Yesterday the United States Postal Service announced that on July 12, 2012 it would release a postage stamp honoring my favorite ballplayer, Ted Williams. For on-field exploits alone I could as easily have chosen the Babe, or Henry Aaron, or Willie Mays; for a compelling back story I might have gone with Jim Creighton, or King Kelly, or Barry Bonds. But taken all in all, it’s The Kid; we shall not look upon his like again.
The Kid was born on August 30, 1918, to May Venzer Williams and Samuel Stewart Williams. Although the baseball record books list his formal handle as Theodore, the name on his birth certificate was Teddy Samuel Williams. If his parents were naming him in tribute to the rugged individualism of Teddy Roosevelt, they couldn’t have been more prescient. The road to manhood for this Kid was long and dark, and if he was going to get there, he’d damned well have to do it on his own.
“My mother was gone all day and half the night, working the streets for the Salvation Army,” Ted wrote in his autobiography. “I didn’t see much of my dad…. My dad and I were never close. I was always closer to my mother, always feeling I had to do right by her, always feeling she was alone.” She was alone? He had to do right by her? May Williams embraced the whole family of man through the Salvation Army. If that fervor for humanity left her husband and children—for Ted had a younger brother named Danny—a little short, well, they would find their way, somehow.
There is a story Ted told about himself in another context—how bold and brash he was in 1938, his last year in the minors—that forms a paradigm for his progress through life. Late in a tie ballgame, he hit a double. Trying to distract the pitcher, he began to wave his arms and jitterbug off the base. Manager Donie Bush had seen him pull so many bonehead plays that he became nervous. “Don’t go too far, now … be alert … watch that pitcher … look out for that pickoff!”
“Take it easy, Skip,” the Kid yelled back. “I got here by myself, I’ll get home by myself.”
Matinee-idol good looks; a lithe, powerful frame; offhand, unaffected charm; blistering intensity: that was the catalog of the Kid you formed in the first minute you met him. But there was more to the man, far more, and so much of it was visible beneath the thin skin that you were tempted to think you knew him, really knew what made him tick. You didn’t.
The big grin, the thundering voice, the hearty thump on the back, the genuine warmth and generous spirit—these were authentic parts of the man inspiring fierce loyalty by those who were permitted to love him. For the rest, not chosen, there was a sign on the fence: KEEP OUT.
With her dedication to outfitting souls for the ascent to heaven, Ted’s mother couldn’t be bothered much about everyday appearances. Second-hand furniture and clothing troubled her not a bit, for she ministered daily to those who had nothing. But Ted was ashamed of the shabbiness and neglect. “I was embarrassed about my home, embarrassed that I never had quite as good clothes as some of the kids, embarrassed that my mother was out in the middle of the damn street all the time.”
Ted’s home had one undeniable plus: North Park playground was only a block and a half away, and its playing fields had lights. If his parents were going to be away from morning until night, at least Ted could play ball instead of sitting on the porch waiting for someone to come home.
In 1946 John Chamberlain, in a profile in Life, wrote of May Williams that “growing up under her nervous but fascinating spell would either make or break any kid.” Seemingly it made Ted and broke Danny, who rejected authority parental and civil as vigorously as Ted welcomed it. In significant ways, however, their upbringing splintered Ted, too. If the playground was his salvation, it was not a total substitute for home, any more than the evangelical Army was for his mother. She and her husband split up in 1939, with the latter going north to the Bay Area. He had “stuck it out with my mother for twenty years,” Ted wrote, “and finally he packed up, and I’d probably have done the same. My mother was a wonderful woman in many ways, but gee, I wouldn’t have wanted to be married to a woman like that.”
When he reported to the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League in 1936, at age 17, after Ted had reached his full height of 6’3”, but he weighed only 148 pounds. Where did the power come from? Not from the physique, although that would become impressive over time, but from technique: God-given talent harnessed with hard, hard work. Ted had come close to signing with the Los Angeles Angels, but his dad, previously content to let Ted go his own way, now decided to get in on the act and scotched the deal. The Cardinals were the first big-league team to send a scout to look at him, but they didn’t like the way he ran. The Yankees made an offer but wanted to start him way down the ladder. Detroit sent scout Marty Krug, a former big leaguer, who was aghast at Ted’s beanpole frame. He told Ted’s mother that a year of pro ball would literally kill him. It is surprising that someone in the Detroit front office did not literally kill Krug.
