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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There are great ballplayers, and then there's Ted Williams. In a 22-year career with the Boston Red Sox, Williams staked a credible claim to being the greatest hitter who ever lived. But he was also a tormented soul who hurt a lot of people, including himself.
Williams is the subject of the new biography "The Kid," by our guest, Ben Bradlee Jr. Williams won six batting titles, including one when he was 40. He is the last player to hit 400 in a season, and he retired with baseball's highest on-base percentage ever. Williams hit for power, too. His 521-career home runs places him among the top 20 of all time despite missing three seasons serving in World War II, and most of two more seasons serving as a pilot in Korea.
But Williams' personal life was a mess. Though he quietly committed countless acts of kindness and generosity, he also railed at sportswriters, cursed and spat at fans and took out his rage on those closest to him. And in a truly bizarre ending to his life story, his son had his head and body cryonically frozen, generating a bitter family dispute that played out in the Boston media.
Author Ben Bradlee Jr. spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Ben Bradlee Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, Ted Williams decided at a very early age he was going to be one of the greatest hitters of all time, right? I mean, what was he like physically, and how did he get so good?
BEN BRADLEE JR.: Well, he was a tall string bean, and weighed nothing. He always thought he was too skinny and weak. He worried about his power and whether he would have enough to make it in baseball. But he was just an incredible hitter. He had a textbook swing - low to high. He always emphasized that you had to have a slight uppercut in your swing. And it was smooth. And he ended up pioneering the notion that sluggers in baseball didn't need to use a big, heavy bat; that a lighter bat was better because it created more whip, and the speed of the bat hitting the ball, the speed of the swing - like a golfers' speed of the swing - is what really generates the power.
And he also had fantastic eyesight, unusual eyesight and reflexes and, of course, natural coordination. But he didn't like it when people suggested that his success was simply due to his natural talent. He said, "No one ever swung a bat more often than I did, no one practiced harder than I did." So he always attributed a lot of his success to hard work.
DAVIES: Ted had a lot of anger. This man's childhood wasn't easy. Tell us about his mom.
BRADLEE JR.: Well, his mother was a Salvation Army street worker - a zealot, really. And she was dedicated. She was out until all hours of the night, saving souls on the street. And this is what she believed in, that was her passion in life, more so than taking care of her two sons - Ted and his younger brother, Danny. And those kids were one of the first latchkey kids, really. They were up until about 10 o'clock at night, waiting on the front step of their house for their mother to come home. The father was sort of a drunk and a ne'er-do-well, and not around.
And his mother not being present caused Ted a lot of resentment and anger. I think that was the source of the anger. And he had a - luckily for him - a playground right down the street where - which had lights; was unusual, in those days. So he was able to spend much of the time on the ball field. But he nursed this anger and resentment and these were festering, early memories for him.
DAVIES: So the family was poor. And there's another aspect of his childhood that Ted never was very comfortable with, and that was his ethnic heritage, his mom's. Tell us about that.
BRADLEE JR.: Well, I think this is one of the most interesting parts of the Williams story, and it's something that didn't come out until a month before Ted died, in 2002; the fact that he was a Mexican-American. His mother was Mexican - she was born in Mexico. Her parents were born and raised there as well. And he was embarrassed about this, and afraid that the prejudice of the day would hurt his baseball career. Even though Mexicans didn't figure as prominently as black ballplayers, nevertheless he feared - he was aware of the, certainly, the black prejudice - and feared that it could hurt him. And so he was advised to keep this under wraps, and he did. He always spoke rather contemptuously of his extended family on the mother's side, and referred to them as the Mexicans, in not a nice way.
And there was a very telling moment in 1939, after Williams had completed his rookie year with the Red Sox, and had made an absolutely smashing debut - hit well over 300, and led the league in runs batted in. And he returned to San Diego the conquering hero, and was met at the train station by a gaggle of 100 or so of the extended Mexican clan. And Ted took one look at them from afar and beat a hasty retreat; he didn't want to be seen with them.
