What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?

by longformphilly

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Richard Ben Cramer | Esquire | June 1986

Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those. There’s a story about him I think of now. This is not about baseball but fishing. He meant to be the best there, too. One day he says to a Boston writer: “Ain’t no one in heaven or earth ever knew more about fishing.”

“Sure there is,” says the scribe.

“Oh, yeah? Who?”

“Well, God made the fish.”

“Yeah, awright,” Ted says. “But you have to go pretty far back.”

IT WAS FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, when achievements with a bat first brought him to the nation’s notice, that Ted Williams began work on his defense. He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America’s dust.

Ted was never the kind to quail. In this epic battle, as in the million smaller face-offs that are his history, his instinct called for exertion, for a show of force that would shut those bastards up. That was always his method as he fought opposing pitchers, and fielders who bunched up on him, eight on one half of the field; as he fought off the few fans who booed him and thousands who thought he ought to love them, too; as he fought through, alas, three marriages; as he fought to a bloody standoff a Boston press that covered, with comment, his every sneeze and snort. He meant to dominate, and to an amazing extent, he did. But he came to know, better than most men, the value of his time. So over the years, Ted Williams learned to avoid annoyance. Now in his seventh decade, he had girded his penchants for privacy and ease with a bristle of dos and don’ts that defeat casual intrusion. He is a hard man to meet.

This is not to paint him as a hermit or a shrinking flower, Garbo with a baseball bat. No, in his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see. He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is “IT’S HORSESHIT.” Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because “THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,” after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: “YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.”

He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: “WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?” Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.

Ted Williams can hush a room just by entering. There is a force that boils up from him and commands attention. This he has come to accept as his destiny and his due, just as he came to accept the maddening, if respectful, way his opponents pitched around him (he always seemed to be leading the league in bases on balls), or the way every fan in the ball park seemed always to watch (and comment upon) T. Williams’s every move. It was often said Ted would rather play ball in a lab, where fans couldn’t see. But he never blamed fans for watching him. His hate was for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t feel with him, his effort, his exultation, pride, rage, or sorrow. If they wouldn’t share those, then there was his scorn, and he’s make them feel that, by God. These days, there are no crowds, but Ted is watched, and why not? What other match could draw a kibitzer’s eye when Ted, on the near court, pounds toward the net, slashing the air with his big racket, laughing in triumphant derision as he scores with his killer drop shot, or smacking the ball twenty feet long and roaring, “SYPHILITIC SON OF A BITCH!” as he hurls his racket to the clay at his feet?

And who could say Ted does not mean it be seen when he stops in front of the kibitzers as he and his opponent change sides? “YOU OKAY?” Ted wheezes as he yells as his foe. “HOW D’YA FEEL?…HOW OLD ARE YOU?…JUST WORRIED ABOUT YOUR HEART HA HA HAW.” Ted turns and winks, mops his face. A kibitzer says mildly: “How are you, Ted?” And Ted drops the towel, swells with Florida air, grins gloriously, and booms back:

“WELL, HOW DO I LOOK?…HUH?…WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TED WILLIAMS NOW?”

Writer bio: Richard Ben Cramer, who died in January 2013, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1979 for his coverage of the Middle East. He is the author of the American classic, “What it Takes.”

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