Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Was Ted Williams Nuts?

It would be hard to conclude Theodore Samuel Williams did not suffer from some mental illness. This is the main conclusion I have drawn from reading the engrossing new biography of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr., The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. I say this with increased reverence for Ted the person after reading this book.

Ted the Hawker
Friends gave me this book for the holidays. I almost threw it away. I have previously read two biographies of Number 9. Growing up as I did in New England, I worshipped him from when I was seven years old, in 1954, to when he retired from the Boston Red Sox in 1960 at his ripe old age of 42 (and at mine of thirteen.) What else could I learn?

I already knew, and would never forget, that Williams hit .4059 (rounded to .406) in '41, was twice voted the MVP (robbed at least twice more), had a .344 life time average, hit 521 homers, won the '41 All Star Game with a home run at what later became Tiger Stadium, with that inviting right field porch, hit .200 in the only (1946) World Series he ever played in, with a shoulder he injured in a post-season inter-squad game caused by the fact that the Dodgers and the Cards had a 3-game playoff to decide who won the National League, hit a homer at the '46 All Star game in Boston off of the eeuphus pitch (akin a slow-pitch softball pitch) off of Rip Sewell, broke his shoulder at the '50 All Star Game at Comiskey Park, hit .388 with 38 homers in '57 at the age of 38-39, etc.

But the fascination of Bradlee's biography is his detailed review of the life of Ted the person, not Ted the player. He focused his life on two things, besides hunting, fishing and screwing, which were mere pastimes: hitting a baseball, which he studied and analyzed and dissected and wrote about like no one else, and convincing himself that he really was "the greatest hitter that ever lived."  The book evidences his great self-doubts, which seems to have been the unifying force in his life. Not that most of the people who saw him play ever doubted that he was the greatest hitter that ever lived. And who cares, anyway? Wouldn't a rational person be satisfied with knowing that, by the age of 24, he had established that he was among the two or three greatest hitters of all time?

The guy had more buddies than anyone I have ever heard of. Guys who were totally devoted to him. He had any woman he wanted... and he wanted plenty. His second and third wives were drop-dead gorgeous, but he treated them like dirt when he was around, and in any case seemed to spend most of his time off on extended fishing or hunting trips all over the world. 

Wife No. 2 - Dolores Wettach (doesn't even do her justice)

He had three kids, one of whom (his daughter) he was estranged from, one of whom (his no-good son) he was devoted to, and one of whom he tolerated (his second daughter), but all of whom he abused with foul language and foul moods. He could be incredibly thoughtful and caring and, in the same conversation, foul-mouthed and intemperate. He was extremely intelligent, although uneducated. He mastered everything he tried, from hitting to fishing to hunting to flying airplanes in the Marines. Yet he had an enduring, and endearing, naiveté towards people, in particular a baseball memorabilia crook, who swindled him, and his rotten son, who used a power of attorney to steal his father blind.

The reviews of this book seem to focus most heavily on how his son, John Henry, connived to get his dad's corpse airlifted to a "cryonics" laboratory, where Ted Williams' head was cut off and the head and the rest of the corpse are separately being frozen so that when advances in medical science allow it, they can be thawed out and ... who the hell knows?

But the true pith of this book is the incredible contrast between the foul-mouthed, public-spitting, cranky, face that Ted Williams all too often showed to the press, to the public, to his friends and to his family, and the incredible devotion to him by those who knew him best. 

Dominic DiMaggio, Joltin' Joe's younger brother, played with Williams for eleven years. Dom was a quiet contrast to the loud, brash Williams. He went on to great business success. He had a great family life. What did he need an enduring friendship with Williams for? But when Ted Williams' vision failed him after a couple of strokes and he could no longer watch Red Sox games on satellite TV and call DiMaggio the next day to discuss the previous night's game, DiMaggio called him and filled him in, and cursed himself if he missed a game. And when Ted failed, the two old Bosox pals, Dom and Johnny Pesky, drove to Florida to spend a few last days with their beloved pal. Undoubtedly, that wasn't because Ted Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived.

The one criticism I have of Bradlee is that while he exhaustively catalogues the endless incidents of loutish behavior, and meticulously shows that he was emotionally deprived by a distant father and a wacky mother (who spent all of her time in Salvation Army activities all over San Diego, forcing Ted and his younger brother to sit in front of their house at 10 PM waiting for either parent to show up), he makes no real attempt to determine whether he was mentally ill in any way. Aside from one off-handed quote from someone who suggested that Ted Williams was bipolar, Bradlee is silent on how to characterize his mental state. I think that for a guy who was as meticulous as Theodore Samuel Williams, the only thing left to read about him is for some psychiatrist to read Bradlee's book and present his or her conclusions. Maybe the shrink can fly out to Scottsdale for a consultation in case Ted is thawed out and can talk.

1 comment:

  1. Eccentric he was. I heard a story about him that he left Fenway in the middle of a game in uniform and between innings to buy a hot dog from a street vendor. But he was not a selfish man. His service in the military, WWII and Korea, was exemplary.