DAVIES: He played his entire career at Boston and had a, you know, a contentious relationship with the fans, to a degree, and to the - and certainly with sportswriters for all of those years. But there was this other side of him - visiting kids in the hospital and not telling anybody about it. Tell us about that.
BRADLEE JR.: Yes. Yeah. Well, this is a very important side of Ted Williams. His anger got a lot of the attention. But that anger was really leavened by a fundamental kindness and decency. He had a good heart. His outlet for showing this, chiefly, was sick children with cancer. And in those days, cancer for children was almost always fatal. And he got involved with the Jimmy Fund, which was a charity that the Red Sox took over after initially started by Old Boston Braves. And their main goal was to raise money and do anything they could, to help kids with cancer.
And Williams would go and quietly visit these kids, and he would insist that there be no publicity or else he wouldn't come. He would leave his phone number with the nurses and the doctors, and if there was a kid who they felt could benefit from a visit from Ted Williams, they would call him; and he would come. But the writers came to find out about it; and they would ask him about it, and then he would say yeah, it's true, but if you write it I'll never talk to you again. This was genuine, and he didn't want any ink for it.
DAVIES: You know, we could spend an hour talking about his great moments as a hitter. But one that we probably should discuss is the incredible season he had in 1941. He hit a homerun to win the All-Star game, and then he had a chance to hit 400, which no one has done since. And tell us about that - approaching the last day; where his average was, and the decision about whether to play a doubleheader.
BRADLEE JR.: Well, this was really his defining moment as a player. And one of the decisions that he made - which is heroic, and gives him such luster - he entered into the final two games of the year. It was a doubleheader in Philadelphia, and he was hitting 399.6. So the average would have been rounded up on the books, but he knew for his legacy that he had to play. He didn't want to back into 400.
DAVIES: So he could have sat out the day and technically done this...
BRADLEE JR.: He could have sat out the day, and it would have gone on the books as 400 but with an asterisk, you know; and he might have been criticized for it. He knew. But his manager - Joe Cronin - was telling the writers, as the day approached, that he might bench "The Kid" to protect his average. It was late September; the shadows in the park in Philadelphia were a factor. Connie Mack was pitching two rookie pitchers that Williams wasn't familiar with. And...
DAVIES: And we should just note that this was a season that had gone - you know, had gotten such attention. He had been on the cover of "Life" magazine, right. He would get standing ovations at Yankee Stadium. of all places. So this was the story of the year...
BRADLEE JR.: Yeah.
DAVIES: After Joe DiMaggio's...
BRADLEE JR.: Except for - after Joe DiMaggio...
DAVIES: ...except for Joe to Maggio's 56-game hitting streak...
BRADLEE JR.: Yeah.
DAVIES: Which was maybe even more amazing, but was over by the time Ted was approaching the end of the season with a shot at 400.
BRADLEE JR.: Exactly. Yeah.
DAVIES: So they put him in the lineup for a doubleheader. What happened?
BRADLEE JR.: Well, at his insistence. At his insistence. Ted said to Cronin, "No way am I not playing this game." And not only did he play the first game, he played the second game. So in the first game, I forget exactly how many hits he got the first game. I believe three. He got three hits, including a homerun. So by that time, he was safely over 400 - maybe 402 or 3 - and in-between games, one of the writers came down and told Cronin exactly what his average was, and "are you going to sit him now, Joe, for the second game?" And Joe said, "No, The Kid insisted on playing the second game, too." So theoretically, he might have, if he went 0 for 4 in the second game, he could have slid back under 400, perhaps. So he got another three hits in the second game, I believe, and on the day went six for eight. So it was really a courageous, defining moment for him.
DAVIES: And there were plenty of stories of his, you know, tantrums and rages - you know, ripping phones out of the wall, with his wives; and some allegations of abuse. I mean, was he a wife beater?
