San Diego Native Ted Williams' Biography Explores Baseball Great's Life
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego can claim baseball legend Ted Williams as a native son, but his great days as the splendid splinter took lace in Boston. As a player with the Red Sox, Williams earned the distinction of being the greatest hitter who ever lived. But as gifted as he was on the field, Williams was a troubled man in private. There's a new 800 page biography of Ted Williams, and earlier I sat down with the author, journalist Ben Bradlee Junior. Here's that interview. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ben, Ted Williams was such a mixed bag of a person, you have incredibly talented as a slugger, awful as a husband and father, revered but often not well-liked, did you wind up understanding him? BEN BRADLEE JR.: I think I understand him to the extent that anyone who spends ten years writing a book against the note this subject, he is a complicated guy. He grew up here in North Park neighborhood, son of a very prominent Salvation Army worker made me Williams who owned the talent in her own ways your been very collected connected politically but Ted did not like what she did. He did not like what she did and he resented his mother. She was out into all hours of the night saving souls on the street San Diego and the depression area and that's what she cared about the life she cared about them more than she did raising her son Ted and his younger brother and they were one of some of the first latchkey kids. They were waiting on the footstep of the house on Utah Street until ten or eleven at night until mom came home to make dinner. The father was not around an alcoholic and not a factor, Ted Grubb of a lot of anger and resentment and it was a rough childhood. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds like getting out of San Diego is something that he wanted to do early on. BEN BRADLEE JR.: Yeah, I think so. He never came back other than to visit and he didn't live here and he settled in Florida, he said later that he regretted not coming back that he went to Florida during the war and got into fishing and stayed there and he thought the fishing was better there than here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He got snapped up out of the Padres quickly and what did they see in Ted Williams? BEN BRADLEE JR.: Eddie Collins was the manager of the Red Sox at first saw the country's politics leg up and Portland, and he said that when he first saw Ted swing, he shot out of his seat as if his hair was on fire and he had never seen such a great natural talent. By the way even though that was Ted's first year in the Padres being seventeen it right out of high school, Eddie Collins wanted to put in an auction for him and the owner of the Padres said you're crazy and he is not ready. But they compromised and agreed that when they time came, and he can't forget the first challenge chance on the behalf of the Red Sox. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now Ted Williams is known as the greatest hitter ever, tell us an idea of the highlights of his career that back up that claim. BEN BRADLEE JR.: He hit 406 in 1941 and he was the last player the major leagues to do that and that is well over six years now. Sixty years now. No one combined power and average the way that he did. He was not a slap hitter like Ty Cobb or the homerun hitter that Babe Ruth was. But he had the highest on-base percentage in baseball history, forty-two. He reached base merely once in the two times up. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He also had from what I understand that your book, also had the ability to have these theatrical moments and for the fans when he would come up and not only would there be tension in the ballpark, but he would also create these theatrical, never to be forgotten moments when he was at bat. BEN BRADLEE JR.: Yeah, like hitting a home run when you're last up to bat. He knew how to enter a room and how to take his leave. The atmospherics in the park really changed when he came to the plate. I am old enough that I saw him play as a kid in Boston at Fenway Park and I can say that firsthand, everyone just went to the edge of their seats and is there is electricity in the air. I remember talking to an old reporter who covered the Red Sox back in the day in the mid-50s, and he told me a story that was revealing about this, he said that he encountered a blind man update came one day and said to the man sees me sir why are you here at the ballpark when you could be home listening to the game on the radio? And the guy said that he likes the sounds of the game when Ted comes to bat. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the other things that Ted was known for, it seemed that he had a contempt for sportswriters and the press in general, where did that come from? BEN BRADLEE JR.: He did not accept criticism well and he thought with the writers were prying into his private life too much and did not accept that even though he was a celebrity that people might want to read about the private Ted Williams, and he would always remember the negative story out of all the positive, generally had a fine press, but there was one called us in Boston in the 30s and 40s called Dave Eakin who wrote for the old record, the Boston daily record that he would torment Ted and every time there is negative Dave Eakin column to go off. He would use the writers as his foil, he only said that he hit that are a grave. So he would manufacture a few to get the riders, and use that as motivational tonic to go off on a tear and maybe hit 500 for the month. Players and his teammates teammates were amused by the pie plate between Williams and the writers. One of his old