Red Sox legend Ted Williams dies at 83
By Bob Hohler, Globe Staff, 7/6/02
Mr. Williams died at 8:49 a.m. at Citrus Memorial Hospital, a few miles from his home in Hernando. He suffered cardiac arrest upon arrival at the hospital, and doctors were not able to revive him.
In the winter of his life, Mr. Williams battled an array of ailments, including a debilitating bout of congestive heart failure. The Hall of Famer suffered two strokes in the 1990s that impaired his once-remarkable vision and sapped his energy. Surgeons operated on his heart for 91/2 hours on Jan. 15, 2001, after implanting a pacemaker two months earlier.
No funeral is scheduled, but the Red Sox are considering holding a service at Fenway Park July 22.
''Baseball has lost one of its very best today with the passing of Ted Williams, someone I considered a great hero and a close friend,'' said George H.W. Bush, father of the current president. ''The entire Bush family, as did so many baseball fans, loved Ted. On and off the field he believed in service to country and indeed he served with honor and distinction ... I will miss him.''
The Splendid Splinter, as he was known in baseball's Golden Age when he and Joe DiMaggio ranked as the biggest stars on the national stage, whispered a mournful goodbye to friends and former teammates in his last public appearance, a ceremony Feb. 17 at the Ted Williams Museum near his home.
''I love you,'' Mr. Williams said softly, his cheeks wet with tears, to 91-year-old Elden Auker, his former Sox teammate and decades-long friend. ''Take care.''
A proud and painstaking perfectionist in his heyday, Mr. Williams appeared in a wheelchair, his shoulders bundled with clothes, his legs cloaked in a blanket despite the Florida heat. He was wan and frail as he was introduced by master of ceremonies Tommy Lasorda.
''Ladies and gentleman,'' the former Dodgers manager bellowed, ''the greatest hitter that God ever put on earth, Ted Williams.''
His son, John Henry, and daughter, Claudia, watched as baseball greats such as Enos Slaughter wept openly at their father's last goodbye. ''Dad, we love you,'' John Henry told Mr. Williams before the crowd of 1,500.
''Ted was a great team player,'' said former Red Sox second baseman and longtime friend and teammate Bobby Doerr. ''He wanted to win. He patted everyone on the back. He took the pressure off the rest of the players. He was a loyal friend. In many ways, he was ahead of his time.''
Johnny Pesky, who played with Mr. Williams and served with him in the military, said, ''He was magnificent, charming, demanding, handsome, lovable, and sometimes you wanted to kick him in the rear end. You either loved Ted Williams or you didn't, and the fans and I really learned to love him.''
Said former New York and San Francisco great Willie Mays, ''Ted Williams was a great friend. He spent time talking to me about hitting, even though he played on another team. I'm very, very sorry to hear of his passing. This is a great loss.''
In Boston's rich history, few individuals made a more indelible mark than Ted Williams, who arrived in 1939 as a gangly kid full of enthusiasm and promise and achieved unparalleled glories through decades of grace, grit, and occasional fits of anger on and off the baseball field.
By the time Mr. Williams ended his career by launching a dramatic home run in his final at-bat in 1960 at Fenway Park - a moment memorialized by author John Updike in a New Yorker article titled ''Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu'' - he had twice won baseball's Triple Crown for leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (1942 and '47), twice been named the American League's Most Valuable Player ('46 and '49), and six times had won the AL batting title, including 1957, when he hit .388 at the age of 39, and 1958, by hitting .328 at age 40.
A charismatic figure with movie-star looks, supreme confidence, and an incendiary temper, Mr. Williams spent three years in his prime training to be a Navy pilot in World War II and nearly two more years as a Marine combat pilot in the Korean War. Still, he hit 521 home runs and drove in 1,839 runs to rank among the game's most prolific sluggers.
Former senator John Glenn flew with Mr. Williams in Korea. ''There was no one more dedicated to this country and more proud to serve his country than Ted Williams,'' Glenn said yesterday.
