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AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Leigh Montville
April 12, 2004
A new biography of Ted Williams ranges across the extraordinary life of a national icon: baseball star, war hero, lover of women, scourge of journalists, passionate fisherman and, to the end, one ornery cuss
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April 12, 2004

An American Original

A new biography of Ted Williams ranges across the extraordinary life of a national icon: baseball star, war hero, lover of women, scourge of journalists, passionate fisherman and, to the end, one ornery cuss

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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 Inverness, Fla., 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—he could go where he wanted to go, do what he wanted to do. There might be 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 Hotel 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.

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. His refusal to wear a necktie, always a source of jokes, was actually a statement. His language was part of his freedom. No one could swear as well as Ted. Not only were the words showstoppers—like c—- and c————-, 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 profane poetry.

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. 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 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.

I.

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