BATTLES WITH WRITERS AND FANS|
The keyboards were always spelling trouble
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 07/05/02
‘‘Despite the many disagreeable things said about me by the ‘knights of the keyboard’ — and I can’t help thinking about them,’’ the Globe quoted Williams as saying in a pregame ceremony at Fenway Park on Sept. 28, 1960, the day he ended his career with a home run in his last atbat. ‘‘Despite these things my stay in Boston has been the most wonderful thing in my life. If I were asked where I would like to have played, I would have had to say Boston with the greatest owner in baseball and greatest fans in America.’’
Globe reporter Harold Kaese wrote in a Sport Magazine piece titled ‘‘Why We Pick on Ted Williams,’’ ‘‘In Boston, a man does not qualify as a baseball writer until he has psychoanalyzed Ted Williams.’’
Reporters were not shy about holding up almost every aspect of Williams’s life to scrutiny. At various times, newspapers did public-opinion surveys and commentaries questioning Williams’s patriotism (in a World War II debate over his draft-exempt status as sole supporter of his mother, which ended only when Williams enlisted), his fitness as a father (he was off fishing in the Everglades when his first child was born), and his supposed shortcomings as a clutch hitter and me-first player.
‘‘Williams’s career, in contrast to Babe Ruth’s, has been a series of failures except for his averages,’’ Huck Finnegan wrote in the Boston American on the final day of Williams’s playing career. ‘‘He flopped in the only World Series he ever played in , when he batted only .200. He flopped in the playoff game with Cleveland in 1948. He flopped in the final game of the 1949 season with the pennant riding on the outcome. He flopped in 1950 when he returned to the lineup after a two-month absence and ruined the morale of a club that seemed pennant-bound under Steve O’Neill. It has always been Williams’s records first, the team second, and the Sox’ nonwinning record is proof enough of that.’’
That’s an astonishing assessment of the career of a player who was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame in 1966 and is recognized as the greatest player in the 100-year history of the Red Sox, if not the greatest hitter to ever play the game. But it accurately reflects the tone of a relationship in which each side was not shy about showing contempt for the other.
‘‘There were 49 million newspapers in Boston, from the Globe to the Brookline Something-or- Other, all ready to jump us,’’ said Williams.
He wouldn’t even wait for questions when reporters approached his locker. ‘‘Hey, what stinks?’’ he’d yell in their faces. ‘‘Oh, it’s you. Well, no wonder, with that [expletive] you wrote.’’
Williams was an easy target from the time he walked into his first camp in 1938 as an unpolished 19-year-old who seldom left a thought unuttered.
‘‘I did a lot of yakking, partly to hide a rather large inferiority complex,’’ Williams said.
Michael Seidel, the Columbia University professor and author of ‘‘Ted Williams: A Baseball Life,’’ wrote that Williams was ‘‘rarely careful of tongue or gesture; he was by turns motormouthed and abrupt. His exuberance was one symptom of a mercurial attention span. If he was too good a hitter for the Red Sox to ignore, he was too good a subject for the press to coddle.’’
And Williams found it impossible to ignore — or forget — what was written about him.
‘‘I was never able to be dispassionate, to ignore the things people said or wrote or implied,’’ Williams wrote in his autobiography, ‘‘My Turn At Bat,’’ co-authored by John Underwood. ‘‘It just wasn’t in me.’’
Al Hirshberg, in an article for Sport Magazine titled ‘‘What’s Wrong With the Red Sox?’’ said Williams hated two reporters, Dave Egan of the Record and Austen ‘‘Duke’’ Lake of the American. Egan, a hard-drinking, Harvard-educated lawyer known as ‘‘The Colonel,’’ was unrelenting. In Williams’s second season, frustrated by being booed, he ripped into the fans and city in an interview, prompting Egan to write: ‘‘Williams is the prize heel ever to wear a Boston uniform.’’ On another occasion, Egan called Williams ‘‘inventor of the automatic choke.’’
Lake was as unsparing. He once wrote, ‘‘Ted Williams is a grown man with the mind of a juvenile.’’
Williams read it all, and it influenced his decision to eschew the practice of tipping his cap to the fans, which he did as a rookie but would not do again until a 1991 ceremony honoring him at Fenway Park.
Williams often responded with some of his finest play when the criticism was thickest. Author Roger Kahn, a former New York newspaperman who covered baseball, wrote that Williams ‘‘nurtured his rage.’’
President George Bush, at the 1991 White House ceremony in which he presented Williams with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, made a joke about Williams’s relationship with reporters.
‘‘I’m going to ask him to help me with my press relations,’’ said Bush, who later would have Williams standing behind him when he made his concession speech in Houston after losing his bid for re-election in 1992.
In later years, there was a definite mellowing, as Williams appeared to bask in his status as one of the game’s towering figures. Unlike Joe DiMaggio, who remained a recluse and granted few interviews before he died in 1999, Williams was garrulous. And with the cap-tipping gesture he made in ’91, his fans noticed a difference.
‘‘It was the Ted we’ve all waited to see,’’ said Lib Dooley, the longtime season ticket-holder who died in 2000, in ‘‘Hitter,’’ Ed Linn’s biography of Williams. ‘‘There is a joy in living now that wasn’t there before. The anger is gone. It was, ‘It’s OK.’ It was, ‘Hi, mom, I’m home.’ What he really was saying was, ‘I always knew you loved me, and I really loved you, too.’
‘‘It was more than a reconciliation; it was a homecoming. The door was open, and there he was. But what a road he had to travel to get there.’ ’’