Splendid memories of a genuine giant
It has been a half-century since Ted Williams’s last game with the Red Sox. Fifty years ago yesterday, the Splendid Splinter stepped to the plate at Fenway Park against the Baltimore Orioles and slammed a home run to right field in his final at-bat.
Fifty years since Ted played. Eight years since he died. It’s a long time. Years pass and there are fewer locals who saw him hit, hardly any folks who actually knew the man.
Ted Williams today is a statue, a tunnel, a museum, and sometimes a punch line because of his son’s kooky decision to have his remains frozen when he died in 2002.
It’s hard to explain Ted to a new generation of Red Sox fans. Word is passed from fathers to sons and daughters — “Ted was the greatest hitter who ever lived’’ — but the kids can’t possibly know about The Kid. Fifty years is a long time.
I never saw Ted Williams play. My dad took me to Fenway for the first time in 1961 when I was 7, and the Sox had a rookie in left field named Carl Yastrzemski. Still, Ted Williams was a presence in our Groton home — right up there with John F. Kennedy and Richard Cardinal Cushing. I had an older brother who was a big hitter in our small town, and Ted’s name was sacred in the Shaughnessy abode on Hollis Street — just a Ted tape-measure shot from the Gammons home over at the Groton School.
It is impossible for Ted to be enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. It is my firm belief that other than JFK, Ted Williams was the top New England newsmaker of the 20th century. Ted played in an era when baseball was king and Boston had a bushel of daily newspapers. There were years when he was a headline just about every day.
It would have been fun to cover Ted from 1939-60, but I’m glad I got to know him in his winter years, when Tom Boswell of the Washington Post described him as “the Father Christmas of Baseball.’’ Ted hated just about all of the writers when he played.
I met him for the first time at Cooperstown in the late 1980s. He arrived for an interview at the Otesaga Hotel, sat down at a giant round table of scribes, and waited for a first question from the intimidated bunch. After a long, awkward pause, Ted finally said, “Scared to death, aren’t ya?’’ Ted was a man who could make “writer’’ sound like a four-letter word.
He deserves his tunnel and his statue and his museum because he was more than a great athlete. Ted served his country in two wars, losing five years of the prime of his career (say hello to 700 home runs, thank you). He flew 39 combat missions in the Korean War. When his aircraft drew enemy fire, Ted chose to land his plane in flames rather than eject. Why? Because he knew the ejection device would have broken both of his legs in exchange for saving his life. That was unacceptable. There was more hitting to be done up in Boston.
Ted was a pioneer in the fight against children’s cancer. He was a friend of Dr. Sidney Farber, the godfather of modern chemotherapy. In the 1990s, Ted told young patients, “Dr. Farber told me that someday we’d be able to cure you kids, and that’s what we’re able to do now!’’ He also asked them if they could hit.
Ted lived long enough to visit with the original “Jimmy’’ of Jimmy Fund lore (Einar Gustafson, who miraculously survived his bout with cancer in the 1950s). Sitting in rocking chairs at the Jimmy Fund Clinic, Ted and Jimmy chatted in the summer of 1999.
That was Ted’s final trip to Boston. He said goodbye to Fenway when he threw out the first pitch at the 1999 All-Star Game. The gathering of past greats and ’99 All-Stars — all paying homage to Ted — stands as one of the great moments in the 98-year history of the ballpark.
Ted granted a few audiences that night. He wanted to meet the flyover pilots who buzzed Fenway and broke Back Bay windows in their effort to impress Ted. He also wanted to meet Matt Damon, a local kid who’d won an Academy Award with “Good Will Hunting.’’
Matt and his dad, Kent, a baseball coach at Newton North High, had a few moments with Ted during the sixth inning and I remember Matt’s excitement after the short session:
“I told him I’d read his book, ‘The Science of Hitting,’ and right away he said, ‘Oh yeah? What’s the most important thing in that book?’ I knew the answer. I told him, ‘Get a good pitch to hit.’ He loved that. He said, ‘You’re right! You really did read the book!’ ’’
I think that made Damon happier than the Oscar.
Later that year, Pedro Martinez got jobbed out of the American League MVP even though he’d had a Koufaxian season and led the Sox to the playoffs. A couple of writers refused to put Pedro in the top 10 on their ballot.
I called Ted to ask him about the Pedro injustice.
“Yeah, that happened to me,’’ he bellowed. “I hit .400 one year and didn’t win it. I thought hitting .400 was pretty good.’’
I hit .400 one year.
There’s not a man alive who can make that statement. Ted was the last one. And we miss him.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.