Teddy Ballgame, as he liked to call himself, also compiled a career batting average of .344, one of the best in recent decades. Only Rickey Henderson and Babe Ruth drew more walks than he did, and no one posted a higher career on-base average (.483). He led the league four times in home runs and RBIs, and he was selected an All-Star 18 times.
Along the way, Mr. Williams clashed with fans, teammates, and sportswriters (''the gutless knights of the keyboard,'' he called them). He spit and hurled obscenities at spectators, refused to acknowledge their applause by tipping his cap, even recklessly tossed bats toward the stands. Once at Fenway Park, his thrown bat struck an elderly woman in the head.
Mr. Williams also spent untold hours privately encouraging young boys and girls with cancer. He helped raise millions of dollars for his most cherished charity, the Jimmy Fund. And he became part of the city's soul.
In retrospect, he might be forgiven for his brash response to a sportswriter as he was traveling to his first spring training in Florida in 1938.
''Wait until you see Foxx hit,'' the writer told the skinny minor leaguer, all of 19 years old, referring to Sox first baseman Jimmie Foxx, one of the game's all-time greats.
Mr. Williams snapped, ''Wait until Foxx sees me hit!''
The Kid was a natural
Theodore Samuel Williams was born Aug. 30, 1918, just 12 days before the Red Sox won their last World Series. Amid his humble roots in the San Diego sandlots - he was raised with his brother, Danny, by his mother, May, who labored for a half-century in the Salvation Army - Mr. Williams was discovered at age 17 by Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins.
A lefthanded hitter with a smooth, powerful swing that generations of batters came to envy, the 6-foot-3-inch player appeared to be a natural.
''How could I miss?'' Collins said later. ''Williams stood out like a white cow in a pasture of brown cows.''
To his dismay, Mr. Williams was farmed out to Minneapolis after spring training in 1938. One of the three veteran outfielders who were put off by the Kid's bravado in spring training taunted Mr. Williams when he was cut.
''I'll be back,'' he declared, ''and I'll be making more money than the three of you put together.''
Mr. Williams left little doubt about his potential when he stuck with the big team in 1939 and hit .327 with 31 home runs and a league-leading 145 RBIs, proving he was in Boston to stay.
Before long, the slugger would become as synonymous with Boston as chowder and the Tea Party.
Yet for every act of greatness, it seemed, Mr. Williams found a way to diminish it. In the summer of 1940, for example, the slugger bared his love-hate relationship with the Hub by calling the city a ''lousy'' sports town, expressing hatred for Fenway and the fans, describing his $12,500 salary as ''chicken feed,'' and demanding to be traded.
He later denied making the remarks. But Foxx apparently was not swayed. The Kid, Foxx said, was a ''spoiled boy.''
The young star responded with his bat in 1941, hitting .406 to become the first hitter to break the .400 mark since Bill Terry of the New York Giants hit .401 in 1930. With just a season-ending doubleheader left to play in Philadelphia, Mr. Williams was batting .39955, which rounded off to .400. His manager, Joe Cronin, suggested Mr. Williams could sit out and maintain his milestone.
''Well, God, that hit me like a goddamn lightning bolt!'' Mr. Williams wrote in ''My Life in Pictures: Ted Williams,'' published last year. ''What do you mean I don't have to play today? ... I didn't want to hit .400 that way.''
Mr. Williams went 6 for 8 in the doubleheader to finish at .406.
Paying him ultimate tribute
That summer, Mr. Williams also achieved what he later described as his greatest thrill, slamming a three-run homer to lift the American League to a come-from-behind victory in the All-Star Game in Detroit. ''It was the turning point in my career,'' he said.
Yet he lost the race for the Most Valuable Player Award that year to Yankee Joe DiMaggio, who had eclipsed Mr. Williams with a record 56-game hitting streak. It was not the last time Mr. Williams was overshadowed by DiMaggio (he lost the 1947 MVP race to the Yankee Clipper by a single vote). And he envied DiMaggio's exalted status in American culture. But DiMaggio ultimately paid Mr. Williams the tribute he had sought since childhood.