BRADLEE JR.: Well...
DAVIES: There were two in the book, as I recall.
BRADLEE JR.: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, his first wife alleged in her divorce complaint that he had hit her. And their daughter, Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell - who is now dead - told me that she was told by her grandmother that he had hit Doris - her mother - and there was a scuffle at the top of a stairs, and she fell down the stairs. This is while she was pregnant with Bobby-Jo. And it's unclear, it's murky, whether he intended to push her down the stairs. I mean his - he was able to channel his anger on the baseball field, effectively. You know, he would manufacture these feuds with the writers, and then go off on a tear and hit 500 for two months. But in his private life, this anger would bubble up at totally inappropriate times and cause him great difficulty. So the price of being in the Williams orbit was that you had to endure these storms of anger; and they would pass quickly, but they were abusive.
DAVIES: Well, we have to talk about this truly bizarre chapter in Ted's life - well, really, after the end of his life when his, you know, his body was frozen for a potential, you know, thawing when medical technology advances. You know, this science is called cryonics. And before we talk about how that came to occur, I'd like you to just describe what actually happened to Ted's body when he died, in 2002.
BRADLEE JR.: Well, when he died, he died in - he was living in this remote section of Florida called Hernando - which is in-between Tampa and Orlando, in North Central Florida; very remote. And John Henry, his son, had gotten interested in cryonics back in 1997. And he decided that this was something that he wanted to have done with his father's body.
And so when the time came, the body was taken from the local hospital in Hernando, and taken to the nearest airport. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which is one of the leading practitioners of cryonics, based in Arizona - that was the facility that John Henry had settled on for his father. They flew a chartered jet in and...
DAVIES: This was after throwing packs of ice on the body to freeze it - from the hospital bed in Florida. Right?
BRADLEE JR.: Right. Well, that's - for the cryonicist, ice is a key staple to try and preserve the body as much as possible until they actually perform the procedure. So his body was flown out to Scottsdale, Ariz., outside Phoenix, and then they started this three- or four-hour procedure, which was quite gruesome.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about that. I mean, you want to describe what was actually done? I mean, you could choose to have simply...
BRADLEE JR.: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...your head preserved or your body, or both.
BRADLEE JR.: Right. And in the world of cryonics, there are basically two options. One is called the whole body procedure where essentially, you have your entire body frozen. This is all in the attempt - in the belief that medical science will someday advance to the point where it'll be possible to cure you of whatever disease you died of, and bring you back to life. It's widely dismissed - this theory - by most mainstream scientists, and it's essentially, you know, a hope and a prayer. So there's that.
There's the whole body, or there's what's called the neuro, which involves cutting your head off and saving just your head; the theory being that the brain is the most important part of the body - because when you come back to life, you will want to know from whence you came. The brain holds the memory. And the theory, also, is that science, by that time, will have advanced to the point where it will be easy to generate tissue, and you can grow a body underneath your head. Or so the hope goes.
DAVIES: So what happened to Ted's body?
BRADLEE JR.: Well, John Henry decided that they would do the neuro. So his head was cut off at Alcor the night of July 5th, 2002, at about 9:15 Mountain Time. And they also decided - people who have the neuro and just the head taken off usually dispose of the rest of the body, and have it cremated. But they decided to keep Williams' trunk as well. So both are out there - frozen - today, at Alcor.
DAVIES: And they're stored in these tanks that are called - what is the term?
BRADLEE JR.: Dewars. Dewars is what the Alcor people call them. It looks like, if you've ever toured a microbrewery, there are these big tanks hanging from the ceiling filled with liquid nitrogen cooled to something like, you know, minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit. And the bodies are kept in one tank - maybe about five or six to a tank. And the heads are put in what looked like lobster pots, inside what's called a neuro column; and they're kept in a separate, smaller tank.
