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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Kid’

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THE KID: THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF TED WILLIAMS
By Ben Bradlee Jr.
Little Brown, $35, 835 pages

Biographers all too often either fall in love with their subject or wind up hating the person so much that the book becomes a difficult-to-read hatchet job. Balance and nuance are increasingly rare commodities in contemporary nonfiction, and for that matter in society overall.

That's why "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams" is such a delight. While Williams' legendary baseball career and soap opera-worthy off-field life have been written about extensively, this extraordinarily evenhanded book sheds new light on the subject. Ben Bradlee Jr. grew up a fan of the Hall of Fame ballplayer, but his admiration doesn't prevent him from producing a book that deals with the totality of Williams' life and depict him as a (mostly) likable flawed giant.

"Ted was an original; not a traditional, modest, self-effacing hero, but brash, profane, outspoken and guileless. Self-taught and inquiring, he excelled as a Marine fighter pilot and became one of the most accomplished fishermen in the world. For better or worse, he was always his own man, never a phony — characteristics that helped him outlast his critics and win widespread affection and admiration as he aged," the author writes.

Mr. Bradlee, an award-winning former reporter and deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe, isn't a sports journalist. That isn't a disadvantage in this case because the author's investigative and interviewing prowess help him break new ground, especially on the parts of Williams' life that were not always extensively covered.

Occasionally, the book gets bogged down in minutiae, and at times one wishes his editor had used a "delete" key a bit more often. However, the elegance of the writing and the flow of the narrative makes up for that most of the time.

There isn't much new to uncover about Williams' playing days and, in fact, the sections about baseball are in some ways the least interesting. However, students of the game will enjoy revisiting his extraordinary feats as a hitter that made him a favorite of fans and the scourge of every pitcher who ever faced him. During his career (from 1939 to 1960 minus several seasons missed for military service), he hit .400 or higher during three seasons and had a lifetime average of .344. He won every award possible for a hitter to win and was the most visible player on the Boston Red Sox. The ultimate team prize in the game, a World Series championship, eluded the team during Williams' tenure, and his performance during his one appearance in the Fall Classic was mediocre.

Off the field, it was a different story.

Williams, who grew up in a broken home and had parents who neglected him, would have similar problems with his own family. He would marry and divorce three times and was often verbally abusive to his wives and his children. He blew hot and cold with his children, several of whom spoke for the first time about their family dynamics to Mr. Bradlee. The children were quick to excuse their father's behavior.

"Claudia [the youngest of Mr. Williams' three children] thought she understood how her father's mind worked. She learned to let him vent, even if she was bearing the brunt of one of his outbursts. 'I don't think I have a moment in my mind that I can think of right now where I resented my father. Maybe for a brief second I'd be like, 'Why is he doing this? Why?' I can remember when he would get mad or scream at me and say something. I'd be like, 'Dad why are you doing this? Settle down. Don't be so mad! It's no big deal,'" Mr. Bradlee writes.

Williams' only son, John Henry, caused him the most grief. Williams made up for his neglectful parenting by going into business with him. The businesses encompassed sports memorabilia, an Internet connection company and (without Ted's knowledge) pornography. The younger Williams exploited his father's fame and blew through lots of money.

The younger Williams' most enduring legacy was ignoring the wishes of his father and rather than having his ashes spread over the Gulf of Mexico when Williams died in 2002, he took the body to Arizona to have it frozen and preserved (the technical term being cryonic suspension). While that process bothered and repulsed many fans, John Henry and Claudia didn't back down and said that, in fact, the elder Williams was OK with the decision. Mr. Bradlee conjectures that "the decision seemed less about exploitation than it was about not wanting to let go." That kind of analysis, based on prodigious research, makes "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams" a pleasure to read and a valuable addition to the subgenre of baseball books jokingly called Kidlit.

Claude R. Marx is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.

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