The New York Times
Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Heroby Leigh Montville, Philip Bosco
With the death of baseball legend Ted Williams on July 3, 2002, Sports Illustrated ran Leigh Montville's powerful obituary as its much-praised cover story. Williams is one of those larger-than-life figures—a man whose hold on the public's imagination goes far beyond his feats on the baseball field. Still a teen when he signed with the Boston Red Sox in/i>… See more details below
With the death of baseball legend Ted Williams on July 3, 2002, Sports Illustrated ran Leigh Montville's powerful obituary as its much-praised cover story. Williams is one of those larger-than-life figures—a man whose hold on the public's imagination goes far beyond his feats on the baseball field. Still a teen when he signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1938, he soon unleashed the raw talent that would set longstanding records in the sport. His incredible full-season .406 batting average (in 1941) has stood unchallenged for more than sixty years, and "The Splendid Splinter" is still regarded as the greatest hitter of all time.
The legend of this American hero, however, goes much deeper. Williams interrupted his baseball career not once, but twice, to serve as a fighter pilot in World War II and Korea. He missed more than eight hundred career games, making his records and accomplishments all the more astonishing. Williams's iconoclastic personality and love-hate relationship with fans and the media never dimmed the excitement he generated—or diminished the adoration that surrounded him.
Drawing on extensive interviews with those closest to Williams, Leigh Montville presents the definitive chronicle of a classic American life. With passion and precision, Montville conjures equally the powerful grace of Williams's legendary swing and his cultural aura of invincibility. He re-creates Williams's notorious public persona and opens a window into a simple, unsophisticated man whose greatest passions were hitting baseballs and going fishing. And in compelling detail, he depicts the tremendous control Williams's youngest son wielded during the legends last,illness-plagued days—and casts new light on the controversial, headline-making decision to have Williams's body frozen.
An in-depth and uncompromising look at an all-American hero, TED WILLIAMS reveals a complex figure and a man worthy of his stature. Leigh Montville uses his unique access and personal history to craft an indelible portrait.
The New York Times
“Exceptional. Montville on Ted Williams is can’t-miss, one of America’s best sportswriters weighing in on one of the last century’s most intriguing figures. A great read.” —Chicago Tribune
“Leigh Montville reaches a threshold even the mighty Williams could never touch: perfection. The beauty of Montville’s work is that it is not a baseball book, per se, so much as the life and times of an oft perplexing, always fascinating man.” —Newsday
“A comprehensive look at a gargantuan life.” —People
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Read an Excerpt
Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox looked as fit as an Indian buck. After a winter out of doors, including a month of lazy fishing at the edge of the Florida Everglades, he was tanned to a light mahogany. His brownish green eyes were clear and sharp, his face lean, the big hands that wrapped around the handle of his 34-oz. Louisville Slugger were calloused and hard. He had 198 pounds, mostly well-trained muscle, tucked away on his six-ft. 3'3/4 in. frame. He expected, he conceded, "to have a pretty good year."
But as usual Ted Williams had a number of worries at the back of his mind.
Time, April 10, 1950
The only other car in the parking lot was a cream-colored Cadillac Coupe DeVille with Minnesota license plates. Jimmy Carroll paid no attention.
The sun was coming up, beautiful, over the Atlantic Ocean. Six o'clock in the morning. Jimmy was supposed to meet some people to go out on some rich guy's yacht from Falmouth, Massachusetts, a town located at the fat beginning end of Cape Cod. One of the people, believe it or not, was supposed to be Ellis Kinder, the pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Jimmy was a baseball fan. He had driven through the dark from Boston, excited, and arrived way too early.
The door to the cream-colored Cadillac Coupe DeVille opened. Theodore Samuel Williams stepped out.
"I didn't know what to do," Jimmy Carroll says, all these years later. "He started walking toward my car. I rolled down the window."
"Do you know Ellie Kinder?" Ted Williams asked. "Are you waiting for him?"
"Well, where the hell is he? Hi. I'm Ted Williams."
"No kidding!" Jimmy blurted again. "Jimmy Carroll."
"The sons of bitches are always late. Do you know a place around here where we can get some breakfast?"
