Any Hack Can Say He’s the Greatest. Ted Williams Was.

The story of Ted Williams supports the theory that to be the best in the world at something — or maybe at anything — you probably have to be, in some ways, a lousy human being.

Image for post
Image for post
The Kid. The Splendid Splinter. Teddy Ballgame.

Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, a new PBS American Masters documentary that premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET, confirms what baseball fans have thought about Williams for decades.

He was profane, stubborn, restless, irascible and angry. He was also just what the title calls him: the best pure hitter who ever played professional baseball.

At several points, Ted Williams doesn’t have any dialogue, just a montage of his swing. We get 25 or 30 quick shots, one after another, of Number 9 uncoiling at a pitched ball. It’s like watching water cascade over Niagara Falls, like watching a racecar take a turn at 180 miles an hour. It’s breathtaking. It’s the swing God had in mind when She invented baseball.

A couple of players had higher lifetime batting averages than Williams, including Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. It takes nothing from their obvious skill to say they could not have been better pure hitters than Ted Williams.

He came with the right physical attributes: a tall, lean body and exceptional eyesight. He also had a mental attribute: He was obsessed. Ten thousand hours of hitting? For Williams, that was the warm-up.

Ted Williams, which is produced by Major League Baseball, directed by Nick Davis and narrated by Jon Hamm, documents that obsession through Williams’s own words and eyewitnesses who range from sportswriters to an old fishing buddy to his daughter Claudia.

Image for post
Image for post
Son John Henry, daughter Claudia and an older, marginally mellower Ted.

Their stories are consistent. He swore a lot, he was bad at personal relationships, he didn’t talk about the fact his mother came from a Mexican family and he spent a lot of his life mad about anything he didn’t like and couldn’t change.

In his second season with the Boston Red Sox, he got irritated when he heard a few boos from fans at Fenway Park. To get even, he vowed he would never honor the baseball tradition of tipping his cap when fans applauded after a home run. And he didn’t. No matter how much they came to love him. Even when he hit a home run in what everyone knew would be his last at-bat.

Thirty years elapsed before he finally came back to Fenway, at the age of 72 and took off his cap.

As that gesture suggests, he mellowed in some ways as he aged, and perhaps the most uplifting assurance in Ted Williams is that he did find sources of pleasure in his life.

He was a lousy husband, several times over, and not a very good Dad, but he and his kids eventually worked some things out.

He loved fishing, his other life passion, and he got deeply and personally involved with both the Jimmy Fund, a Boston-rooted organization that helps kids with cancer, and the plight of retired fellow ballplayers.

He used his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame to publicly call out the Hall for its shameful failure to honor players from the Negro Leagues — which the Hall very soon began doing.

Image for post
Image for post
Note two things. One, he didn’t weigh much more than his bat, even though he pioneered lightweight bats. Two, the look on his face.

But his overriding life mission, to be acknowledged as the greatest hitter ever, dictated the way he looked at other people and at life.

He measured himself against the contemporary player to whom he was most often compared, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees. He had little patience with players who lacked his skills and no patience for those without his work ethic. That’s the main reason his years managing the Washington Senators devolved into a misadventure scarcely noted here.

He had thin skin. Critical comments from a few Boston sportswriters early in his career led him to decide he detested all writers, and he never let that go.

He resented having only one chance to play in a World Series, 1946, when a hand injury reduced him to a non-factor.

He resented losing five years of his career to military service, first in World War II and then Korea. American Masters suggests he grudgingly accepted that serving in World War II was a patriotic duty, but never lost his bitterness over being recalled for Korea.

Image for post
Image for post
He flew 39 combat missions in Korea.

In all these cases, people who knew him note, his response was consistent. He used anger as a tool. He was a better hitter when he was mad, he said, and when you’re mad as often as he apparently was, well, maybe that’s a perfect storm.

Maybe if he’d been even angrier, he would have hit .444 for his career instead of .344.

Except if he’d been even angrier, he probably would have exploded. So maybe the moral of this American Masters is that becoming the best that’s ever been, in the end, makes you just happy enough.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store