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Ted Williams: A Perfectionist Ballplayer With Many Demons

Ted Williams, pictured here in 1941, was deeply marked by his parents' absence while he and his brother were growing up.
Ted Williams, pictured here in 1941, was deeply marked by his parents' absence while he and his brother were growing up.

There are great ballplayers, and then there's Ted Williams. In a 22-year career, Williams accomplished things that give him a legitimate claim to being the greatest hitter who ever lived; but he was also a tormented soul who hurt a lot of people, including himself.

Williams 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 place him among the top 20 of all time, despite missing three seasons while serving in World War II and most of two more as a pilot in Korea.

Williams played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox, and he had a swing so pure and flawless that when the 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 Pagliaroni, dropped his bat and started to cry.

But Williams' personal life was a mess. 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. And in a truly bizarre ending to his life's story, his son had Williams' head and body cryonically frozen, generating a bitter family dispute that played out in the Boston media.

Writer Ben Bradlee Jr. spent years tracking down Williams' friends, relatives and descendants to write a lengthy and deeply personal account of his life. Bradlee spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at The Boston Globe. He tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies about his new book, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.

Interview Highlights

On Williams' stature and style

He was a tall string bean and weighed nothing. He always thought he was too skinny and weak, and worried about his power and whether he would have enough to make it in baseball.

He was just an incredible hitter. He had a textbook swing, low to high, and he always emphasized that you had to have a slight uppercut in your swing and it was smooth. He ended up pioneering the notion that sluggers in baseball didn't need to use a big heavy bat, that a lighter bat was better because it created more whip in the speed of the bat hitting the ball, the speed of the swing. ...

He didn't like it when people suggested that his success was simply due to his natural talent. He said, "No one ever swung a bat more often than I did. No one practiced harder than I did." So he always attributed a lot of his success to hard work.

On his absent parents and early resentments

His mother was a Salvation Army street worker — a zealot, really — and she was dedicated. She was out until all hours of the night, saving souls on the street. That's what she believed in; that was her passion in life, more so than taking care of her two sons, Ted and his younger brother, Danny. Those kids were one of the first latchkey kids, really. They were up until about 10 o'clock at night waiting on the front step of their house, waiting for their mother to come home.

The father was sort of a drunk and a ne'er-do-well and not around. His mother not being present caused Ted a lot of resentment and anger. I think that was the source of the anger. He had, luckily for him, a playground right down the street which had lights, unusual in those days. So he was able to spend much of the time on the ball field. He nursed this anger and resentment. These were festering early memories for him.

On keeping his Mexican-American background a secret

It's something that didn't come out until a month before Ted died in 2002, the fact that he was a Mexican-American. His mother was Mexican — [she] was born in Mexico — and her parents were born and raised there as well. He was embarrassed about this and afraid that the prejudice of the day would hurt his baseball career. Even though Mexicans didn't figure as prominently as black ball players, nevertheless he was aware of the black prejudice and feared that it could hurt him. He was advised to keep this under wraps and he did. He always spoke rather contemptuously of his extended family on his mother's side and referred to them as "the Mexicans" in not a nice way.

Ben Bradlee Jr.'s other books include <em>Prophet Of Blood</em> and <em>Guts And Glory</em>.
Bill Brett / Courtesy of Little, Brown & Co.
Courtesy of Little, Brown & Co.
Ben Bradlee Jr.'s other books include Prophet Of Blood and Guts And Glory.

There was a very telling moment in 1939 after Williams had completed his rookie year with the Red Sox and had made an absolutely smashing debut — hit well over 300 and led the league in runs batted in — and he returned to San Diego the conquering hero and was met at the train station by a gaggle of 100 or so of the extended Mexican clan. Ted took one look at them from afar and beat a hasty retreat. He didn't want to be seen with them.

On his perfectionism

I think sometimes to excel you have to be single-minded in your determination to succeed, and other things suffer along the way. He was that. He put family life aside and he was absolutely determined to become the greatest hitter that ever lived. He was driven to excel, not just in baseball: It turned out he was a world-class fisherman as well; he learned photography; he became a top gun Marine fighter pilot. ...

Anything he undertook he wanted to do right. He was a perfectionist and he had no tolerance for those who did things in what he felt [was] a shoddy manner. He was in a zone, really, his entire life. When you're in a zone like that you can break a lot of china along the way.

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