Said DiMaggio, ''He was the best hitter I ever saw.''
When DiMaggio died in 1999, Mr. Williams said, ''I thought there never was a greater player in the history of baseball. For me just to be mentioned in the same breath, boy, I always felt like I was two steps behind him.''
Two months after their historic season of 1941 ended, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II. When Mr. Williams legally challenged the government's attempts to draft him during his Triple Crown season in '42 - he received a deferment as his mother's primary supporter - he endured months of wrath from fans. Quaker Oats even canceled his $4,000 endorsement contract in protest.
Finally, he enlisted in the Navy Air Corps after the '42 season. But his deferment had rankled the Baseball Writers Association of America, which effectively spited Williams by naming Joe Gordon, a .321 hitter for the Yankees, the MVP. Mr. Williams was furious.
''Ted had a legitimate claim [for a deferment],'' Pesky said. ''True, some of the big names [such as DiMaggio and Bob Feller] went in right away, but Ted was going by what he felt was right.''
The vote was just another brick in the wall between Mr. Williams and the sportswriters. ''I've hit on a way to stay out of further conversations with you guys,'' he said once. ''From now on, don't any of you talk to me. If you do, it won't do you any good. I won't answer. I'll talk to no newspaperman on or off the field for the rest of this season. That goes for friend and foe alike. You'll only be embarrassing yourself if you speak to me because I won't even let on I hear you.''
During his three years of stateside service, Mr. Williams rose to the rank of captain. And, on May 4, 1944, he married Doris Soule, the first of his three wives.
When he returned to the Red Sox in 1946, Mr. Williams hit as if he had never left, batting .342 with 38 homers and 123 RBIs. But the Sox let a chance to win a World Series slip away when they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Mr. Williams, restricted by an injured elbow, managed only five singles and one RBI in 25 at-bats in his only World Series.
Yet Mr. Williams described his worst memory as the Sox collapse of 1949, when the club entered the final series of the season, against the Yankees, with a one-game lead in the American League and lost it to their archrivals. ''The longest train ride of my life was that one, returning to Boston,'' he said.
From star to war hero
Mr. Williams would never again come close to playing in the postseason, as the Sox grew increasingly mediocre in the 1950s. What's more, Mr. Williams missed nearly the entire 1952 and 1953 seasons while he flew combat missions in an F-9 Panther jet as a Marine pilot in Korea. More than once, he narrowly dodged death.
In one episode, just his third mission in Korea, his aircraft was struck by enemy ground fire and he was advised by a nearby pilot to eject. Instead, Mr. Williams tried to return to his base, fearing that if he ejected, ''I would have left my knees behind.'' He was losing control of the jet and his landing gear was inoperable as he approached the runway with smoke and sparks shooting from his plane. Mr. Williams put it down on its belly and skidded more than half a mile before he jumped to safety. The jet exploded into flames an instant later.
Mr. Williams received an Air Medal and two Gold Stars for his service. ''I was no hero,'' he said. ''There were nearly 75 pilots in our squadrons, and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did.''
When Mr. Williams returned to Boston late in the '53 season as he was about to turn 35, his best years were considered behind him. Yet he played seven more full seasons, hitting .316 or better every year except an injury-plagued season of 1959, when he averaged only .254. And he took special pride in batting .388 in 1957, a marvel he considered more impressive than his .406 achievement 16 years earlier.
''I know people still talk about the .406 season,'' he often said, ''but 1957 was my best year.''
He had considered retiring in 1955, but after a divorce judgment awarded Doris Williams $50,000, their Florida home, $9,000 in lawyer fees, and $100 a month in child support, he had little choice but to keep working. His 1955 salary: $98,000.
The playing years that followed were far from blissful. In '58, he was fined $250 by the league for spitting at fans in Kansas City, the second time in three years he had done so. Later that year, he tossed his bat for the second time over the same period, this time striking former manager Cronin's housekeeper, Gladys Heffernan, in the head at Fenway.
Heffernan forgave him from her hospital bed. ''I don't know why they booed him,'' she said.
That Christmas, he gave her a $500 diamond watch.
