Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 26, 2014

Book Review: A Complex Life, Finally Told In Full

In his acknowledgements at the end of “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” author Ben Bradlee Jr. informs readers that the biography of the last man to hit .400 was more than a decade in the making. As befits a product of such extended effort, the result is by far the most comprehensive and exhaustive look at the long life of one of baseball’s greatest hitters. At almost 800 pages not counting appendices and notes, “The Kid” might look a bit exhausting as well, but Bradlee’s prose keeps the story moving, and in truth there is much to tell about a figure as complex and contradictory as Williams.

Even now, more than five decades after a 42-year old Williams homered into the Red Sox bullpen beyond the right field fence at Fenway Park in his final at-bat, fans of the Great Game know the remarkable numbers that defined his career as a ballplayer. A lifetime batting average of .344, with more than 2,600 hits, 521 of which were home runs. The highest career average among the 26 players with more than 500 homers. The .406 average in that idyllic summer of 1941, when just before America would be plunged into the war already waging across the oceans, Williams became the first player in 11 years to break the .400 barrier even as Joe DiMaggio was hitting safely in 56 consecutive contests.

No one has hit .400 since and DiMaggio’s record still stands. Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in 1994 and George Brett’s .390 in 1980 have been the closest to breaking the .400 mark, while Pete Rose hit safely in 44 straight games in 1978 and Paul Molitor climbed to 39 in 1987. But while DiMaggio’s record has long been viewed as virtually unbreakable, it may well fall before the major leagues see another .400 hitter. The rise in pitching specialization, from situational relievers to setup men to closers means that batters are constantly facing fresh arms. Williams himself is tied with Rod Carew for the third highest average since 1941. Carew, then a 32-year old in his prime, hit .388 in 1978, and for some time that summer flirted with .400. Williams matched that mark in 1957, the season in which he turned 39 and after a series of injuries had marked the beginning of his baseball twilight. In many ways his performance that year, now largely forgotten, is as impressive as his legendary season at the age of 23.

The complicated life of Ted Williams is about more than just baseball, as evidenced by the fact that Bradlee’s account of the Splendid Splinter’s September 1960 home run as career coda comes with 320 pages still to go. Williams had a long and generally successful second act. An avid outdoorsman and renowned fisherman, he had a highly visible role with Sears advising the then-dominant department store chain on sporting goods and outdoor equipment. He returned to the Great Game for a brief stint as a manager. In his first season he took the usually hapless Washington Senators to a finish ten games over .500. Fans in the DC area, including the teenaged version of this writer, reacted as if the team had won the World Series. He authored books about his life and the science of hitting, and eventually became active in the memorabilia business. In his later years he was celebrated with assorted honors, from the naming of a major highway tunnel in Boston to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Perhaps the most moving tribute of all was at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, when a frail 80-year old Williams was brought onto the field in a golf cart for what everyone realized was likely to be his final appearance at the ancient stadium he had made his own. In recognition of the century coming to a close, MLB had named an All-Century Team, with its living members in attendance. They and all of the current All-Stars gathered around Williams at the pitcher’s mound, paying an extended tribute to one of the game’s great icons.

But there was also a darker side to Williams, which Bradlee does not ignore. He was ashamed of his childhood, with an absent father and a mother more interested in the Salvation Army than her two sons. He denied and tried to hide his Mexican heritage. He was viciously profane, with a hair-trigger temper that he turned on sportswriters, fans, friends and family members in equal measure. He was serially unfaithful to each of his three wives and assorted partners. Criticized by some pundits during his playing career for his focus on personal achievements over team success, he remained largely self-centered into old age.

Yet he was also exceedingly generous, though he insisted that his largesse be kept private. He visited sick children in Boston’s hospitals continuously and was a prime architect of the Jimmy Fund, the Red Sox team-supported charity fighting juvenile cancer. He supported relatives he barely knew, and virtual strangers who he learned were facing adversity.

Because this is a biography, not a novel, it necessarily begins and ends badly. Bradlee starts with an account of the macabre effort by John Henry Williams, the only son of Teddy Ballgame, to fly the body of his just-deceased father across the country so that it can be decapitated and the head and torso separately frozen at a cryonics facility in Arizona. He closes with the final years of Williams’s life, a period in which John Henry, “the Kid’s kid,” played an outsized and what many deemed manipulative role. But Bradlee doesn’t editorialize, instead letting each reader reach their own conclusion.

It’s likely that Ted Williams would have hated this book and had any number of choice expletives to describe the author. For the Kid valued his privacy above all else, and despised anyone who he felt was trying to violate it. During the book’s lengthy development, Bradlee interviewed more than 600 people, and was eventually given access to much of the family’s records by Claudia Williams, Ted’s only surviving child. Whether Ted would have like it or not, that access allowed Bradlee to produce by far the most detailed account ever of the life of one of the Great Game’s biggest stars. Issued in hardcover last year, the paperback version of “The Kid” is due out in early December, just in time for those with baseball fans on their holiday shopping lists.

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Responses

  1. Excellent review. I’ve always viewed Williams as one of the greatest, most interesting Americans of the 20th century. I’l have to give this bio a look.
    -Bill

    • Thanks Bill. It’s a long read, but well worth it. Hope all is well with you.

      Michael

      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

  2. Nice.


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