Ted Williams Had a Perfect Swing and a Complicated Life

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2013 2:37 PM

“Natural Hitter My Ass”

The perfect swing and complicated life of Ted Williams.

Illustration by Frederik Peeters.

Illustration by Frederik Peeters

There are a million ways to watch baseball. Many of them don’t even involve watching, technically. Come spring you’ll be able to find a graybeard on a rocking chair in Bar Harbor who will tell you, as he listens to Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien’s play-by-play come in through the static from Fenway, that he prefers radio to television, because just the sounds of the game—crack of bat, roar of crowd—put a picture of it in his mind. A friend of my dad’s used to say, “Just save me the box scores,” explaining how he followed the season, always a day behind, through the morning papers.

There are a million ways of writing about baseball, too—the prose poetry of Roger Angell, the clear-eyed analysis of Bill James, the storytelling of Michael Lewis. Baseball’s canon is vast and varied. And among the figures from the sport’s century-and-a-half history most worthy of all angles of study, few loom larger than Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox left fielder through the 1940s and ’50s, the last player to post a season’s batting average above .400, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, widely acknowledged as the greatest hitter who ever lived. There are many ways to write about Ted Williams. And longtime Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., touches them all with his exhaustive, 850-page tome of a biography, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.

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It’s very long, this book. Too long, from an immediate-enjoyment standpoint: Some of the 126 pages leading up to Williams’s first major league at-bat bog down in picayune detail, and many of the 300 that chronicle his post-retirement years struggle to earn their keep. But the prose is breezy, the research and reporting are impeccable, and, taking a wider view, the length is easy to forgive. This book very much sets out to be the definitive document of a great, complicated, fascinating person—besides the baseball, Williams was a highly decorated fighter pilot and a world-class fisherman—and ultimately, it succeeds. If it sometimes strains to fit in absolutely everything anyone has ever known about Ted Williams, well, you come to see the value in its doing so. It’s a good book.

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The best of it is the baseball. Hitting, specifically. Brimming with accounts of Williams’s swing—a fluid, balletic motion regularly described as “the most natural” that various describers had ever seen—the book approaches the act of a hitting a pitched baseball as high art. Six-foot-3 and always spindly for an athlete, the “Splendid Splinter” mastered the mechanics of batting such that he generated torque wholly disproportionate to his muscle mass. Bradlee collects and assembles awestruck anecdotes from friends, teammates, coaches, and journalists about balls hit harder and farther than anybody had ever seen balls hit before. None of them are not fun to read.

One of the best anecdotes comes from Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who says the first time he saw Williams hit, “there was something about the way he tied into that ball which all but shocked me out of my seat. It was as though a shock of electricity had just passed through my body. In that fleeting moment, as he swung at the ball, I became convinced that here was one of the most natural hitters in the history of baseball. I’d have staked my life on it.”

Williams never liked the term: “Natural hitter my ass,” he said. He’d worked and studied, practiced countless hours, days, perfecting his swing. He was obsessed. The same way a million other American boys have been obsessed over the years, of course. But Williams’ drive, Bradlee argues, was intensified by the escape baseball provided from a neglected, impoverished childhood in southern California.