Top 100 Baseball Blog

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ted Williams: The Hidden Sides of the Former Boston Red Sox Superstar

Former Boston Red Sox outfielder and Hall of Famer Ted Williams is one of the most fascinating players to ever set foot on a diamond. Impossibly talented, he was also often an enigma to the media and fans who closely monitored him.

Williams played for 19 seasons in a Boston uniform between 1939 and1960. He missed nearly five full years of his career because of multiple stints in the military as a pilot. Even so, the left-handed hitter finished with amazing statistics that include a .344 batting average, 521 home runs and 1,839 RBIs.

Despite the sometimes contentious relationship he had with press, he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1966. Deceased since 2002, he remains an iconic figure in baseball—the man with the quintessential lefty swing that will never be matched.

This space has been used to re-examine insightful interviews from baseball figures of times gone by. I have uncovered another that gave a deep look at Williams during the waning years of his career. On August 1, 1955, Sports Illustrated published a piece by Joan Flynn Dreyspool entitled Subject: Ted Williams. At that time, the outfielder was 37 and struggling with injuries and the idea of the mortality of his career. Completely open, he provides a rare glimpse of himself, his background and what made him tick.

The entire article can be found HERE.

For the sake of closer inspection, I pulled out what I found to be the most interesting portions of Williams’ interview, and included my own thoughts and insights beneath each quote in italics.

Williams could hold a grudge: "When somebody says nice things about me, it goes in one ear and out the other, but I remember the criticism longest. I hate criticism—and the sportswriters who write the way they feel instead of what they've actually seen.”

Williams was notorious for his ability to not forget slights, and for his disdain for press. It even took him 40 years to tip his cap to the Boston crown after hitting his final big league home run in 1960. Not appreciative of the spotlight from media, he garnered only 93.4% of votes when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966. A huge number, but a player of his talents should have been a good bet for unanimity.

He had a great deal of modesty about his military service record: "Everybody tried to make a hero out of me when I was in Korea. There were from 60 to 100 pilots in our two squadrons and I think that 99% of them did a better job than I did. I certainly was the least 'Gung Ho.'

"Not that I ever had any doubts about my own ability as a pilot, but in aviation I feared two things. I wasn't too well trained in instrument flying and I was forever worried about running into instrument weather which I didn't know too much about. It's been proven the only way to become an instrument flyer is through practice and experience.

"My other fear was that the damn plane would blow up and I'd have to bail out—because I knew I'd leave my kneecaps in the cockpit—I was cramped in so tight. I'd have to bail out with a can opener."

You’d be hard-pressed to find another professional athlete that had as extensive a military record as Williams. He flew 39 missions across two wars and won a cabinet full of awards. As a result, he lost nearly five years in the midst of his baseball prime. If he had played during times of peace, his baseball legacy might be immeasurably more significant than it already is.

Williams didn’t think he was anything special; he just worked harder than everyone else: "They say the secret of my hitting is natural ability and my good eyesight. A lot of people have as good eyesight as I have (20-15) and probably better, and still they're always ready to say 'eyesight's the reason he does it and natural ability.' That's so easy to say and to give credit for. They never talk about the practice. Practice! Practice! Practice! Dammit, you gotta practice!

"Ask anybody who had anything to do with T. S. Williams and they'll tell you he practiced more than anybody. Joe Cronin'll tell you that I hit before the games and after the games. There's never been a hitter who hit more baseballs than Williams. Hell, when I was a kid, I used to get to the schoolhouse before the janitor opened the doors. I'd get the balls and bat, and practice. Then at lunch time, I'd run home, one, two, three, four, five blocks, and grab a bunch of fried potatoes and run back to school before anybody was through eating; and I was practicing again. Always practicing."

It would seem that Williams’ intense practice routine grew out of not having much else to do growing up in San Diego. His mother was a Salvation Army worker and kept long hours. As a child, he didn’t have many constructive places to be besides a ball field, and he made the most of it.

Williams may not have had much as a kid but he had pride: "I was a funny-looking kid, a string bean, a terribly scrawny-looking thing. I certainly had no muscles. My mother used to get notes from the health officer, 'this kid is underweight; tonsils need checking, everything.'

"I was awfully self-conscious as a kid—about everything—the way I looked and the things I didn't have that some of the other kids did. Still I wasn't the poorest kid in the neighborhood. There were some poorer. My mother had to work, and of course, she couldn't be around the home as much as she wanted to be. She was only interested in baseball because of me. She didn't think I'd get hurt in baseball.

"I used to spend all my time at the playground. I was 14, 15, 16. Rod Luscombe, who was about ten years older than I, was playground director. He was a baseball nut too, and in his heart I think he wanted to be a big league player; but he used to just love to play and practice. He'd pitch to me. I'd pitch to him. I was a pitcher in those days. Rod gave me the competition I needed. He'd bear down on me and try to get me out. I'd bear down on him. He was a perfect guy to have around the playground for a kid like me."

A lot of children buckle under the weight of having a tough home life or being left to their own devices. Williams developed an uncanny ability to commit laser focus to baseball, likely because it was the one area of his young life where he was able to show he was the best and have justified pride.

Williams on his first exposure to scouts: "I was still in high school, when I worked out several times with the San Diego Padres. A few of the scouts saw me play my last high school game, and one of them, a top man from Detroit, was sitting with my mother.

"I was 6-feet-3 inches tall then and I weighed 145 pounds. When the Detroit scout saw what I looked like, he told my mother, 'If you send that boy out and have him play professional ball, it'll kill him.' Geez, my mother came home crying and everything. She was just sick. I didn't say anything because I knew I hadn't played very well that day.

Despite his impossible slimness when he was younger (which undoubtedly contributed to his nickname of the “Splendid Splinter”), it’s difficult to imagine that scouts wouldn’t have been awed by his sweet left-handed swing, which may still be the best the game has ever seen.

Williams may not have been as confident/arrogant as he came across: "I'm going to tell you something about sports which I think is the most overrated expression regarding being a success or a failure in sports. To my knowledge, this has never been said. People always say, 'you have to have confidence in yourself.' I know in my own experience that the less confidence I've had, I've always fared better. If I start doing something with a lot of confidence I never do it well. It's happened 100 times to one that any time that I knew this guy was an extra tough pitcher—and knew I was going to have trouble—I'd come through 100 times more than if I said, 'Geez, I can hit this guy in my sleep!' Psychologically, this is better to me than to figure 'I can knock this bum any time I want to.' That kills me every time.

Because of his ridiculous statistics, it is easy to assume Williams was supremely confident. However, it appears he actually used fear of failure to drive himself. Given his background, such an approach makes complete sense.

Baseball wasn’t all that inspired Williams: "The guy I envy more than anyone else I've seen or read about is Zane Grey. I've got a collection of all his books on fishing. I'd want to do just what Zane Grey did. He bought himself a big three-masted schooner and he roamed the world. He fished all the great fishing spots in the world.

"I used to be dreaming about someday being way far away where I'd have the only fishing waters around. If I had the money and facilities to do it I'd certainly roam the world."

A noted outdoorsman, Williams went from being a city kid to craving wide open spaces as he got older. The peace and quiet he sought would have been light years away during his playing career, operating in the fishbowl that is and was the Boston sporting scene. 

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

No comments:

Post a Comment