As a gangly young teenager growing up in San Diego, Ted Williams would often be seen at school with a bat in his hands and his glove strapped to his belt. While not much of a student, he did take a keen interest in history and especially enjoyed reading biographies. When classes dismissed, he rarely would head home to a house that inevitably would be empty. Instead, he would make his way to the nearest playground with one or two classmates and hit pitched balls against the backstop. His dreams of becoming the greatest hitter who ever played began there. So too did his unparalleled drive and temperament, or maybe we should say temper. But whatever is said, it must begin and end with the man’s unmatched ability to hit a baseball and not (as many would like) with the man’s enigmatic personality…..
Pick your adjective to describe him…….demanding, aloof, surly, unforgiving…….in one sense or another……they’re all applicable and there’ll be more on each one later. But, he was also unforgettable. It’s often said that numbers speak for themselves. So there’s no need to go there. For the curious, Baseball Reference has all the numbers chronicled here. Managers and pitchers tried in vain to stop his assault with a bat in his hands. They couldn’t. They even tried to move eight fielders to the right side of the diamond – the first ever “shift” we see so often. Once, when a fan was heckling him in left field, he came to bat the next inning striking a screaming line drive foul straight at the hapless fan. He missed, so he tried again. Again, he missed except this one went high over the Green Monster for a long home run.
They said he was demanding – and he was – just ask any of his three wives. But, he was most demanding of himself. While flying a fighter jet during the Korean War, his plane was hit and caught fire. Refusing to eject, he “landed” at 225 mph while seemingly willing what was left of the plane’s brakes to take hold. The following morning he was in the air again on another mission.
He could also be unforgiving. Despite 20,000 fans cheering his every move, Ted Williams only heard the handful that booed. Early on in his career, the man known as “The Kid” refused to tip his cap to fans. He thought about it briefly as he rounded first base after hitting a home run in his final career at bat (listen here courtesy of Sounds Of Baseball), but instead he ran straight into the dugout after crossing home plate.
They wrote too that he was surly. Indeed, he was all that too. In what was probably the most notorious example of this behavior, he once tied Babe Ruth for the largest fine levied ( $5,000 ) for spitting in the general direction of fans not once but several times as he turned his body around to “greet” fans in all seating sections. Aloof? He was that too. His second passion in life was the lonely sport of fishing. Often, and much to the chagrin and concern of his wife or girlfriend, he would disappear for days on end seeking the wilderness of Florida. He eschewed restaurants where he would be trapped in the public eye. Much like Hemmingway’s “Old Man And The Sea” he enjoyed the simplicity of a personal battle of one man against one fish.
One hitter against one pitcher, one at bat at a time, one pitch at a time. The purest form of competition. The greatest hitter who ever lived……
Footnotes and Credits: In your local library, you can find “The Kid: The Immortal Life Of Ted Williams” by Ben Bradlee Jr (New York Times Book Review here). You’ll also can enjoy Richard Ben Cramer’s Cover Story that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1986.