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An American Hero??
I do not like heroes; they make too much noise in the world. –VoltaireI just finished reading Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero from Leigh Montville, an old sportwriter from the Boston Globe. Pretty decent, I'd recommend it, although its not anywhere near any of the better biographies I've read.
The book pretty much is a large collection of stories about Teddy Ballgame. And boy were there plenty of stories. The guy had such a strong personality that the book must have wrote itself. Montville just retells the memories of the people closest to Ted, most times in their own words. This makes it a great read, since I don’t really care what some sportswriter, a kid when Ted played, has to say. The stories themselves are great. Told by the people who knew him best, you really get a feel for Ted Williams as a person.
Just a random example, a story from an old teammate, Lefty Lefebvre about a lunch they had,
He was loud, we sat down at the counter. He said he wanted a chicken sandwich and a frappe. The sandwich came and he started smelling it. He said, in a loud voice, "Is this chicken fresh?" The owner came over and told him it was. Jesus Christ, it was embarrassing. Ted smelled the chicken some more. He'd say things a nine-year-old kid wouldn't say. No control at all. Anyway, he eats the sandwich drinks the frappe in about a minute, and says we're out of there. I've got three-quarters of a sandwich to go.The guy was crazy, or at least it looked that way. He'd yell: "I got here by myself, I can find the way home," to his minor league manager giving him base-running instructions. He called every woman he met a "syphilitic cunt" and every man a "syphilitic fucken son-of-a-whore". He was a kid who never really grew up and it eventually caught up to him.
Much of the book isn't easy to read. A lot of the second half of the book is just painful. There is no other way to describe it. Ted's career only spans nine of nineteen chapters, and two of those are on his time in the Marines for WWII and the Korean War. Montville actually tries to sum up the '47—'51 seasons in a couple of pages. The middle section is all about Ted's life primarily as a fisherman. Its interesting if you like to fish, or understand the appeal of untouched nature, but I can see how some people would be bored.
The end of the book covers in detail his later life, and for those of you familiar with his story, at times it isn't easy to hear about. A lot of the book is about his children, John-Henry in particular, who ended up playing a huge role in Ted's later life. I always knew that guy was a scumbag, but I just never knew how bad he was. Quick point, because I'd rather forget that there are people like that in this world, but after his father had his third stroke, he put Ted into a rehabilitation program that focused on rebuilding his right arm. Why his right arm? It was so Ted could sign autographs and make a little more green for his son who had squandered away most of his fortune. The messy end to Ted's life is also covered, including the controversy surrounding his body. I'm pretty sure its something I wont be reading again.
I would have rather read more stories from his playing days, and especially from his childhood, but I also realize there are a lot of other Ted Williams biographies out there covering that in detail. This was the story that had to be told, and now it has. Good read, decent writer (different sections dont fit together properly, making the book feel disjointed), definitely worth the time even if you aren't remotely interested in baseball (why are you here then?).
One thing that I'd like to take from this book, and which people seem to often forget, is to keep our so-called 'heroes' in perspective. Its very easy to remember Ted Williams as the affable old man that his public image took on as he grew into old age. People forget about the bad side of a man who was far from perfect. To his credit, Montville does not shy away from the negatives.
He could be downright mean; to strangers, to friends, and especially to his family. Ignoring the several times he spit at fans, he went through four "wives" and was faithful to none. He was absent from much of his families life, including all three of his childrens' births, and wasn’t nice to be around even when he was present. Also, his military service is always admired, but actually consisted of training pilots and playing baseball during WWII (pretty much a public relations ploy by the US military). Before he was shipped off for actual combat in Korea, he took the US to court to try and be found exempt from service. He later withdrew his case under public pressure. That’s not to take away anything from his admirable service, but it does put things in a little more perspective.
More importantly, however, the one thing to learn from such a case as Ted Williams, is that despite all of his obvious faults as a person, he still had the ability to reach people in a way most of us will never understand. Many of the stories in the book are from people who had little contact with Williams, but their lives were forever changed. Ted Williams did a real lot of good in this world, and none of it should be forgotten when remembering the man he was.
The Jimmy Fund, still today the Red Sox' biggest charity, was pretty much sustained and expanded solely by the good will of Ted meeting all the time with kids. Not just a superficial, "Hi, here's my autograph. Next!" Ted got to know kids, a lot of whom were going through traumatic treatments for cancer or other diseases. Each one of those kids was changed for life because of his commitment.
Another example. Some time near the end of his career the father of a local family struggling to get by approached Ted with an idea for a Ted Williams Baseball Camp. Not only did Ted go into partnership with this man he hardly knew, but he provided support and friendship to that family, even after the camp was no more.
Ted was doing a lot of nice things in places where nice things were not asked for or even expected. Things like that go quickly forgotten, and athletes of today could do well to realize how easy it is for them to make a serious difference in the lives of strangers.