My first exposure to Ted Williams was as the old guy in the fishing boat selling Nissen bread on Boston TV in the 1980s. Come to find out, that guy was the best hitter who ever lived. And the best fighter pilot. And the best fly fisherman. A real-life John Wayne, Ted Williams swaggered across the American landscape in the middle part of the 20th century like a folk hero, Paul Bunyan with a bat. From 1939 to 1960 he patrolled left field at Fenway Park with an indifferent glove but an incandescent swing. Well, except for the nearly five full years he eschewed the diamond for the cockpit, serving as a naval aviator in both World War II and Korea. Much is made of Teddy Ballgame's 521 home runs and 2,654 hits, and wondering just how many more of each he would have had if not for the military interruptions to his playing career. Would he have been the all-time leader in MLB home runs and RBI? Maybe. But he also flew 39 combat missions over Korea and came back from all of them, many with his wingman John Glenn. There are things more important and impressive than a .406 average.
Ben Bradlee and Leigh Montville have penned exhaustive and enjoyable biographies of the Splendid Splinter, but I prefer the Kid's own breezier, earthier, less candid account. Those other books detail the clay feet of the baseball god, his failings as a parent and spouse and teammate, the bizarre circus surrounding his last days. He was a deeply flawed man (ain't we all), irascible and profane, stubborn and conservative. And yet, he was the best there was at three very difficult things. And it's saying something that nearly 60 years after his last plate appearance (a home run, of course), Ted remains the iconic Red Sock, the largest head on our Mount Rushmore (alongside Pedro and Papi and Cy - sorry Yaz). To paraphrase Will Rogers, if I want to read about man's failings, I'll turn to the front page, not the sports section.
By sheer chance, my brother Al and I found ourselves at Fenway the night they honored him in 2002 just after his death. To see his stat line on the scoreboard, the bugler in left field - a deity had passed. He never did win a ring, held back by Joe DiMaggio's Yankees, warfare, and an unlucky injury in 1946. But he's still the best hitter who ever lived. Do they still make Nissen bread?