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With press closing in, The Kid feels squeeze

Second in a series of excerpts from “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero,’’ by Leigh Montville (Doubleday). Copyright 2004.

The addition to Fenway [in 1940] turned out to be bullpens, not extra seats. The bullpens had been in foul territory on either side of the field, but now were placed inside an elongated, 20-foot-wide box that jutted from the bleachers in right. The 400-foot distance to the power-alley fence now was 380. The move was so obviously designed for Williams that the addition was called "Williamsburg." Great things were supposed to happen in Williamsburg. The switch to left also had been made. There were assorted reasons -- an easier field to play, less sun in the fielder's eyes, a chance for newcomer Dominic DiMaggio, fleet and sure, to play the wider spaces in right -- all of them designed to make Williams's life easier. He had become the obvious designated star in the Red Sox operation.

Another change, also supposed to help, was a flip-flop in the batting order. Williams now was batting third. He had batted fourth a year earlier behind Jimmie Foxx, put there as a threat to make pitchers pitch to Foxx. Now the roles are being reversed, Foxx a threat to make pitchers pitch to Williams. A torch has been passed.

Hadn't it?

No.

Williams was not ready for any of this. The fans were not ready for any of this. Who was he to receive this kind of treatment this fast? He was 21 years old. He'd played one season. A lot of ballplayers had come through the roster, and none of them had been handled this way. Not even the Babe. The image of Williams had shifted from phenom to slightly spoiled child. This was not a good thing.

The first boos from the left-field stands at the new left fielder came during the exhibition city series against the Braves. As if it were a new hat, a new pair of shoes, there was an entirely different fit to all of the new stuff. The new fit was worse than the old fit. There seemed to be a pebble in this shoe.

Williamsburg was a distraction rather than an aid. The typical Williams homer covered the extra 20 feet to the old fence, no problem, and all the new fence did was add to a public demand for more homers, all homers all the time. The new spot in the batting order, Williams decided early, was a detriment. All that happened now was that he had less of a chance to knock in runs. Pitchers, especially righthanders, were not afraid to walk him to reach the 33-year-old Foxx. Behind Foxx, batting fifth, was Joe Cronin, 34 years old. Pitchers chose to tackle the old, known poison rather than the new.

And left field? There seemed to be different fans in those seats, with different demands. There always was a negative voice somewhere in that crowd. What had happened to the kinder souls in right?

Williams moped and moaned about all of this through the early part of the season. His batting average was a respectable .317, but the homers weren't coming, the RBI weren't coming. He was miserable. He complained about his salary, about the sportswriters, about the fans, about anything that crossed his path. He was miserable to be around.

Cronin decided that this petulance -- not to mention the power slump -- should be treated. He decided he might bench Williams and discussed the reasons with Harold Kaese of the Boston Transcript. Though the benching never came, Kaese still wrote a column about all the reasons that Cronin had considered. Kaese painted the picture of a moody, immature star, finishing with a kicker that infuriated Williams.

"Can you imagine a kid, a nice kid with a nimble brain, not visiting his mother and father at all last winter?" Kaese wrote.

It was such a personal shot, low and cheap and ill-informed, not even considering what problems Williams might have at home, that Kaese even tried to take it back. He called his desk asking to have the line dropped, but a series of mistakes let it run. Williams always remembered it.

"I mean, (home) was never a happy place for me, and in 1939 my mother and father separated and there was more grief, so I just stayed away," Williams wrote in "My Turn at Bat." "And do you know what Harold Kaese wrote the first time I did something to displease him? `Well what do you expect from a guy who won't even go see his mother in the offseason?'

"Before this, I was willing to believe a writer was my friend until he proved otherwise. Now my guard's up all the time, always watching for critical stuff. If I saw something, I'd read it twenty times and I'd burn without knowing how to fight it. How could I fight it?"

The uneasiness continued, aggravated now, even worse. The Record reported an incident that happened on June 30 at Fenway. Williams had become involved in one more stretch of theatrics with the fans in left. The headline was "Williams' Cussin' Probated by Cronin."

