Definitive portrait of baseball’s greatest hitter

”The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” (Little, Brown

and Company), by Ben Bradlee Jr.

Ted Williams would have loved to see his Boston Red Sox go from

worst to first and capture their third championship in a decade.

Arguably baseball’s greatest hitter, Williams appeared in only one

World Series during his 19 years with the team, and his lackluster

showing contributed to its 1946 loss to the St. Louis

Cardinals.

But the beards that the 2013 Red Sox sprouted to demonstrate

team solidarity would have been a different story for Williams. A

stickler for short hair and neatness, he demanded that his older

daughter’s first husband shave his beard and ordered haircuts for

shaggy youngsters at the baseball camp that he ran during his

retirement.

Fans seeking a complete picture of the beloved star who inspired

a slew of nicknames – the Splendid Splinter, the Thumper, Teddy

Ballgame and The Kid – now have but one place to turn. This complex

figure comes to life in ”The Kid,” an absorbing 854-page

biography by longtime Boston Globe reporter and editor Ben Bradlee

Jr. Based on some 600 interviews that reflect more than a decade of

research, this is surely the definitive Ted Williams book.

Williams was a mass of contradictions. His insecure and volatile

personality helped make a mess of his relations with hecklers, the

women in his life and the sportswriters he derided as the Knights

of the Keyboard. But his explosive outbursts and churlish behavior

were balanced by countless acts of kindness and generosity,

directed most often toward critically ill children. Those acts

usually escaped public notice because of his insistence that they

remain below the radar, but they yielded a legacy that lives on as

the Jimmy Fund and they are as enduring as his feats on the

diamond.

The author attributes much of Ted’s dysfunction to his unhappy

childhood in San Diego. His mother, a Salvation Army zealot, and

his father, a drinker who had little time for his children, were

seldom around, so the tall, lanky teen found a home on the ball

field. His mother was half-Mexican, and he concealed that part of

his heritage for fear it might prejudice his career.

His relentless quest to become baseball’s greatest hitter

yielded a combination of stats that may never be equaled: a

lifetime .344 batting average, 521 home runs, a .482 on-base

percentage and the epic 1941 season in which he hit .406. If Joe

DiMaggio’s fielding and base running made him the better all-around

player, for pure hitting Ted gets the nod.

His career-long concern was to avoid humiliation and

embarrassment, so it’s perhaps ironic that only after his death did

the macabre news that his remains had been whisked to a cryonics

center in Arizona for freezing in hopes he could someday be brought

back to life made Ted and his family a butt of jokes on late-night

TV.

Bradlee’s book opens with a detailed account of the grisly

process by which Williams’ head was severed with a carving knife

and a bone saw; the final chapters read like a Shakespearean

tragedy as Ted’s heirs conspire against their father as he nears

death. Williams’ only son, the greedy and rapacious John-Henry,

choreographed the plot to disregard his father’s oft-expressed

desire to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over his beloved

Florida fishing waters.

The author cuts John-Henry some slack, concluding that his push

for cryonics was not simply another attempt to cash in on his

father’s fame but rather a young ne’er-do-well’s devotion to his

dad. It also reflects an attempt at amends by an aging hero who

recognizes with regret that he struck out in his three trips to the

plate as husband and father.

The frozen remains are yesterday’s story, but the saga that

endures is that of a driven perfectionist whose performance in the

batter’s box, with rod and reel in hand, and in the cockpit of a

fighter aircraft during his service as a Marine pilot during two

wars does more to assure immortality than whatever may emerge from

the Arizona desert.

Bradlee’s brilliant account is required reading for any Red Sox

fan. It’s also a fascinating portrait of a complex character that a

baseball agnostic or even a Yankees fan will find hard to put

down.

Online:

http://benbradleejr.com/