Looking Out For No. 9
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is
The band is playing somewhere, and
somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey
has struck out.
Ernest L. Thayer, “Casey at Bat”
Some celebrities won’t let us own them. They keep their distance, forcing us to take what we can get, leaving blank spaces for us to fill and not caring whether we get it right. It doesn’t matter if we never know them. And that’s how they become icons.
It is a perverse, almost masochistic mode of operation, but it is how American popular culture works. The more the stars stay away, the more we try to pull them closer. When they refuse to cooperate, some criticize them. Others respect them even more. In the modern media environment, in which celebrity is increasingly something to be pursued, even craved, at the expense of any sort of modesty or humility, those who would deny us themselves stand in stark relief.
So it was with Ted Williams.
The legendary Boston Red Sox slugger, the Hall of Famer, lived his life via a simple creed. He wanted to be the best and the hell with the rest. Theodore Samuel Williams existed to excel, whether the task at hand involved hitting a baseball or fishing in Key West or shooting down enemy airplanes. He was a man famous almost purely through his deeds, ones which have since taken on the vibration of myth.
He remains the last man in baseball history to finish a season with his batting average above the magical .400 mark. Williams could have sat out the last day of the 1941 season to maintain his .400 average. Instead, he played both games of a doubleheader, smacked six hits and finished at .406. In the final at bat of his career, he belted a home run. His eyesight was renowned and his memory unparalleled. Forty years after his retirement, he could describe a double he hit in some meaningless April game. He could tell you the pitch. The pitcher. The final score. The weather. His skills transferred seamlessly to military combat. Williams served as a pilot in World War II and Korea, losing years of his baseball career in the process. Later in his life, in Florida, he became as adept at big-time fishing as he had at hitting.
But throughout, Williams kept himself at bay. His temper was profound. His profanity, unrestrained. The Boston media, whom he derisively called “The Knights of the Keyboard,” frequently attempted to run No. 9 out of town. When the Red Sox weren’t playing well, which was often, Williams was viewed as too selfish, worrying about his own performance at the plate when he should have been playing better defense in the outfield or trying to be more of a leader in the clubhouse. (It happens today with Barry Bonds, the best player in baseball. Bonds, whose skill is matched by his inaccessibility, has never been embraced by the fans and never will be.) And Williams’ aloofness carried over to his post-baseball life. Three marriages failed. Relations with children became strained. A stint as a manager grew too difficult when modern players couldn’t match Williams’s unreachable standards.
Ted Williams, in short, was not here for our public consumption. But author David Halberstam, the celebrated historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Vietnam and whose book on the subject (The Best and The Brightest) is regarded as a classic work of nonfiction, comes at Williams from a side angle. In “The Teammates,” Halberstam provides us with a look at the Splendid Splinter through the eyes of three men who knew him as well as anyone, which is to say, not that well at all. The three, Dominic DiMaggio (brother to Joe), Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky, along with Williams, spent years as teammates on the Boston Red Sox of the 1940s and years afterward as close friends, commiserating as the game of baseball—and the world—changed around them.
Halberstam fastens his narrative to a road trip. In late 2001, not long before Williams’ death, DiMaggio and Pesky decided to drive from Boston to Florida to visit their ailing comrade. For others, for younger, more modern individuals, a line drive down I-95 along the Atlantic Seaboard is the stuff of Spring Break, not drama. But for DiMaggio and Pesky, both in their 80s, it was an endeavor, a pilgrimage. A perhaps ill-advised trip taken for a singular, compelling reason: They knew it would be the final time they would see Ted Williams alive.
Bobby Doerr, the former All-Star Sox second baseman and the third member of group, could not join the trip. Retired in Oregon, also in his 80s, he was devoting his energy to caring for his ailing wife, who had suffered two strokes. But Halberstam brings him along in spirit, intertwining the story of the journey with the three’s reminisces about being young, being poor, playing baseball in Boston, and, most of all, orbiting Williams.
