Friday, March 11, 2016

The legacy of Ted Williams

There is a famous story about the legendary Ted Williams and his last at-bat in the major leagues, a home run, the 521st of his career. But that's not what makes the story famous.

What makes the story famous is the fact that he refused to come out of the dugout to acknowledge the cheers of the Fenway Park faithful that day.

As described in the essay by John Updike "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", the fans cheered for many long minutes, and even chanted "We Want Ted! We Want Ted!". But he never came out of the dugout, on the last at-bat of his entire career at the ballpark he called home for 22 seasons.

This illustrates very succinctly the complicated relationship Ted Williams had with, well, nearly everybody.

But before we judge him for not being as cute and cuddly as we'd like, there is a side of Mr. Williams that might help us understand him a bit better. A side, perhaps, that is not as well known.

In addition to being one of the top two hitters of all time (along with the Babe), he was an ace fighter pilot in the Marines, and a world-class fisherman. To say he was a man of many talents is to understate his legacy by a wide margin.

His military life started in May, 1942, and rather than accept a cream-puff Naval baseball gig, he volunteered to be a pilot.

Because he is Teddy Ballgame, he expected to excel at it. And he did.

In fighter pilot training, he was excellent at dogfighting, the best in his class, according to his future teammate Johnny Pesky, who was in the same class. Pesky, who didn't qualify for the advanced fighter pilot training, on Ted's talents:
“I heard Ted literally tore the 'sleeve target' to shreds with his angle dives. He'd shoot from wingovers, zooms, and barrel rolls, and after a few passes the sleeve was ribbons. At any rate, I know he broke the all-time record for hits. ... From what I heard. Ted could make a plane and its six 'pianos' (machine guns) play like a symphony orchestra. From what they said, his re­flexes, coordination, and visual reaction made him a built-in part of the machine."
Which is not surprising. Because it's Ted Williams we're talking about here.

He served for nearly four years during WWII, mostly as a flight instructor, and then for about 18 months during the Korean War. He was united with John Glenn, future astronaut, on about half his 39 missions in Korea.

In addition to his piloting prowess, he was recognized as a fly fishing expert as well, and was elected to the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame in 2000. Again, he is Teddy F'ing Ballgame, and we're not.

Ted Williams was one of those men who knew exactly who he was and why he was here, and what he did well and what he did not. And so he did those things better than just about anybody else. Without apologies.

He paid a price for this, to be sure. His relationships with fans, the media, and others were sacrificed on the altar of the Teddy Ballgame persona.

So he was not universally loved, but he was universally respected, and for some people, that is more important. He was pretty damn good at three things that very few people can do even one of: hitting a baseball, and flying fighters, and fishing. For this he has my eternal respect and admiration.

This quote by Richard Ben Cramer seems to sum up his life quite well: "He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America's dust."