The Williams Way


July, 2002


Browse in Uncategorized

Ted Williams’s body lies in a place called the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, which freezes corpses for potential future use. His children are fighting over what comes next. His daughter says he wanted to be cremated, and said so in his will. His son, who has been known to make a dollar off his father’s reputation, apparently wants to keep the DNA.

The fate of Ted’s remains is oddly emblematic. When a nation seeks to turn everything into a commodity, will it not eventually regard the lifeless husks of athletes that way too? If pro baseball wants uniforms to serve as billboards, won’t someone think that maybe the bodies that wore those uniforms might yield a few bucks? There’s something here to ponder about the genetic engineering debate as well. They always tout the medical miracles. Yes, and they said television would enlighten the masses.

Put the genetic ball in play and it doesn’t take a genius to see what’s coming. Besides, the whole enterprise seems to miss the point. Pardon me for sounding old fashioned here, but new fashioned isn’t sounding so hot these days. To paraphrase Dr. King, it’s not the content of our genes that counts, but of our characters.

By the time I came along, Ted Williams was no longer the Splendid Splinter, and certainly not the Kid. The face had filled out, the body had a bit of slack. In pictures, he had a hint of that dark-grained 1940s quality that made players from that era seem old beyond their years. Ted wore his cap flat in front like the old timers did, an afterthought rather than a statement.

This was the mid-1950s. Willie Mays was wearing his cap with a high cocky peak, the brim curved low like a frame. Willie had the style. You could tell something new was coming just by his cap.

Yet Ted was part of the new thing too. (“Williams” doesn’t work. He was Ted Williams to us kids, always.) He had a defiant quality, a touch of Brando and Dean. Ted refused to wear a necktie for example, even to those big shot awards dinners at which he was the honored guest, which made him the patron saint of my Sunday morning protests. “Ted Williams doesn’t wear a neck tie, so why do I have to?”

I said that every single Sunday, to no avail. But then the Israelites didn’t always follow God either.

Then there was the spitting. His relations with Boston sports writers were not amiable, and Ted once spit towards the press box as he rounded third after a home run. One of his tormentors called him an “automatic choke,” and that was not the worst. I was too young to grasp the politics, but I could understand spitting at a bully. The day the spitting story appeared in the papers, I felt a combination of puzzlement and awe.

And then there was the Williams shift. Lou Boudreau, manager and shortstop of the Cleveland Indians, came up with the shift to foil the left-hand hitting Ted. Boudreau packed the right side of the field. The third baseman moved to shortstop, the shortstop moved deep behind second base, the outfielders shifted in similar fashion, all to plug Ted’s hitting alleys. Other teams followed suit.

Ted could have tapped dinkies into left field all day and hit .500. Instead he defied the shift, hit right into the teeth of it, and won batting titles anyway. I like to think Ted would have defied steroids too. Chemical enhancement would have been like hitting singles to left, the easy way. Ted’s power came from timing and technique. He uncoiled into the ball with a limber grace. Today’s pumped-up bashers seem to club it by comparison.

This defiance was more than style. It had to do with integrity, a personal code. The story often has been told of the last day of the 1941 season, when Ted’s average stood at .3995. His manager suggested he sit out the double header that day and end the season with a .400 average, thus virtually ensuring himself, at age 23, a place in the Hall of Fame. Instead Ted insisted on playing, went 6 for 8, and raised his average to .406. “I didn’t want to hit .400 that way,” he said later, speaking of the managers suggestion.

I doubt Ted would have used a word like “faith.” But often those who don’t use the word have more of it than do those who do. Can you imagine George Bush Jr. calling for a total rerun of the balloting in Florida because he didn’t want a tainted victory–he didn’t want to win “that way”? Ted Williams’s insistence on playing that last day in 1941 was much like that. Jesus said his disciples couldn’t walk on the water because their faith–their conviction–was too small. He said we should demonstrate our faith, not trumpet it before others.

Ted had many faults, but he had honor too. After a mediocre season in 1959 he insisted on a pay cut. When the war came, Ted had a legal deferment as his mother’s sole support, but he enlisted anyway. It’s true he was taking a beating in the Boston media before he went. Still, he did go. Then he served again in Korea as a Marine fighter pilot. All together, he lost almost five years from his prime.

I know a retired navy man whose path crossed Ted’s in the service, and I’d like to tell a story that he told me. My friend was stationed at a naval base, here or in the Pacific, I forget which. His best friend’s girlfriend was flying in for a visit; and since this man would be on duty when the plane arrived, he asked my friend to meet her and bring her to the base.

My friend is black. He was not enthused at the prospect of walking back to the base with a white woman. But he didn’t want to let his friend down. White people just don’t think about things like that, he said.

He met the woman and on the way back to the base, they passed a ball field where a game was in progress. The players noticed this couple passing, a black man and white woman. The game stopped. Players started moving towards the road. My friend kept his eyes straight ahead, willed his legs to keep walking, and not cut and run. He’s from Mississippi. In basic training he had come down with a fever, but the redneck sergeant called him a lazy you-know-what and made him train anyway, in the heat. He ended up in the hospital.

Now this. But then a big voice boomed out from the field. “Are we going to play baseball here or am I going to go?” It was Ted Williams. Whether it was the baseball purist speaking, or a nascent voice of racial justice, I will never know. Maybe the two are not that far apart. The Red Sox were the last team in the majors to have a black player. We Boston kids had to suffer that. We saw Willie, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Junior Gilliam and all the rest in the World Series each October, while our slow white guys lumbered along in the second division.

The lesson was not lost. The Red Sox management was stupid. It was not accidental, I suspect, that many of the young leaders of the Sixties had been ardent baseball fans, from Tom Hayden on down. They saw this racial drama unfold, just as they saw the Dodgers abandon Brooklyn and move to Los Angeles. That lesson wasn’t lost either: in the end it’s all about money. The violation of baseball’s purity became a template through which they saw such things as Vietnam.

Whatever prompted Ted that day, when he spoke it was, in my friend’s memory, as though the waters parted. The players resumed their game, and my friend and the white woman proceeded unmolested. When he came to that line, “It was Ted Williams,” I thought of my stack of baseball cards, with Ted Williams at the top, and the first time at Fenway I saw him hit into the shift.

Ted Williams was not a role model. But he was a hero. He inspired space in my imagination in which a larger sense of life could grow. He looms all the larger as sports–like much of America–have become so commercial, and money-obsessed, and small. Just maybe we’ve got to dwell less on bodies and their genetic components, and more on the lives that inhabit those bodies. Perhaps the urgent need is not to extend life but rather to give more thought to what it is.