As such, Williams looms as the book’s central character, even as the work spends most of its time sketching the memories of the people around him. The material produced isn’t intended to add to Williams’ Olympian mystique. Instead, the stories loosen the Splinter’s aura, humanizing him. They carry the warmth of a late-evening dinner with trusted friends.
A spirited anecdote involves Pesky’s recount of facing Spud Chandler, an intimidating hurler for the New York Yankees. Williams took the young shortstop aside before a crucial late-inning at bat in 1942 told him (Ted didn’t advise; he directed) to not attempt to “pull” Chandler, not to try and get around on the ball and hit it with power. Instead, Williams implored Pesky, who had never had a hit against Chandler, to stay within in his talent, to hit the ball away from him to the opposite field. Pesky listened. He stepped up and simply slapped at the ball. It dropped gently into left field for a single and two runs scored. Chandler went crazy on the mound, lost his cool and cursed at Pesky, not even stopping when Williams came to the plate. Distracted, the pitcher immediately served up a homer to Williams, who was cackling throughout with delight. The tale makes short work of the suggestion that Williams cared only about himself once he laced up his spikes. But it also reveals the joy and passion that Williams brought to every game and every at bat.
There were less flattering moments. Doerr recalls a dark day in Florida when he joined the older Williams for some tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. Doerr, an accomplished fisherman in his own right, made several innocuous mistakes and ended up losing several fish. Williams, his temper aflame, exploded, lambasting his long-time friend. Doerr lets Williams’ tirade go without retort, and Halberstam uses the episode to illustrate not only the volcanic nature of Williams, but the enduring brand of Doerr’s loyalty. Doerr, Halberstam writes, “understood the complete context.”
Up until then Bobby had thought there were two Ted Williamses: a sunny, joyous, generous one who could not wait for another day of life, especially if it involved a day of baseball or a fishing expedition; then there was the impatient, explosive Ted, unable to control his moods, as grown men were supposed to. For the first time, Doerr decided there might be even a third Ted Williams, someone even darker and more volatile, with even less self control. They went to the house and that night Ted said, “I guess I was a little tough on you out there today.”
Halberstam, however, isn’t interested in whittling Williams down to size. Ted is portrayed as a complicated, mercurial and exhaustingly stubborn being, but it appears to be the author’s estimation that this adds to his glamour, not subtracts from it. The book is written with affection and a simplicity of tone that leaves the judgment of this man and these times to other chronicles.
That is a welcome development, particularly given the sordid family drama that Williams’ death in 2002 eventually became. His son and daughters squared off in court, squabbling over whether the legend had given his permission to be frozen in cryogenic suspension. His body remains frozen to this day, with some accusing his family of trying to exploit his name and attempting to preserve Williams’ genetic disposition for excellence for use by future generations.
Those reading Halberstam’s book won’t find themselves distracted by such details, but they will find death lurking beyond each page. The story of DiMaggio, Doerr and Pesky, in essence, is an elegy for simpler times and simpler men. All three, along with Williams, began their professional careers during the Depression, when baseball was a just a blue-collar job, not a path toward owning a Gulfstream. They fought in World War II and they played for the same team, for the most part, for their entire careers. Then when the game gave them up, they moved on to other jobs (except for Pesky, who remained in uniform as a coach in perpetuity), raised families and embraced their destinies without a hint of bitterness at missing out on the big money that now defines pro sports. Their serenity, humor and almost overwhelming decency ultimately stand as their true lifetime achievement. Halberstam allows their character to shine through without connecting the dots like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. It prevents the book from being saddled with too much sentiment - critical for a work like this.
The final chapter, when Doerr and Pesky encounter a frail, sickly Williams in his Florida home, close to death, doesn’t come as a surprise. It is, after all, the payoff for the entire venture. Yet, at the same time, because of Halberstam’s skill in detailing the simple but rewarding lives of these less famous men who stood forever in the shadow of one of sport’s true giants, the meeting clutches at your chest. While they loved Williams, they feared him. But even that fear bred affection, one rooted in the power of its progenitor. To see the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived reduced to a stroke-addled senior is to witness face-to-face the crushing press of time. It is one thing to see age destroy your friends; it is another thing again when that friend is also your idol.