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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ted Williams, My Father: A Review

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The legacies of baseball players are largely represented in popular culture by their statistics and the retelling of their greatest physical feats. Rarely is the curtain truly drawn back to permit a full view of the person who exists beyond the diamond. Not all compelling baseball books have to be about the player’s career. An excellent example of that is the recently released Ted Williams, My Father (Ecco Books- an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers), which is a memoir written by the Hall-of-Fame outfielder’s daughter Claudia Williams.

Although there are the occasional mentions of accomplishments like the magical .406 season, the MVP awards and the famous “red seat home run,” this is not a book about Ted Williams’ baseball career. It’s a revelation of his personal life and his experiences as a father, which may have been much less successful than his athletic endeavors, but were not a failure either.

Claudia Williams was born in the early 1970s, a decade after her father ended his legendary career. Growing up, she was rather unaware of his exploits as a baseball player and decorated war veteran. Although she saw countless people attempt to get close to him based on those merits, that never mattered to her. It was all about having a familial relationship with her complicated father.

As perfect as Ted Williams was as a baseball player, he could never match that same success in his personal life.  A volatile personality that frequently erupted in bouts of aggravation and profanity-laced outbursts of anger earned him the nickname of “the Beast” from his daughter. He also struggled with women, going through three divorces and a contentious relationship with his first-born daughter Bobby-Jo. Claudia makes no bones about acknowledging her father’s chauvinistic and often difficult attitudes and behaviors, but also acknowledges they may have originated from his childhood, which came in a non-ideal situation where his parents were frequently absent.

Instead of pushing away the man with so many personal foibles and faults, Claudia chose to embrace him and adapt her expectations accordingly. By doing so, she was able to forge a strong connection that she admits was more like being “buddies” than the traditional father-daughter. Nevertheless, she got the most out of what he was capable of providing.

As she came to know her father, Claudia began to understand that like everyone else, her father had many good points among his shortcomings. He was an extremely charitable man, not only working with organizations like the Jimmy Fund but often assisting individuals in need. He was also an early champion of black baseball players, helping pave the way for their inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For as difficult as his inter-personal relationships could be, he Claudia warmly remembers his softer and giving side which was often almost to a fault.

She shares countless stories that show a side of Williams that are likely completely unknown to the common fan, including:

-His obsession with oral hygiene, which consisted of an aggressive brushing routine, and a love of mouthwash so strong that at one point he had a crystal decanter of it in his bathroom.

-A love of the space program spawned out of a lifelong curious nature and a lengthy friendship with astronaut John Glenn.

-His burning desire to silence critics and please his fans. He cared deeply about how people saw him, and wanted to avoid making himself a target of criticism. Naturally, being such a prominent public figure, that often didn’t work out well.

Being a hero athlete and veteran, Ted saw a steady stream of people latch on to him throughout his life, looking for his money and influence, his companionship and even just his time. Claudia takes to task some of the people she believes let her and her father ranging from fans and groupies, to unscrupulous memorabilia dealers, to family members like Bobby-Jo. Although she and her brother John Henry were often lampooned in the press in their father’s final years and after his death for their influence in his life, she takes great care in explaining that these stories were frequently half-truths or out-and-out falsehoods.

Following Ted’s death in 2002, much of the public conversation about him focused on his decision to participate in cryonics, which is the low-temperature preservation of remains in the hopes that an eventual revival is achieved through future advances in science and medicine. Instead of glossing over this topic, Claudia attacks it with gusto and detail, expressing her disappointment that a private family decision about such a sensitive matter became a bull’s eye for criticism and vitriol.

Ted literally wrote the bible of hitting, as his 1971 The Science of Hitting is still regarded a seminal work. Even though he may have been better at hitting a small leather ball with a piece of worked lumber more than anyone else before him or since, it was inconsequential to his daughter. She realized early on that his superior skills as an athlete and soldier didn’t translate to parenting. However, she embraced this imperfect man with patience and persistence, and came away cherishing his presence in her life. Her journey to understand and feel accepted by her father is the compelling driving force of Ted Williams, My Father, and shows a side of the famous ballplayer that numbers and barroom anecdotes never will.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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