"There was a complaint that Ted Williams had yelled insulting words at the left corner of the grandstand, among which there were many women who have reported as having objected to Williams' language," the story said.

"I know they have been riding him from the bench all over the circuit and in some cases from the stands," Cronin said. "Even if he didn't do things to have warranted these verbal attacks, it is all part of baseball and players must learn to live with it."

Eddie Collins was asked how the situation would have been handled in "the old days."

"Some of his teammates would have punched him in the nose long before this," the general manager said. "But I think he'll pull out of it."

In Cleveland on July 21, Williams gave syndicated sportswriter Harry Grayson of the Newspaper Enterprise Association a bizarre story. He said he wanted to quit baseball and become a fireman. Grayson put it all in print. Across the country.

"My uncle was a fireman in Mount Vernon, N.Y.," Williams explained years later. "I went out to see him on an off day in New York and we were sitting there in the sun and he was telling me about the pension he was going to get when he was 50. I was getting booed because I wasn't hitting enough home runs and he was telling me I could get $600 a month if I took the pension at 50 and if I waited until I was 60, I'd get around $1,000. I don't know. It sounded good at the time."

People read the newspapers. In Chicago, manager Jimmy Dykes outfitted his players with fireman hats and whistles and sirens to greet Williams from the dugout when he came to town. Who was this kid? He'd rather be a fireman than a baseball star? In New York, Lefty Gomez would pull the same fireman act.

The big explosion came in a quiet moment a few weeks later. Sent home from New York with an aching back, Williams went to Fenway for a treatment. He was hitting .366, but his power numbers were still down. He had only 13 homers and 71 RBI, and he was not happy. Austen Lake, the columnist for the Boston American, was in the locker room, and when Williams was dressed, Lake approached him for an interview. The locker room was filled with young amateur ballplayers who'd just worked out at the park.

"I haven't any time," Williams said, hurrying to leave. "I've got a date."

Lake persisted, following him through the tunnel to the field and then into the grandstand. Williams finally sat down in a box seat and mumbled out some answers about his back and the team. Lake could feel something was wrong.

"What's the matter with you, Ted?" Lake asked.

The floodgates opened. Lake said he listened to 20 minutes perhaps of "internal poison" being spewed. Williams called his $12,500 salary "peanuts." He said he wanted to be traded. He said he hated Boston, hated the fans, hated the newspapers, hated the trees, hated the weather, hated, just hated. He wanted out.

"Plainly, Ted had been nursing this torrent of the spleen," Lake wrote the next day, August 13. "The week that he had spent alone in Boston with his sprained sacrum should have purged any superficial sourness in his system. But obviously this was no mere ballplayer's grouch, a passing black mood, no temporary curdle in his inner chemistry. He felt what he said with a vast conviction. He didn't like Boston's streets, the way the houses were built, the parks, the people, the riverway. Phooie!

"But most of all he didn't like the human crows who perch on the rim of the ballpark and write typographical sneers.

" `I don't like 'em and I never will,' " Ted said.

Lake said he gave Williams a chance to take all the words back. He said Williams declared, "You can print the whole so-and-so mess. I feel that way about it and I'll continue to feel that way about it." The story hit the city like a fine bombshell.

Ted Williams doesn't like Boston? OK, Boston doesn't like Ted Williams.

"The logical place to send Williams is to Cleveland, a thriving and pleasant city on the shores of Lake Erie," columnist Dave Egan, the Colonel, wrote in the Boston Record. "In that city is a team known far and wide as the Cleveland Crybabies and it is my profound belief that there young Ted Williams would find the happiness and camaraderie which he seeks.

"Five or eight years from now, when mature judgment settles in and his adolescent muscle jerks and junior spasms disappear, (Williams) may take a moral stock of his past and maybe tsk-tsk himself," Lake wrote. "For the lad is a high-strung nerve victim who thinks whole headfuls of thoughts at a time in a kind of cerebral chop suey instead of single ideas in a sequence like little pig sausages.

"Then, like Foxx and Cronin, he may learn to accept the sour with the sweet -- maybe in Boston, maybe in Detroit or New York. Big money, quick fame, mass adulation, a celebrity at 22, have fogged his perspective."

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