"Well, yeah," Jimmy blurted yet one more time.
"Well, come on, let's get some breakfast."
There are other moments in his life Jimmy Carroll can describe with meaning and drama--marriage, divorce, births of children--but none are touched with the magic of that 1950s moment. The sun forever sits the same way. The car door always opens. The tall figure--Jesus, good Christ, it's him--unfolds.
Ted Williams becomes Jimmy Carroll's friend.
"We'd take rides," Jimmy says about the relationship that developed long ago. "He loved to take rides. He loved going along the Charles River. We'd make the whole loop, over to Cambridge, out to Newton and back. He'd be talking about all the places we passed, asking questions, making comments. We'd take walks. We'd go down Marlborough Street at night, really quiet and dark, a lot of college kids living there, come back up Beacon Street. Noisier. Cars would stop. People would shout.
"I took him all over the place. I took him out to Nantasket once, to the amusement park. Mobbed. We could only stay about five minutes. I took him to South Boston. Mobbed. He signed autographs for all these kids at the L Street Bath House. I took him . . . one day we're sitting around, doing nothing, and he says, 'Let's go somewhere. Where can we go?' I said, 'Why don't we go over and visit James Michael Curley, the former mayor of Boston? He's very sick.' Ted said, 'The guy who went to jail because he was taking money to help the little guy?' I said, 'That's the one. He threw out the first pitch on Opening Day a couple times. You know him.'
"We go. Ted Williams to see James Michael Curley! We get shown into a bedroom. There's two twin beds. Curley is in one of them. You can see he's close to dying. He's delighted to see Ted, though. He's a fan. Ted gets in the other twin bed! Curls up! They lie there, the two of them. Talked for an hour!"
For the next eight, nine, ten years, there was magic.
"I'd drive him to the airport, pick him up," Jimmy says. "While he was on the road, he'd let me use the car. I was selling liquor at the time. I'd drive the big Cadillac Coupe DeVille to some place, park it right out front. I'd be having trouble with some clients, maybe the Greeks--they only wanted to buy from a Greek--and I'd point outside. 'You like that car? You know who it belongs to?' "
One night Williams let Jimmy use the car for a date. Jimmy took the woman to Hugo's Lighthouse, a restaurant in suburban Cohasset. As he parked the car, a large policeman appeared. The policeman asked if Jimmy was a baseball player. Jimmy laughed and said he wasn't, but why would someone ask? The policeman said, "Because you're driving Ted Williams's car." Jimmy asked how the policeman would know this. The policeman said he just knew, that a lot of people knew what Ted Williams's car looked like. Everybody did.
"Could I ask you a favor?" the policeman also asked, after all of this business was done.
"Sure," Jimmy said.
"While you're eating, while you're in the restaurant, would it be possible for me just to sit in the car? Ted's car?"
"Sure," Jimmy said.
He and his date ate their dinners. They came out of the restaurant. Six policemen--the original one and five of his friends--now were inside the car. Touching Ted's leather upholstery. Twirling Ted's chrome knobs. Trying to breathe Ted's air. Just once.
The fame of Ted Williams in Boston and in much of the country during his baseball life was different from the fame of today. There is no analogy to make, really, to the situation of some living, modern famous person. Williams was closer to a figure from mythology or fiction, to a comic strip character, to Spiderman, Superman, Popeye the Sailor Man. Or more.
"I met him once, when I was around nine years old," William Bulger, former president of the University of Massachusetts, says. "I was with some youth group at a ballgame. He came over to meet us. I looked up and I thought I was looking into the face of God. He spoke to me. He said, 'Are you a boo-er?' I didn't know what a 'boo-er' was. I said nothing. I just stood there."
The perpetual leftfielder of the Red Sox was famous in a time when heroes were constructed with the imagination and with words rather than force-fed and sold through a 21-inch or 56-inch color screen. The tape measure of the normal did not exist. He did things once, and you saw them once in person or heard them once on the radio or read about them forever. And they grew.