teammates told me he told him one day Ted how can you treat the writers this way? Ordinary players would not dare to take on the writers for fear of bad notices. And he said son, if you can hit 350 can do a lot of things. [ LAUGHTER ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We had a death refueled recently of Jerry Coleman, he stepped out of baseball have to be a Marine aviator in World War II and the Korean War, and Ted Williams did the same didn't he? BEN BRADLEE JR.: That is very much part of his legacy, he missed five years in his prime, hewas a Marine fighter pilot. He served three years in World War II and did not see combat. Because the war ended when he was sent to the Pacific in '45, and he was recalled for Korea, consents was unfair because it done his time and he was very bitter about that. It really resented that but he sucked it up and went and did his duty and performed heroically and shut down in and was shot down in Korea. One of the great Pollard parlor games that people play when talking about Williams is trying to guess what his final statistics with and had he played this five years. Probably would've been up around 700 home runs near Babe Ruth, but I think for his legacy it helps him that he served in those wars because he gave him a heroic sheen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And he had some spectacular comebacks, after his service. BEN BRADLEE JR.: He did, in 1957 he hit 388 and almost hit 400 again. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Given that he had a troubled personality, and has been called an egomaniac could you agree with that? BEN BRADLEE JR.: I wouldn't say egomanic, he was a troubled person, he was wounded in the resentment of his mother. It was a double-edged sword this anger, he was able to use it constructively on the ball field, but in his personal life is anger would bubble up and at totally inappropriate times and places and cause them enormous problems. He was sometimes dysfunctional. The anger was so intense and the price of the end told the Ted Williams' orbit was that you had to endure those storms. They would come up like a squall and then go away, and he would bounce back and try to pretend as if nothing had happened but people in his wake could not always do that. He had difficult relationship with his three children, he had a daughter by his first marriage Bobby Jo and a son John Henry and at daughter Claudia like the third wife, and she did not have new relationships to speak of what those kids growing up, he reconnected later in life with John Henry and Claudia. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The book is titled the immortal life of Ted Williams, it has something of a double meaning, he was a legend of course, but he was also cryogenically preserved, he was frozen for a possible future revival, were you able to determine if that is actually what Ted Williams wanted? BEN BRADLEE JR.: I am glad that you asked that and I think that was an important question. I was really curious about this, this was an unfortunate ending for the greatest hitter who ever lived, and what happened was that John Henry got interested in cryonics in 1997 and for those who'd don't know cryonics is not a science but a belief that among a few thousand people that medical science will one day be able to carry one you of whatever you died from an somehow they will bring you back to life and work us out. There a lot of holes in the theory and they do not know if Ted Williams would come back as an eighty-three-year-old man or a young stud and the other hit 400 again. But John Henry himself was the idea was was he died suddenly in 2004, about eighteen months after his father died, he died of leukemia and to his credit he went through with what he ordered out for his father and he was also cryogenically perverse is preserved in his remains are with Ted in Scottsdale called the Alcor foundation and fill the child that is alive the oldest daughter died in 2010, she had challenged these cryonics but the only child is alive is Claudia and she told us her first story of how this came to pass and she said that they approach their father in 2000 about eighteen months before Ted died in right before he was going to have a pacemaker installed, that is a routine surgery but not so routine for an eighty-two-year-old man. They'll for John Henry and Claudia it was the time that they would approach John Henry and her father and see if this was what he wanted. Can this was what they wanted to do and they present the question to Ted, when you do this for us, so that we can be together forever? She said that he agreed. My reporting researched that if he did come only he probably was not at sound mind of the time. I was able to attract and interview about a dozen other people who they told after that date that now he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes throughout the waters off the Keys as his will had specified. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you a final question, going back to the late Padres sportscaster Jerry Coleman, he said that today's pictures are stronger and faster than they used to, what you think Williams would fare in today's game? BEN BRADLEE JR.: I think you would still fare awfully well, but I think Jerry Coleman is right, it's a different time now, particularly relief pitchers, it's a whole specialty and Ted to not face those as much, it was a different area with pitch counts and there were no such thing as pitch counts in Ted's day. Starting pitcher would finish the game. But he was still an awfully good hitter. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with journalist Ben Bradley Junior, author of The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. Thank you very much.
