“When I wasn’t sleeping or eating,” he quotes Williams saying of his growing up, “I was practicing swinging. If I didn’t have a bat, I’d take any piece of wood, or make a bat of paper and swing it.” “Or,” Bradlee continues, for him, “he’d just swing an imaginary bat. If he passed a storefront that had a big, clear window, he liked to stop, take a few swings, and check his reflection out. When he did this, he’d be in his own world, oblivious to the merchants inside bemused by the vainglorious displays. The truth is, Ted didn’t want to just be good. He wanted to look good.” (It worked.)
Once Williams makes the majors—he joined the Red Sox for his rookie season in 1939—and Bradlee has national newspaper stories to draw from, the book really starts to sing. “In his third game, Ted had a double and single, but it was his fourth game, on Sunday, April 23, that served as his true Fenway Park coming out party,” Bradlee writes. “In his second time up against Philadelphia’s LeRoy ‘Tarzan’ Parmelee, Ted scorched a ball into the right-center-field bleachers, just to the right of the outfield triangle, about 430 feet away, for his first home run. Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald called it ‘as harshly a hit a line drive as anybody ever sent into that sector, not excepting even Babe Ruth …’ ”
Williams, handsome and charming—though egotistical, to put it mildly, and comically uncouth—was a magnet for press, an instant star. A slump at the start of his second season turned things sour, however, and an antagonistic relationship with fans and journalists alike became a dark theme of his career. Not that it hindered his production. He was an angry person, extremely self-critical and, at times, mean to others. It seemed to fuel his excellence.
He had a flair for the dramatic, and his heroics play out thrillingly on the page. The home run he hit to win the 1941 All-Star Game. The six hits he collected the last day of that season, after choosing to play in a doubleheader in Philadelphia, rather than sit out to preserve his (last ever) .400 average. The home run he hit on Sept. 28, 1960, in the last at-bat of his career. (That one immortalized, three weeks later, in John Updike’s classic New Yorker essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”) Bradlee relays such moments well. “The crowd screamed anew,” he writes of Williams’ exit off the field in the last inning of his last game, “but Ted ran right through the cheers, still unwilling to bow to convention. As he passed shortstop, he said to Pumpsie Green, ‘Isn’t this a crock of shit?’ Green laughed.” And the context Bradlee provides—the heavy detailing, the quotes and anecdotes—brings the reader inside Williams’ psychology, to the extent that that’s possible.
Sure, you might scratch your head on Page 34, when you learn that Williams’ paternal aunt Alice had a dog, part coyote, named Cap, that her friend Roselle Romano thought “was a nasty thing,” wondering why you’ve learned this—especially as it becomes apparent that you will be learning little else about Alice or Cap or Roselle, or many of the other myriad members of the extended family who get a quick sketch early on. And you might have trouble keeping straight which horrible thing Williams said to which of the three wives he divorced before he settled down with Louise Kaufman, with whom he lived for 24 years and to whom he also said some horrible things. But by the time you get to the sad, disturbing end of the story, where you learn lots of sad, disturbing things about Williams’ children, and the legal fight that broke out around his will, and a “cryonics” company called Alcor that freezes human corpses in giant thermoses called “Dewars” in the hopes of unfreezing them in the future, once medical science has advanced to a point where it can bring them back to life, and you read the unpleasant and difficult-to-believe sentence, “With these fundamental issues resolved, Darwin picked up a carving knife and began to slice off Williams’s head,” you’re happy for everything you’ve learned in this giant book. Because it has portrayed the man in full.
The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Bed Bradlee, Jr. Little, Brown.