The few pictures at the start of his career in 1939 that came onto the movie screen during the Warner Pathe news before the feature film at the downtown theater were herky-jerky images, black-and-white, Ted Williams obviously posing for his swing before the ballgame began, sometimes not even in the batter's box, perfect lighting, crack, then everything turned grainy and too fast as the hard-to-see ball traveled over a grainy fence and he ran the bases in a speeded-up hurry. Even the pictures at the end on television, 1960, were not much better.
"I started doing the Red Sox games in 1951," broadcaster Curt Gowdy says. "We used three cameras to cover the entire game. One from first base, one from third, one behind the plate. I went to [owner] Tom Yawkey at the end of the season and said, 'I think we could use a fourth camera from centerfield to show the balls and strikes. I think it would be a great addition.'
"Yawkey surprised me. He didn't want it. He said the television coverage would become too good. People would stay home from the ballpark. We didn't get it."
For virtually all of Ted Williams's 19 big-league years, the assembled folk at the ballpark had to report to friends and neighbors what they had seen him do. There was no replay. There was no highlights package at 11. How far did that ball go? How mighty was that swing? How mad, exactly, did The Splendid Splinter become? The voices of Gowdy and other broadcasters had to explain. The sets of fingers on the typewriters in the press box--each set lined up in direct competition with all the other sets of fingers in the press box--had to find phrases and sentences, cockamamy analogies, to translate and reconstruct reality for the general public's edification. Word of mouth had to carry the brushfires further.
The figure that stepped from all of these words, from all of this thinking--the human being who actually came into a restaurant, sat down, and ordered a malted milkshake--had all the mystery of any unseen divinity. Each swallow, each bite of his sandwich, was an amazement.
Hyperbole trailed Ted Williams like a faithful hound.
"The Red Sox used to come to Harvard to practice in our cage on rainy days," Billy Cleary, 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey player and longtime Harvard athletic director, says. "We had the only indoor facility in the area at the time. I was an undergraduate then, and as soon as we saw it was raining, we'd all go down to watch the Red Sox, to watch Ted.
"One day there was a bunch of kids around the batting cage, Ted at bat . . . a pitch came in, and he didn't swing. One of the wise-guy college kids shouted, 'Strike!' Ted turned around and said, 'That was not a goddamned strike. What do you know about baseball?' Kids being kids, a bunch of them laughed. Ted was fuming.
"His turn was done, so he stepped out and somebody else stepped in. You could see Ted was still mad. Fuming. He was muttering about the kids and the pitch, getting madder by the moment. When his turn finally came around again, you could see him squeezing the bat, harder and harder, still muttering. He was grinding his teeth. The pitcher threw the ball, and Ted swung, and he hit it so hard . . . there was a net, you know, inside the building . . . the ball went right through the net, broke the cords, then went straight to the ceiling, where it hit a big light. Broke the light. Sparks. Stuff falling from the ceiling.
"Ted turned to us. He said, 'That was a strike, goddamn it.' Walked away. It was the most amazing thing in sports I've ever seen."
Did it happen that way?
It did, because that was what the mind remembered and the words reported. There was no evidence to dispute them.
He lived at the Somerset Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue, Room 231, a suite, for the last half of his career. He would check in at the beginning of the season, check out at the end. Mae Carney, the head telephone operator, was instructed not to put any calls through to Room 231, never, under any circumstances. Messages were taken, and bellhops like Leo Pratt would hurry them to the room, sliding them under the door if no one answered a knock. Never enter the room! That was the rule.
Room 231 was his refuge. He had a vise and piles of feathers in his bedroom to tie flies for fishing, his major hobby. He had a tripod and a telescope in the living room. He could watch the stars. He also could watch the coeds in their dormitory at Garland Junior College.
Jimmy Carroll was a visitor.
"The suite was perfect for him," Jimmy says. "It was right next to the stairs. He could come in the back way or leave and no one would see him. He walked a lot of the time to the ballpark. He knew shortcuts and back alleys that no one else knew. He walked through the Victory Gardens [vegetable gardens planted by apartment dwellers during the Second World War in the park land of the Fenway] a lot."
Jimmy's office was at 120 Ashford Street, behind Braves Field, maybe a mile from the hotel. Ted would call. Jimmy would go to the hotel. There would be no great plan. They would just hang out sometimes. Talk.
