his lifelong ambition of being the best hitter of all time, and off the field, where he served as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II and a Marine fighter pilot in Korea, flying combat missions alongside John Glenn.

During one mission in Korea, Williams crash-landed his bullet-ridden and burning jet. He chose not to eject because, as he later recalled, he feared that injuring his knees or wrists would end his baseball career. So he rode the plane in and took his chances.

He was big to a generation of baseball fans, and very big to the thousands of young cancer patients he visited in hospitals, and on whose behalf he raised money for medical research. He sought no publicity for this, and in fact forbade reporters from shooting photos of his visits with the young patients. Where his baseball rival Joe DiMaggio thrived on publicity and celebrity, Williams did not, to the point that Boston sportswriters called him aloof, spoiled, self-centered, and angry. Williams, in turn, grew to despise the “lords of the keyboard,” as he called the ink-stained wretches.

The scribes got one thing right: Williams was angry, but usually with himself. From childhood he demanded perfection from himself, and when he failed to attain it, he raged. After one fruitless at bat with the Red Sox, he threw his bat in disgust. It sailed into the stands and hit an old lady in the head. Williams, mortified, rushed down into the Fenway Park first aid station to apologize. But his behavior on the field never changed.

His every at bat, every utterance, was big sports news. But The Kid is a biography, not a box-score recap. It is a book about a baseball player and a baseball era, but it is not a baseball book, not an homage to the game as were George Will’s Men at Work and David Halberstam’s The Summer of ’49. Where Bradlee truly shines is in telling the story of Williams the man—a deeply flawed man, husband, and father. Bradlee parses those faults with the relentless objectivity of a good newspaper reporter and editor, which is what he was at the Boston Globe before he left that paper to write this book.

It took him 10 years, during which time he conducted more than 600 interviews and created a database of every Boston newspaper article written about Williams between 1939 and 1960 (and there were eight major Boston papers during those years). He perused birth and death and marriage and hospital records. The Williams family allowed him access to Ted’s papers. Bradlee did his due diligence in research, as any good author should. But the extraordinary effort he put into creating the book is belied by his easy yet powerful writing, by his seamless transitions from one scene to the next, one character to another. That’s what the best writers do.

The Kid begins and ends with Williams’s death, and the sordid tale of Ted’s head being frozen at an Arizona cyronics facility by two of his children in hopes of resurrecting their father some day far in the future. It’s an unbelievable tale, but true. Williams had long told friends and reporters (including this reporter, in 2000) that he wanted to be cremated, his ashes to be dispersed in the sea, where he had long loved to fish for Atlantic salmon, tarpon, and bonefish.

Ted’s son, John Henry (who died a few years after his father, and was himself frozen), was behind the cyronics scheme. Bradlee examines the case in detail—the likely bogus “agreement” Ted signed assenting to the procedure, the garbled medical records, John Henry’s exploitation of his ailing father. But in the end Bradlee settles upon a commonsense yet tragic explanation: John Henry’s love for his father was all consuming, and Ted’s love for his son, though late in arriving, was powerful enough that Williams, in essence, agreed to the cyronics option in a “What the hell” moment. He did it for the kids. 

Familial love, dysfunction, turmoil, and shame permeate the narrative. Ted’s mother was quite possibly insane, and neglected her two young sons in her evangelical crusade with the Salvation Army in San Diego. Ted’s father was a layabout and drinker, who also left his sons to their own devices. Many nights neighbors beheld the Williams boys, Danny and Ted, sitting on the family porch at 10 or 11 o’clock, without dinner and with no sign of the parents. It’s a wonder Ted did not grow into a delinquent and gangster, which is exactly what Danny became. Ted, a tall, skinny, awkward kid who displayed none of the natural speed and dexterity of a ballplayer, escaped to the local San Diego playgrounds, and found his meaning in baseball. There, he developed his batting skills, and nursed his anger and his shame: His mother was Mexican, a fact he succeeded in hiding until late in life by claiming her family were Basque. When, after hitting the Big Leagues, his cousins and uncles on his mother’s side showed up at ball games, Ted ignored them if the press was about. He’d meet with his relatives after the game, in private.

America’s views on race and ethnicity 70 years ago were not conducive to Williams celebrating his Mexican heritage. He feared he’d be drummed out of baseball (which is how he supported his family) if his mother’s origins were targeted by the same press that he had grown to loathe, and that regularly savaged him. Yet, his upbringing also served to foster in him a disdain for the treatment of black ballplayers by the white baseball establishment. He could hide his heritage; blacks could not. He believed worthy blacks should be welcomed to the Bigs years before Jackie Robinson was brought in, and he was one of the few white ballplayers who wrote personal letters to Robinson congratulating him on his success.

Williams’s politics ran to the conservative. He championed meritocracy—which is why he took such umbrage over the Big League’s tardiness in bringing up qualified black players. He believed in duty and country. When World War II came, he held a 3A deferment as sole financial supporter of his mother. But in the spring of 1942, Williams enlisted in the Navy’s flight program. He once told a reporter that he had had only one hero: Douglas MacArthur. He called president George H.W. Bush a friend. He judged men by their character, not their politics. He disdained casuistry or, as he put it to me in 2000, he didn’t like bullshit. It helped if a man knew baseball, loved the outdoors, and was an expert sports fisherman. The broadcaster Curt Gowdy, himself from humble beginnings, was such a man; he and Williams remained close friends for almost 50 years.

Williams was once asked after a particularly successful season what he’d like to attain next. “Immortality,” he replied. He has achieved that, though not in the way the literal-thinking John Henry envisioned. And yet perhaps in some future age, Ted Williams will be thawed and cloned and resurrected, such that some fortunate ball club fields a team of nine Splendid Splinters. If so, one hopes that someone with Bradlee’s reportorial skill will be there to tell the story. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Paul Reid is co-author with William Manchester of The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm: 1940-1965 (Little, Brown).