San Diego can claim baseball legend Ted Williams as a native son, but his great days as "The Splendid Splinter" took place in Boston.
As a player with the Red Sox, Williams earned the distinction of being the greatest hitter who ever lived.
But as gifted as he was on the field, Williams was a troubled man at home.
In a new, 800-page biography of Williams, "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams," former Boston Globe journalist Ben Bradlee Jr. tells his story with the frankness of a reporter and the affection of a fan.
"I think I understand him," Bradlee said. "To the extent that anyone who spends 10 years writing a book gets to know his subject."
He said Williams was a complicated guy. He grew up in North Park on Utah Street. His mother, May Williams, worked for the Salvation Army and his father was an alcoholic and out of the picture. Williams resented his mother for her devotion to her work, Bradlee said.
"She was out until all hours of the night saving souls on the streets of San Diego in the depression era," he said. "She cared about that more than she cared about raising her son Ted and his younger brother Danny, so they were some of the first latchkey kids."
Williams started his baseball career right after graduating from Hoover High School. At 17, he started playing with the San Diego Padres but it wasn't long before the Red Sox came calling for Williams.
Bradlee said Red Sox General Manager Eddie Collins knew Williams was a natural talent the first time he saw him play.
"He said when he first saw Ted Williams swing that he just shot out of his seat as if his hair was on fire," Bradlee said. "Bill Lane, owner of the Padres said, 'no, you’re crazy — he’s not ready,' but they compromised and agreed that when the time came, Eddie Collins would get the first chance on behalf of the Red Sox."
Ted Williams is known as the greatest hitter that ever lived, his record-setting 406 batting average has remained unbroken for the last 60 years.
"Perhaps no one combined power and average the way Williams did," Bradlee said. "He wasn’t a slap hitter like Ty Cobb and he wasn’t the home-run hitter that Babe Ruth was, but he had the highest on-base percentage in baseball history.
Williams spent five years away from baseball in the prime of his career to be a Marine Corps aviator in both World War II and the Korean War.
"For his legacy it helped him that he served in those wars because it gave him a heroic sheen," Bradlee said.
But Williams was a troubled person, Bradlee said, with his anger rooted in the resentment of his mother.
He said Williams could use the anger constructively on the baseball field, "But in his personal life, this anger would bubble up at totally inappropriate times and places and caused him enormous problems."
Williams married and divorced three times. He had a daughter, Bobby Joe, with his first wife, and a son, John Henry and daughter, Claudia with his third wife. He had a difficult relationship with his three children.
"He didn’t have any relationships to speak of with those kids growing up. He reconnected later in life with John Henry and Claudia," Bradlee said.
When Williams' died in 2002, John Henry and Claudia fought with Bobby Joe about what to do with their father's body.
John Henry had become interested in cryonics, and the idea of extending life after death.
From the Alcor Life Extension Foundation: "Cryonics is an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today's medicine might be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health."
John Henry and Claudia won, and so Williams' head was cut off of his body and both were put in liquid nitrogen with the hope of someday bringing the greatest hitter who ever lived back to life.
"This was an unfortunate, sad ending for the greatest hitter that ever lived," Bradlee said.
"John Henry himself, whose idea this was died suddenly in 2004, about 18 months after his father died, died of leukemia and to his credit he went through with what he ordered up for his father and was also crionically preserved, So his remains are with Ted’s at this facility out in Scottsdale called the Alcor foundation," Bradlee said.
Bradlee interviewed Claudia about getting her father's consent to be crionically frozen.
Claudia told Bradlee that she and John Henry approached their father in 2000.
"By this time they had decided that this was something that they wanted to do. And she said, the way they framed the question to Ted was, 'will you do this for us, so that we can be together forever' quote endquote as a family. And she says he agreed," Bradlee said.
"But my reporting and research suggests that if he did, he probably was not of sound mind at the time," he said.
He said he interviewed about a dozen people who said Williams wanted to be cremated and his ashes thrown in the water off the Florida Keys.