In baseball and beyond, Williams was a true American hero
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 07/06/02
Larger than life
Williams’s prowess as a hitter was frequently overshadowed by his tumultuous relationship with Red Sox fans and the Boston media, to whom Williams displayed his contempt on several occasions, spitting at the stands and press box and making obscene gestures.
"He was a strange and troubled man -- the most remarkable and colorful and full-blooded human being to come upon the athletic scene since Babe Ruth,’’ wrote Dorchester-born biographer Ed Linn in a 1960 article for Sport Magazine.
Frequently profane and always loud, the 6-foot-3-inch Williams, who never wore a necktie, dominated his stage like a John Wayne in flannels.
"He even speaks in home runs,’’ wrote Jim Murray, the Connecticut-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
"The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories,’’ Pulitzer Prizewinning author John Updike, another New Englander, wrote in his celebrated New Yorker article, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’’ on the occasion of Williams’s final game.
After his first season, Williams refused to acknowledge the fans with the ballplayer’s time-honored tradition of tipping the cap, even after the last at-bat of his career, in which he hit a home run off Jack Fisher of the Baltimore Orioles.
"Gods,’’ Updike wrote, "do not answer letters.’’
Williams conceded he was not one to forget a slight.
"I was never able to be dispassionate, to ignore the things people said or wrote or implied,’’ Williams wrote. "It just wasn’t in me.’’
But Williams abandoned that stance when he was honored with a day at Fenway Park on May 12, 1991, 50 years after his epic .406 season. He reached into his pocket and produced a cap borrowed from Red Sox pitcher Jeff Reardon and in a grand, sweeping gesture, tipped it to the fans.
"So they can never write again that I was hardheaded, so they can never write again that I never tipped my hat to the crowd, today I tip my hat,’’ Williams, 72 at the time, told the sellout crowd of 33,196.
His last appearance in Fenway Park was perhaps his most emotional. On July 13, 1999, the 80-year-old Williams was the centerpiece of the third, and likely last, All-Star Game to be played at Fenway Park. With 31 of the game’s greatest living players present, Williams, who was named to 18 All-Star teams and hit two of the most celebrated home runs in All-Star history, was driven onto the field in a golf cart to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
In a spontaneous demonstration of affection, the game’s all-time greats and the present-day All-Stars -- a group that included Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Bob Feller as well as active stars such as Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and Williams devotee Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres -- engulfed Williams, who wept openly. "You know, there were a lot of guys out there that teared up,’’ said Mark McGwire, the former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who at the time ranked as the game’s premier slugger. "The Hall of Famers out there, and the All-Stars, when you see Ted Williams and he has tears running down his eyes, it’s an emotional time.’’
In that moment, wrote Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, Williams was transformed from Teddy Ballgame to Father Baseball.