They would talk about religion, about politics, about the stock market. Ted had still been paid by the Red Sox during his time in Korea, and his agent, Fred Corcoran, had put the money in the market. Something called IBM. He worried about the wisdom of the investment. Huh. The conversations could be about anything. Religion and politics combined.
"I was a Kennedy man," Jimmy says. "He was a Nixon man. He always was giving me the needle about the Catholic thing. I sold a whiskey, OFC. He said, 'OFC . . . that's Only For Catholics? Only For Cardinals? Only For Chiselers? What is it?' I told him the plans were already in place for Massachusetts when Kennedy took charge. The state was going to be split in two. High Mass and Low Mass."
Jimmy would bring over a case of Cutty Sark, another of his products, but never saw one of the bottles opened. Ted seldom drank, and when he did it was wine, sparkling burgundy. If he and Jimmy went out to eat, they often went to restaurants in the suburbs, quiet places. If they went out to eat in Boston, they went to the Union Oyster House on Union Street, a place Ted liked because management seated him in the back, a private room. Or to Steve McGrail's Linwood Grill on Kilmarnock Street, a place Ted liked because management would instantly fire up two steaks for him. Late at night, the few times he went out, Ted liked the bar at the Copley Plaza. Or the Darby Room. Or the Polynesian Room at the Somerset. Every place had to be dark. Every one of them, it seemed, was down a flight of stairs.
"I remember one night we're coming back from the Copley," Jimmy says. "Traffic was being rerouted, and we wound up going past the side of the Boston Public Library. Ted suddenly says, 'Stop the car.' I stopped. He pointed and said, 'What's that?' It was people, homeless, sleeping on the heating grates outside the library. Ted couldn't believe it. I remember him talking about that all night. How the hell could this country have people living like that? It really bothered him."
There were trips to prizefights, to see local guys like Tony DeMarco, Paul Pender, Red Priest, Tommy Collins. Ted liked boxing. There were double dates, Ted asking if Jimmy really was interested in that girl he was with. Why is that, Ted? Because if you're not, I'll take a shot at her. Ted liked women. There were trips to see sick kids and old people in hospitals. A lot of those trips. There was a trip to a driving range in Weymouth, a trip to Filene's Basement in Boston (mobbed), even visits to Fenway Park.
Jimmy wound up shagging flies during off-day workouts sometimes. Pete Cerrone, the Red Sox equipment man who also worked in Filene's Basement selling suits, would throw batting practice from behind a door he dragged out to the mound to avoid being killed by line drives back through the middle. Jimmy would be out in rightfield. Ted would hit the ball, and Jimmy would move in for the catch, and the ball would go over his head. He could hear it pass, a low whoosh, a jet engine in the air. The next sound would be a clank when it hit the seats.
"One day Ted told me I should hit," Jimmy says. "I told him I didn't want to do it. He said, 'Come on, every kid who grew up in Boston wants to hit the leftfield wall.' Okay, he was right. I went up there, and Pete was throwing underhanded, and I couldn't hit anything. Ted came over, showed me some things, adjusted my hands. He said to Pete, 'Throw it overhand and throw it in there.' I swung, I connected, the ball went out and hit the wall. I did it… I've told my son so many times about hitting the wall, he never wants to hear it again. But I did it. I hit the wall."
The relationship was one-sided perhaps, Ted always in control, but also perfect. Ted got to do whatever he wanted to do. Jimmy got to see what Ted wanted to do. That was enough. Jimmy sometimes laughed at his good fortune. How many people wouldn't want to be doing what he was doing? He wasn't trying to make a buck, a deal. He was inside the velvet ropes of celebrity, seeing what Ted saw. That was more than enough. Maybe he wasn't walking in Ted's size 10 or 11 baseball shoes, a different size for each foot, and maybe he wasn't taking a swing at a 3–2 fastball, but he was wearing one of Ted's sports coats for dinner. Size 46. Same size. His size. Ted was wearing Jimmy's camel's hair overcoat in the cold. Size 46. Same size.
