The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams
Ben Bradlee Jr.
Little, Brown and Company, 2013
864 pp., $35.00
Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time
Da Capo Press, 2014
304 pp., $25.99
Michael R. Stevens
The Splendid Splinter + Best Series Ever?
Comprehensive biographies are always a risk, both to write and to read. So much information, so many details, such a risk to lose the thread. When I came to The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, I felt some trepidation as I riffled through the almost 800 pages. The Splendid Splinter lived a long, eventful life, having played in four different decades, managed into a fifth, and remained active and controversial up to, and even after, his death in 2002. Yes, this book—by Ben Bradlee, Jr.—is a long haul (the index officially ends at page 855—a Tolstoyan span). But it's also a feast.
The Kid is a tale of two halves (the first bigger than the second, as Yogi Berra might say). Bradlee's treatment of Williams' life up to the end of his playing career has the strong thematic element of baseball to hold the story together and keep it from descending into soap opera. Though we get more time on Ted's dysfunctional marriages and parenting as the book moves forward, the account of his Hall of Fame induction in 1966 and even of his rather quixotic managerial foray with the Senators/Rangers in the late 1960s and early '70s sustains the narrative drive.
Of baseball anecdotes there are many, more than enough to get one through the rockier psychodramatic sequences, which Williams appears to have had with as much frequency as multi-hit games. Bradlee attends at length to Williams' childhood and adolescence, with an absentee father and hyper-pious and also absentee Salvation Army mother leaving Ted and his brother lonely and bitter. (His brother became a petty criminal and died young of cancer.) Intriguing and indicative is the information that Ted's mom was of Mexican lineage on both sides, and further that Williams never spoke publically (and rarely privately) about the fact that he was half-Mexican.
From the start to the finish, Ted retreated into what he was good at, such as fishing and baseball. The trope of playing ball all day long at the park was for Ted a necessity—and he would practice hitting the whole time. Even as a skinny teen, he commanded the respect of the older kids (who would pitch to him) at the park, and the awe of the younger kids (who would shag balls all day long for him). This double theme—of trauma and loss, but also of entitlement and selfishness—is at the heart of Bradlee's book, and he uses it deftly to reveal many of the sharp paradoxes of Williams' life.
"The Kid," as the 20-year-old Williams was christened by the Red Sox equipment manager on the first day of spring training in 1938, would always live dramatically in the public eye, whether openly deriding fans and reporters (sometimes psychotically so), or creating baseball lore with the light bats and lithe arms he sported. Williams' flair for the mythic is the single most powerful theme I took from this account. His screwball antics, much beloved by the press in his one minor-league season in Minneapolis and in his rookie year of 1939, would fade as his ornery side emerged, but the hitting prowess never diminished. I had no idea that Williams' rookie tour was so shockingly good. The guard of American League power was changing that year, as the first putout Williams made as a fielder in his first major league game was off the bat of an already sick Lou Gehrig. And Williams immediately made his presence felt; in his first game at Briggs Stadium in Detroit, "Ted limbered up by lacing the first pitch over the right-field roof, 120 feet high, but just foul. No player had ever hit a ball over the roof at Briggs Stadium." In his next at bat, Ted "worked the count to three and two, then unloaded on a high fastball and drove it on top of the roof in right-center." His third time up, "Williams crushed a rising line drive. The ball screamed out to right field in a heartbeat, flew over the roof, fair by a dozen feet, and landed across adjoining Trumbull Avenue, bouncing against a taxi garage on one hop." This from a 6'4" young man who may have weighed 170 pounds with his flannels and spikes! All in the wrists, indeed!
I'm tempted to continue with the rookie lore (at the next stop after Detroit, the St. Louis Browns knocked him down twice—each time, he got up and hit the next pitch for a home run). He was the talk of the league. Then, at mid-season, a dark mood took him (shades of 1 Samuel?!), and he bristled toward fans and writers. And so the cycle of heroism and villainy began, which Bradlee plumbs at length (as did the Boston sportswriters) but never quite figures out. Along the way over the next few seasons, Williams peaked as a hitter, coupling what he always called his greatest hit, the game-winning home run at the 1941 All-Star Game (with Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, then 48 games into his fabled hitting streak, on first base), with the quest to hit .400, which his great eye, respected by all AL umpires, and his willingness to take a walk in any and all situations (a source of criticism throughout his career) made possible.