Re­call­ing the com­plex ‘Splen­did Splin­ter’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Claude R. Marx

BTHE KID: THE IM­MOR­TAL LIFE OF TED WIL­LIAMS By Ben Bradlee Jr.

iog­ra­phers all too of­ten ei­ther fall in love with their sub­ject or wind up hat­ing the per­son so much that the book be­comes a dif­fi­cult-toread hatchet job. Bal­ance and nu­ance are in­creas­ingly rare com­modi­ties in con­tem­po­rary non­fic­tion, and for that mat­ter in so­ci­ety over­all.

That’s why “The Kid: The Im­mor­tal Life of Ted Wil­liams” is such a de­light. While Wil­liams’ leg­endary base­ball ca­reer and soap opera-wor­thy off-field life have been writ­ten about ex­ten­sively, this ex­traor­di­nar­ily even­handed book sheds new light on the sub­ject. Ben Bradlee Jr. grew up a fan of the Hall of Fame ballplayer, but his ad­mi­ra­tion doesn’t pre­vent him from pro­duc­ing a book that deals with the to­tal­ity of Wil­liams’ life and de­pict him as a (mostly) lik­able flawed gi­ant.

“Ted was an orig­i­nal; not a tra­di­tional, mod­est, self-ef­fac­ing hero, but brash, profane, out­spo­ken and guile­less. Self-taught and in­quir­ing, he ex­celled as a Ma­rine fighter pi­lot and be­came one of the most ac­com­plished fish­er­men in the world. For bet­ter or worse, he was al­ways his own man, never a phony — char­ac­ter­is­tics that helped him out­last his crit­ics and win wide­spread af­fec­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion as he aged,” the au­thor writes.

Mr. Bradlee, an award-win­ning for­mer reporter and deputy man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of The Bos­ton Globe, isn’t a sports jour­nal­ist. That isn’t a dis­ad­van­tage in this case be­cause the au­thor’s in­ves­tiga­tive and in­ter­view­ing prow­ess help him break new ground, es­pe­cially on the parts of Wil­liams’ life that were not al­ways ex­ten­sively cov­ered.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, the book gets bogged down in minu­tiae, and at times one wishes his ed­i­tor had used a “delete” key a bit more of­ten. How­ever, the el­e­gance of the writ­ing and the flow of the nar­ra­tive makes up for that most of the time.

There isn’t much new to un­cover about Wil­liams’ play­ing days and, in fact, the sec­tions about base­ball are in some ways the least in­ter­est­ing. How­ever, stu­dents of the game will en­joy re­vis­it­ing his ex­tra­or­di­nary feats as a hit­ter that made him a fa­vorite of fans and the scourge of ev­ery pitcher who ever faced him. Dur­ing his ca­reer (from 1939 to 1960 mi­nus sev­eral sea­sons missed for mil­i­tary ser­vice), he hit .400 or higher dur­ing three sea­sons and had a life­time av­er­age of .344. He won ev­ery award pos­si­ble for a hit­ter to win and was the most vis­i­ble player on the Bos­ton Red Sox. The ul­ti­mate team prize in the game, a World Se­ries cham­pi­onship, eluded the team dur­ing Wil­liams’ ten­ure, and his per­for­mance dur­ing his one ap­pear­ance in the Fall Clas­sic was medi­ocre. Off the field, it was a dif­fer­ent story. Wil­liams, who grew up in a bro­ken home and had par­ents who ne­glected him, would have sim­i­lar prob­lems with his own fam­ily. He would marry and di­vorce three times and was of­ten ver­bally abu­sive to his wives and his chil­dren. He blew hot and cold with his chil­dren, sev­eral of whom spoke for the first time about their fam­ily dy­nam­ics to Mr. Bradlee. The chil­dren were quick to ex­cuse their fa­ther’s be­hav­ior.

“Claudia [the youngest of Mr. Wil­liams’ three chil­dren] thought she un­der­stood how her fa­ther’s mind worked. She learned to let him vent, even if she was bear­ing the brunt of one of his out­bursts. ‘I don’t think I have a mo­ment in my mind that I can think of right now where I re­sented my fa­ther. Maybe for a brief sec­ond I’d be like, ‘Why is he do­ing this? Why?’ I can re­mem­ber when he would get mad or scream at me and say some­thing. I’d be like, ‘Dad why are you do­ing this? Set­tle down. Don’t be so mad! It’s no big deal,’” Mr. Bradlee writes.

Wil­liams’ only son, John Henry, caused him the most grief. Wil­liams made up for his ne­glect­ful par­ent­ing by go­ing into busi­ness with him. The busi­nesses en­com­passed sports me­mora­bilia, an In­ter­net con­nec­tion com­pany and (with­out Ted’s knowl­edge) pornog­ra­phy. The younger Wil­liams ex­ploited his fa­ther’s fame and blew through lots of money.

The younger Wil­liams’ most en­dur­ing legacy was ig­nor­ing the wishes of his fa­ther and rather than hav­ing his ashes spread over the Gulf of Mex­ico when Wil­liams died in 2002, he took the body to Ari­zona to have it frozen and pre­served (the tech­ni­cal term be­ing cry­onic sus­pen­sion). While that process both­ered and re­pulsed many fans, John Henry and Claudia didn’t back down and said that, in fact, the elder Wil­liams was OK with the de­ci­sion. Mr. Bradlee con­jec­tures that “the de­ci­sion seemed less about ex­ploita­tion than it was about not want­ing to let go.” That kind of anal­y­sis, based on prodi­gious re­search, makes “The Kid: The Im­mor­tal Life of Ted Wil­liams” a plea­sure to read and a valu­able ad­di­tion to the sub­genre of base­ball books jok­ingly called Kidlit. Claude R. Marx is writ­ing a bi­og­ra­phy of Wil­liam Howard Taft.

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