DAVIES: This story is fascinating in many ways, and one part of it is that Ted had said repeatedly, throughout his life, that he wanted to be cremated. But he has this close relationship with his son from his third marriage, John Henry, late in his life - after not being really a very present father to any of his kids, you know, for most of his life.
And, you know, it's an interesting story - as you tell in the book - that John Henry became quite adept at using his father's name for various business projects; eventually, kind of took power of attorney over Ted. And we should also say that John Henry - he died in 2004, after contracting leukemia. But a lot of people felt that John Henry had taken advantage of his father. And a question arises; Was there a financial motive for John Henry in seeking to have Ted Williams' body cryonically preserved?
BRADLEE JR.: I don't think so, bottom line. He did exploit his father, financially, by taking over the memorabilia business; no question. But he also loved his father, and he was there at the very end, doing the hard work of - and real nitty-gritty work of helping take care of his father, at the end. So I think he did love him. And the cryonics, I think, can be seen more as an attempt to - it was more of a Peter Pan quality about it. This was a way to stay with his father forever. And John Henry, having driven his father to cryonics, to his credit, at least did it himself. After he died in 2004, he also was frozen. And his remains are in Alcor, in Arizona; in the same tank as his father.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, our guest is author Ben Bradlee Jr. He has a new book about the life of Ted Williams, called "The Kid." He continued to do amazing things throughout his career, even though he was interrupted by going into the service in World War II; and then again being called back, and flew missions over Korea.
He homered at his last at bat, his last game. I mean, he's truly an immortal figure of the game. But he also had these amazing eccentricities. There was an account of his warm-up routine in the dugout. Do you want to describe this?
BRADLEE JR.: Well, yeah. He was certainly vain. And in addition to being good, Williams thought it was important to look good. And dating back to his childhood in San Diego, he would always walk into school holding a bat. And sometimes, he would pass a store and admire his reflection in the glass, and take a swing or two. And the store managers inside would look out, bemused at this kid admiring his reflection in the glass.
But Ted very candidly admitted that he didn't want to just be good; he wanted to look good. And it was important that he have a beautiful swing. So part of his pregame routine would be that he would often strip down to his - just wear a towel around his waist and some sandals; and he would go stand in front of a mirror, and take his cuts. And he'd be psyching himself up for the game.
And he'd start - you know, he'd take a cut and then start murmuring under his breath, "I'm Ted Williams." Take a swing - "I'm Ted Williams; I'm the best f'ing hitter in baseball."
DAVIES: One more thing. I've spent most of my career covering politicians and elected officials, and have observed over the years that the people who achieve at the highest level are often not exactly - I don't know - normal, for lack of a better word.
BRADLEE JR.: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: You know, people that do great things aren't necessarily the people I'd want to introduce my sister to, you know? And I've always wondered whether people's achievements are tied to their demons. And with Ted, you see such extraordinary athletic achievements - and just such a troubled man. Do you think they're connected?
BRADLEE JR.: Well, I think in order to excel, sometimes you have to be single-minded in your determination to succeed; and other things suffer along the way. And he was that. He ignored - he put family life aside, and he was absolutely determined to become the greatest hitter that ever lived. And he was driven to excel - not just in baseball. It turned out that he was a world-class fisherman as well. He learned photography. He became a Top Gun Marine fighter pilot. And John Glenn, no less, called him one of the greatest pilots he'd ever seen.
Anything that he undertook, he wanted to do right. He was a perfectionist, and he had no tolerance for those who did things in what he felt were a shoddy manner. And he was in a zone, really, his entire life. And when you're in a zone like that, a lot of other things - you can break a lot of china along the way.
DAVIES: Well, Ben Bradlee, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BRADLEE JR.: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Ben Bradlee Jr. spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Bradlee's new biography of Ted Williams is called "The Kid." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. We'll close with a song by the late Boston-based pianist Dave McKenna, who was a devoted Red Sox fan. It's called "Splendid Splinter," referring to one of the nicknames that fans gave Ted Williams.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPLENDID SPLINTER")