What was it the two MDC cops called Ted when they stopped him for speeding? Ted was coming over to see Jimmy's mother, sick in Carney Hospital. The cops stopped him, looked at the license, and radioed back to the station, "We've got the Pope of Baseball here," then gave him an escort to the hospital. The Pope of Baseball! Jimmy could see what life was like to be the Pope of Baseball.
"We had a lot of fun, but there were times he would become really quiet," Jimmy says. "We'd be driving somewhere. His mind would be someplace else. You could tell. He'd have a look on his face. I'd wonder if he really was happy. I didn't think he was. I still don't."
Too much. Too much. Too much. That was Jimmy's thought. Too much. Sometimes the life of the Pope of Baseball could be way too much.
"The Colonel called me once, Dave Egan, the columnist from the Boston Record who Ted hated the most," Jimmy Carroll says. "He was a powerful figure, the Colonel. I was nervous. He said he'd heard that I was close to Ted. I said that I was. He said he'd heard Ted wasn't feeling well. Was this true?"
What to do? Jimmy figured he could tell the truth.
"He's okay," Jimmy said. "Except he's got diarrhea."
"Diarrhea?" the Colonel asked.
"Diarrhea," Jimmy confirmed.
The next morning the phone rang. Williams was furious. There was a story in the paper that "Ted Has Diarrhea." Why would Jimmy tell someone that?
"I didn't know," Jimmy still says. "I didn't think they'd put that word in the paper. 'Ted Has Diarrhea'?"
Stop the presses. This was the life of the Pope of Baseball.
He was the famous Ted Williams from the time he was 17, no more than 18 years old. The famous life was the only adult life he ever knew. From the time he joined the hometown San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League--he still hadn't graduated from Hoover High School--until the day he died in Hernando, Florida, 83 years old, he was the prize pumpkin at the county fair, prodded and pushed, examined, greeted with oohs and ahhs.
How do you handle this?
Because he could hit a baseball--an athletic feat in the national consciousness second only to knocking out a string of heavyweight contenders at the time--he could go where he wanted to go, do what he wanted to do. There might be a hassle involved, a crowd of bug-eyed gawkers and talkers in attendance, but he could be his own man.
The normal social restraints did not exist. He could pick his friends from the boardroom or the parking lot, whichever interested him, simply by offering his hand. He could pick his women from the Somerset lobby, any of them, sitting on the sofas, waiting for him to pass. He could travel or stay home, eat early or late. He could fart in church. If he wanted to go to church.
Is there such a thing as too much freedom? He was a test. A latchkey child from a broken home, unencumbered by an adolescence filled with parental dos and don'ts, he was raw and basic and naive when he arrived in the spotlight. No one had ever told him what to do in the past, and now, no matter how many people told him, he really didn't have to listen.
He was the famous Ted Williams. He could figure out what he wanted to figure out for himself.
"Vinnie Orlando, the visiting clubhouse guy, told me a story," Will McDonough, sportswriter for the Boston Globe, says. "Vinnie was about the same age as Ted and said that when Ted showed up for spring training the first time in 1938, he was like a Neanderthal. He was an animal.
"He didn't even know how to drive a car. He asked Vinnie, who had a car, if maybe they could double-date. If Vinnie could find some girls. Vinnie found the girls. He and Ted went to pick them up. 'How are you, how are you, etc. ...' Ted and his girl get in the backseat. Vinnie and his girl were in the front. Vinnie said he drove about three blocks. The girl in the backseat started screaming. Ted had just jumped her. He didn't know that maybe you were supposed to talk to each other, maybe eat dinner, whatever. He just jumped on her. He didn't know."
Where do you go from there?
The necessities of life bring conformity for most people. Get a job, get some money, get married, get a house, yessir, nosir, how high sir? What if all the necessities are covered by the single ability to swing a 32-ounce bat and hit a 5-ounce ball? Maybe you learn to drive and you learn the basics of dealing with the opposite gender, but how much else do you learn? There is no pot to confine growth to a prescribed area. You grow--or you don't grow--exactly in the ways you want.
The famous Ted Williams was able to pick and choose. If he wanted to fish for salmon or learn how to fly a plane or take pictures, he followed his inclinations to the maximum degree. If there was something he didn't want to learn, maybe something personal about relationships with a wife, a child, a friend, something that involved change and pain, well, he didn't have to learn. He could write a check, mumble, and move along.
