Getting to know Ted Williams

When Ted Williams was chasing .400 in the summer of 1941, my grandfather was 22 years old and just out of college at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La. He was studying to be an accountant, and he loved baseball because, to him, it was “the thinking man’s game.” He’d say that phrase to me often as he brought me up to love glove, ball and bat, and he’d tell me about the “Splendid Splinter,” No. 9, Ted Williams.

imagesWilliams was the best hitter who ever lived, and this idea of who Williams must have been stuck with me, and it would manifest itself in odd ways. At the craps table, I liked to have my chips placed on 9. And when I’d hold the dice in my sweaty hands, I’d think to myself “Ted Williams.” It seemed to me, whether it was true or not, that I was more lucky when my money was riding on 9. Anyway, Ted Williams has always been mythic to me, and I never took the time to really find out much about the guy, which was nice, given that today you can’t help but find out about what athletes are really like. I knew Wade Boggs, my true childhood idol, was an alcoholic who was known for his drinking exploits on airplanes. I knew Roger Clemens, another idol, was an accused steroids user who cared so much about his reputation that he was willing to drag his family through years and years of public embarrassment as he fought the allegations. But all I knew about Ted Williams, other than a few things like that he was always in battles with the Boston media, was that he could hit the cover off the ball and that he made my grandfather get really excited.

Granddaddy, as he tracked Williams’ pursuit of .400, didn’t get to do much else other than check the box scores in the newspaper. Ted went 3-of-4 today. Oh, well he only was 2-for-5 yesterday. He didn’t know that Williams was obsessed with being the greatest of all time to the point of near madness, and maybe that was better. I often battle with the question of whether we know too much today, or whether this sporting life without so many heroes strikes the right tone.

All of this leads to last week, when writer Richard Ben Cramer died. Through Twitter, I was introduced to one of his seminal works, a profile of Ted Williams, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now,” in Esquire. Cramer tracks down Williams in his 70s, in the Florida Keys, and one of the most enriching profiles I’ve read ensues.

Now, I feel like I know Ted Williams. I sent a link to my grandfather, who is 94 and uses e-mail regularly. I am not surprised, for a variety of reasons, that I have not heard back about the story.

I’d love to know what you think.