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Teddy Ballgame

The following slightly revised review of Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero first appeared in the I-24 Exchange in November of 2006.

Now that the World Series is over and there is no baseball to watch, it’s a good time to read about baseball. A good start would the biography of Ted Williams by Leigh Montville entitled Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero. Written in 2004, it is a detailed account of the life and baseball career of one of the game’s greatest figures.

Montville gathers the information for the book from interviews with Williams’ family, teammates, and friends, including grandson Ted and teammate Dom DiMaggio. During the course of writing the book, Montville found out that many of the stories that have made the rounds on Williams over the years are tough to verify. One of my favorite Ted Williams stories involved his first spring training with the Boston Red Sox. Slugger Jimmie Foxx was taking batting practice and someone supposedly said to Williams, “Wait ‘til you see Jimmie Foxx hit.” Williams supposedly replied, “Wait ‘til Jimmie Foxx sees me hit.” Montville could find no one who actually heard this exchange, but most everyone he talked to believed it could have happened.

Montville covers Williams’ quest to be the greatest hitter the game had ever known. “Get a good pitch to hit” became The Williams mantra; he tried to pass it on to the players he managed with the Washington Senators. The book details the .406 season of 1941, the .344 career batting average, and the 521 home runs, but Williams’ life was much more than his baseball career. Williams lived from 1918 to 2001 – 83 years. He was a ballplayer for only about a fourth of his time on earth. Montville gives insight into those other years that tell the real story of Williams’ life.

Montville shows us a Ted Williams who was a gifted athlete. He was both intelligent and generous. The book also portrays Williams as a man who could be mean and cruel. He was loud and profane no matter the setting. Montville says, “For Williams, the language of the dugout was his language of the restaurant, the living room, the neighborhood store.”

I thought I knew a lot about Ted Williams before I read this book, but it turns out I didn’t. I knew that he wanted to be remembered as the best hitter who ever lived. I still lean toward giving that honor to Babe Ruth. Maybe Williams can lay claim to being the best Hispanic hitter who ever lived; his mother’s parents were from Mexico. That’s just one of the nuggets I picked up about Williams from Montville’s book. Williams suffered through three failed marriages and had stormy relationships with each of his three children. His son, John-Henry, exploited Williams during what turned out to be the last few years of both of their lives.

I knew about Williams’ military career. His story could have come right out of Hollywood. Baseball’s best hitter walks away from the game to serve his country – twice. He flew combat missions and crash landed his plane and walked away from it. But Montville points out that Williams was a somewhat reluctant hero. Williams was not reluctant to serve, but his reluctance was out of principle for the manner in which his draft status was handled.

The book is sad and funny and worth reading just for the coverage of Williams’ baseball career. There are humorous sections of the book, especially when Montville covers Williams’ tenure as manager of the Senators. The book reminds us that all families, no matter how privileged or famous, have problems. Montville shows that Ted Williams was just as human as the rest of us.

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