Take me or leave me. I am what I am. If that was unacceptable, there always was a line of people who would not mind. He could bellow his opinions. He could charm a room, have everyone laughing and feeling good. He could shut down in a moment.
His refusal to wear a necktie, always a source of jokes, was actually a statement. The famous Ted Williams does what he wants. Take me or leave me. If you want somebody who wears a necktie, you want somebody else. Ted Williams was the one who would decide what was right and what was wrong for Ted Williams. Don't believe him? Then just listen.
His language was part of his freedom.
"The first time I ever saw him, first words out of his mouth were 'you motherfucken syphilitic piece of shit,' " Boston sportscaster Bob Lobel says. "He was playing golf. I don't know if he was talking to the golf ball, to himself, to what. I just know I've remembered every single word."
"I was in the U.S. Marines," former Red Sox batboy George Sullivan says. "They always talk about the language in the service. It didn't bother me one bit. The entire time I was a Marine, no one swore any better than Ted Williams. I'd had my basic training in that respect before I ever had basic training."
"I was a bodyguard for General George S. Patton during the Second World War," Al Palmeri, who was a director at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp for many years, says. "Yes, General Patton swore. No, he did not swear as well as Ted."
No one could swear as well as Ted. Not only were the words showstoppers--words like "cunt" and "cocksucker," dropped freely with f-bombs and modified with his favorite adjective, "syphilitic"--but there was a way he swore that made his outbursts special. He strung the words together to make elaborate, rococo, profane poetry. There was a cadence, a rhythm to his swearing. There was a blasphemous direction too, much of the anger addressed upward toward a syphilitic Supreme Being who had let humanity down just one more time.
"There was always a sequence," Dottie Lindia, wife of friend Joe Lindia, says. "Once the first word came out, you knew the other ones would follow. And if you ever could interrupt him in the middle, you knew he would have to start over again. The words had to come in the sequence."
For Williams, the language of the dugout was his language of the restaurant, the living room, the neighborhood store. That was simply the way he was. The social muffler that most people use--the one that keeps them from asking a second cousin to "pass the fucken potatoes" at Thanksgiving--never was developed. Never had to be. Never was.
He was the famous Ted Williams.
"I remember one time, though, we were at a restaurant, many years after he retired," Al Cassidy Jr., a longtime friend, says. "When we came in, I noticed a table with some mothers and fathers and some kids. I could see they got all excited. They were looking over at our table.
"Then Ted got going. The words were rolling out, one after another. I could see the mood change at the other table. Finally one of the fathers came over and read Ted out. Said there was no need for language like that. Ted took it. He didn't say anything, but he took it. He didn't swear again. Got very quiet. You could see he was embarrassed. He was like a little kid."
He was a little kid. Always. In a million ways.
That was what made him fascinating.
He preened. He pouted. He could be unbelievably kind, especially with money. He could be cold and remote. Women were a constant problem: a joy, a nuisance, a mystery, a lower life form put on earth mostly to entertain and complain. There were holes in his psychology that could be debated and studied nightly by academics and tavern regulars, third stool from the right. He was brilliant. He was dense. He was conservative, red white and blue. He still could have tons of liberal thoughts. He was an American hero, no doubt about that, a picture on a bedroom wall. He also could do things that were much less than heroic, everyday surrenders in everyday affairs. He was Ted Williams. He could hit a ball. More than anything, he could hit a baseball. He was famous.
Three wives. Two wars. Nineteen years in the major leagues. That was only a start.
He found his way to his own complicated Oz. He then had to stay there for all of his life.
A party was planned for Williams's 40th birthday on August 30, 1958. Nothing elaborate. He would throw it for himself in the suite. The guest list was comprised of the normal people, not teammates: the accountants and hotel operators and bellhops and lawyers and people who surrounded him in slack-jawed admiration and helped him live inside his bubble of fame. Jimmy Carroll was on the list.
He had an idea.
"You say to yourself, 'What do I get this guy for his birthday?' " Carroll says. "He has absolutely everything. What could I get him that might mean something to him?"