When Eddie Collins, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, came to San Diego in 1936 to check the progress of two Padres on who he had an option, Bobby Doerr and George Myatt, he saw this scrawny 17-year-old part-time pitcher taking batting practice, and he saw the most perfect batting form he had seen, better even than that of Joe Jackson. Collins talked Bill Lane, the Pads’ owner, into a handshake deal for an option on the boy who had The Swing. One year later he came back to exercise the option, and Ted Williams became the property of the Boston Red Sox.
After two years of methodically stuffing himself with eggs, milkshakes, bananas, and ice cream, Williams was still skinny, but no longer ghastly. When he first reported to the Red Sox spring-training camp in 1938, as green a pea as ever came off the farm, his reputation preceded him. It wasn’t his statistics that set him apart from mere mortals—in two years in the Pacific Coast League he had posted modest batting averages of .271 and .291. It was The Swing. His first day in camp, when he stepped into the batting cage, everything stopped. Even the most veteran players interrupted their drills to watch the Kid strut his stuff: take the wide, erect stance that made him look even taller than his 6’3” height; extend his bat across the plate, as if taking its measure; wiggle his hips and rock his shoulders as if he were searching for solid ground beneath his feet; twist his hands on the bat handle with bad intent. Then, the turn of the hips, the snap of the wrists, the fluid follow-through, and the crack of bat on ball. No student of baseball who saw The Swing will ever forget it.
He failed to make the big club out of spring training and bitterly set off for Triple-A Minneapolis. In 1938, his one year with the Millers, Ted tore up the American Association, winning the Triple Crown with a batting average of .366, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs. But his play in the outfield and on the basepaths drove Donie Bush to distraction, drink, and despair. Maybe the Kid was going to be the game’s next great star, but the comparisons offered by newsmen around the circuit were not to Babe Ruth but to Babe Herman—or to Ring Lardner’s “Elmer the Great.” It is hard to fathom today, but as he rose to the majors Ted was universally regarded as a screwball.“I felt a lot of people didn’t like me,” Williams wrote in his autobiography, My Turn at Bat. He wasn’t going to let them do that to him. Anticipating rejection, he would make himself so disagreeable as to ensure it, and so deny its hurt. What other people thought of him—even the faceless crowd—mattered.
Ted had a remarkable rookie season in Boston in 1939, hitting 31 home runs and driving in 145 runs. After a sophomore season in which he failed to meet his own lofty goals, especially in home runs,he began his glory year of 1941 by breaking his ankle in spring training. This may have been a lucky break, as for the first two weeks of the regular season it limited him to pinch hitting duty, thus reducing his plate appearances in the cold weather that he despised. By mid-June he was hitting .436. Then came the All Star Game and the two-out, ninth-inning, three-run homer which he always described as “the biggest thrill I ever got in baseball.”
Ted’s average slipped down to .402 in late August, and veteran observers recalled all the other assaults on the .400 mark that had wilted as summer turned toward fall. Bill Terry, a boyhood favorite of Ted’s, had been the last man to attain the mark, hitting .401 in 1930. His record looked safe. But remarkably, the Kid perked up again, raising his average to a lofty .413 by mid-September. But it is hard to go 2-for-5 and see your average decline. In the last ten games of the season, Ted lost nearly a point a day. And then, with his average just a hair below the magical line, there was the climactic doubleheader in Philadelphia. He could have sat out the twin bill and finished with a rounded-off .400, but instead chose to play and went 6-for-8 to finish at .406.
Seventy years later, Williams remains the last man to hit over .400. Dueling with him for the baseball spotlight in 1941 had been the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, who in midseason hit in 56 consecutive games. No one since has come close to that mark, either. This year both are honored with commemorative postage stamps, along with two other departed heroes, Larry Doby and Willie Stargell. Artist Kadir Nelson’s heroic style will make this set a keeper.