Bidding Hub a splendid adieu
Mr. Williams was 42 when he slammed a fastball from Baltimore's Jack Fisher into the right-field bullpen on a gray, fall day, Sept. 28, 1960, on the last swing of his storied career.
In keeping with his long, icy entanglement with the Fenway faithful, Mr. Williams refused to tip his cap to the tiny crowd of 10,454.
''I thought about it,'' he said, ''but by the time I got to second base, I couldn't do it.''
Updike, like many other fans, understood. ''Gods do not answer letters,'' he wrote.
Mr. Williams also refused to wear ties, which made him a scourge among many mothers, whose sons cited the Sox slugger as evidence that even the greats do not need to wear ties to school, church, or synagogue.
Mr. Williams's brilliant career overshadowed his tense relationship with baseball writers as they elected him to the Hall of Fame when he became eligible in 1966. And he used the moment to urge the Hall to recognize the neglected stars of the Negro leagues, which occurred five years later. He later fought unsuccessfully to have Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was considered by some to be the game's finest natural hitter before Mr. Williams, inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mr. Williams argued that Jackson was wrongly banned from baseball for the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
Mr. Williams's personal life was often as stormy as his baseball career. He was married and divorced three times. In addition to John Henry and Claudia, he leaves a daughter, Barbara Joyce, from his first marriage.
After his playing days, Mr. Williams managed the Washington Senators and was named Manager of the Year in 1969, when he led the club to its first winning season in 17 years. But after three subsequent losing seasons, he hung up his uniform for the last time.
In his retirement, Mr. Williams maintained his close ties to Republican politics. He was a friend of every GOP president since Richard Nixon (''the greatest man I met''), and he visited the White House in 1991 to receive the Medal of Freedom - the nation's highest civilian honor - from President Bush.
The same year, the Hall of Famer also made peace with the fans and sportswriters in Boston during Ted Williams Day at Fenway. He made a simple gesture: He pulled a cap from his pocket and tipped it to the adoring crowd.
Time to tackle
After his playing days, Mr. Williams also maintained his longtime role as a spokesman for Sears, Roebuck & Co. He was considered as gifted a fisherman as he was a baseball hitter, and he traveled the world pursuing the sport, catching some of his greatest prizes in the waters of Canada, Peru, and New Zealand. He was inducted into the Freshwater Fishermen's Hall of Fame in 1995.
''He was the greatest all-around fisherman I've ever seen,'' said former Red Sox broadcaster Curt Gowdy of his longtime friend. ''From marlin to salmon to bass to bonefish, he was the most versatile I ever saw.''
Mr. Williams said of fishing: ''No stuffy characters. No formal dinners. No tight ties around your neck. Just good, clean fresh air and the gamest opponents in the world.''
In his final years, Mr. Williams stayed close to home in Florida, where he opened the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. He remained a mentor to many Major League players and rarely missed an opportunity to offer advice, as he demonstrated during his last public appearance in Boston, at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway.
Seated in a golf cart on the pitcher's mound before he threw out the first ball, Mr. Williams suddenly was surrounded by current and former All-Stars paying their respects. The unscripted love-in will rank as one of the most memorable pregame moments in the history of the All-Star Game.
''Tears were coming out of Ted's eyes,'' said Larry Walker of the Colorado Rockies. ''I had to turn away because tears were coming out of my eyes, too.''
Even when the public address announcer pleaded with the players to disperse, no one budged. And the Fenway crowd savored the moment.
''Wasn't it great?'' Mr. Williams said. ''It didn't surprise me all that much because I know how these fans are in Boston. They love this game as much as any player. They're the best.''
His number ''9'' is retired on the right-field facade at Fenway Park. His legacy will long be associated with the Jimmy Fund. And a tunnel under Boston Harbor bears his name.
But in Boston and the baseball world at large, no building or institutional tribute is likely to endure longer than the timeless memories of Ted Williams.
Larry Whiteside and Pete Goodwin of the Globe Staff contributed to this report; material from wire services was also used.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/6/2002.