Carroll remembered a conversation in one of the many trips in the Coupe DeVille. He remembered exactly where it had taken place. They were going to the airport, down Commonwealth, and had just turned at Arlington Street, when he asked Ted if he had any idols. The night was rainy.
"No, never," Williams replied.
"You must have had an idol as a kid," Carroll said. "Ty Cobb? Babe Ruth? Someone like that. You were my idol."
"No. I grew up on the West Coast. I didn't even know much about those people then. Never followed the major leagues very close. I didn't have any idols. No."
Silence returned to the car. Carroll wondered if he'd asked the wrong thing. He drove around the Boston Common and was heading on to Charles Street, more silence, windshield wipers whacking, when Williams suddenly spoke.
"I take that back," he said. "I do have an idol. He's still my idol. Douglas MacArthur."
"He's my kind of guy. He was my commander in the Second World War and the Korean War. I really respect him. Douglas MacArthur."
Douglas MacArthur, huh? Carroll decided that the perfect gift for Ted's birthday would be a signed picture from Ted's idol. Douglas MacArthur. One problem: how would a man get in touch with Douglas MacArthur? All Carroll knew was what he had read, that MacArthur now lived in the Waldorf Astoria in New York and worked for the Rand Corporation. How would a man get through the switchboard at the Waldorf Astoria?
Carroll approached the head bellman at the Somerset with his problem. He knew there was an alliance between bellmen at big hotels, one helping the other for odd requests. The bellman at the Somerset connected him with the head bellman at the Waldorf.
"You'll never get ahold of him," the bellman at the Waldorf said.
"Not a chance."
"Ted Williams," Carroll repeated, invoking the magic name as often as possible. "This is for Ted Williams."
"Here's your only shot," the bellman finally said. "A driver picks the General up every morning at 8:15 to take him to work. The servants don't arrive until 9:00 A.M. If you call in those 45 minutes between 8:15 and 9:00, you might be able to talk to his wife. And you have to take it from there."
Carroll called the next day. The General's wife answered. She was cold. Carroll talked at his salesman's warp speed. Ted Williams! The ballplayer! General MacArthur is his idol! Ted Williams! Ted Williams! The General's wife warmed a little bit. She said that the irony was that the General also thought very highly of Ted Williams. He considered Williams to be the personification of the American ideal, the true man's man. Ted Williams? Okay, she gave Carroll the phone number and extension of the General's office. Good luck. Carroll dialed.
"I'm James Carroll of Boston," he said.
"How'd you get this number?" Douglas MacArthur replied.
The voice over the phone had dignity, force, strength. The only time Carroll ever had heard it was on the news, MacArthur telling Congress that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away." Never had Carroll been so nervous. Never had he talked so fast. Ted Williams! Ted Williams! Ted Williams!
Slowly, the General became interested. Yes, he truly admired Ted Williams, but he certainly couldn't go to Boston for a birthday party. Carroll said, "No! That wasn't what I wanted!" A signed photograph? Oh, that was different. How about something even better?
"I have a lot of oil paintings that people have sent me," MacArthur said. "They're paintings of me going back to the Philippines, most of them. I don't know why, people were inspired by my return to paint for some reason. Why don't I send you one of those? Would four feet by three feet be all right?"
The painting arrived in a crate at the house of Carroll's mother. He brought it to the Somerset on August 30. Irene Hennessy, famous in New England as the Narragansett Beer girl ("Hey, neighbor! Have a Gansett!") saw him in the lobby. She was a friend of Ted's.
"What do you have there, Jimmy?" she asked.
"You wouldn't believe it," he replied.
Unveiled in Room 231, the large face of MacArthur stared at the party group. The inscription read: "To Ted Williams--Not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who served his country. Your friend, Doug MacArthur. General U.S. Army." Williams was delighted. He placed the picture on the mantel above the fireplace.
Everyone stared in appropriate wonder. How far can a kid from nowhere in San Diego travel by hitting a baseball? This far.
This far indeed.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Leigh Montville, former sports columnist at the Boston Globe and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated, is the author of the best-selling At The Altar of Speed: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of Dale Earnhardt. He lives with his family in the same area code as Fenway Park.
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