If you grew up watching Ted Williams hit a baseball, well, you simply kept watching, even after he stopped hitting. That was the way it was. From the day he arrived at Fenway Park in Boston in 1939 as a slender 20-year-old outfielder with a swing for the ages until last Friday, when he died of cardiac arrest in Inverness, Fla., at age 83, he was part of your life.� As years passed, he might have changed, and you might have changed, and times might have changed, but he always was a fascinating character. He was a superstar before the word was invented. He was a man's man, icon of all icons. Watch? You had to watch.� At least I did....
The postcard from Ted Williams came to 80 Howe Street, New Haven, Conn., on a late summer day in 1953. That's the best I can figure. I tried, just now, to pull the card carefully from the lined, loose-leaf notebook page on which I had glued it apparently 49 years ago, but the postmark was lost in the process.
I say the late summer of 1953 because that was when I was an autograph demon. Most of the other cards in my old notebook—George Kell, Maurice (Mickey) McDermott, Jimmy Piersall, a bunch of forgotten Boston Red Sox names—have postmarks from the summer of 1953. I was on the case in 1953. I was 10 years old.
I lived in a six-story apartment house, an only child, and I somehow discovered, alone in my bedroom, that if you wrote to your athletic idols, they sometimes wrote back. I was a writing fool. My basic message on a penny postcard was "Dear So-and-So, I am your biggest fan! You are great! Please send me your autograph!" I finished with my name and address, sent out the card and waited with the anticipation and faith of a trout fisherman on the banks of a fast-running brook on a Sunday morn.
The arrival of the mail every day became true adventure. I would riffle through the bills and the circulars, the grown-up and the mundane, looking and looking until one magical day...a postcard from Ted Williams.
He was the biggest fish of all. I might not remember the exact date his postcard arrived, but I remember the feeling. Even now I can't think of another piece of mail that has made me feel happier, not college acceptances nor good reports from doctors, nothing. The Ted Williams postcard was unadulterated bliss, wholly equivalent to a letter straight from heaven. Better. Straight from Fenway Park.
I had never seen a major league player in person, had never been to a major league stadium, had never seen a major league game. Television hadn't arrived at my house. Williams was a mythical figure, a creation of radio words and black-and-white newspaper pictures. He had the purity of Sir Lancelot, the strength of Paul Bunyan, the tenacity of, say, Mighty Mouse. Distance, to be sure, made heroes much more heroic than they ever can be today.
Williams had returned from the Korean War that July. He was almost 35 years old. He had been flying F-9 Panther jets for a year in Korea, fighting the Communists in their sneaky MiGs. He was back, and he was hitting as well as ever: a .407 average in the final 37 games of the season, 13 homers, a .901 slugging percentage. He could do anything, everything. He was number 9. He was the Kid, Teddy Ballgame, the Splendid Splinter. He hated to wear a tie! (I hated to wear a tie!) He was invincible.
I remember staring at the postcard for hours. Had he actually signed it? No doubt. The blue ink was a different color from the rest of the black-and-white card. On the front of the card was a black-and-white picture of Williams finishing a swing. His eyes seemed to be following a baseball he had just hit, probably into the bullpen in right. He seemed focused, serious, divine. I imagined him reading my own card by his locker, thinking about me. Should he reply? He could tell by my writing that I was an honest kid, a hard worker in school, obeyed my parents. Of course he should reply. I could see him pulling out this postcard from a special place, taking out his pen.