- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

As the nephew of Ted Williams notes near the end of the HBO documentary that chronicles the contentious life of a baseball giant, he has come to be known as the “frozen guy” in death.

That is a lamentable legacy for this larger-than-life legend who embodied the tough-minded, can-do, individualistic spirit of a bygone America.

Williams was one of the iconic figures of the 20th century: the last player to hit .400 in a season, a fighter pilot who lost five years of his baseball career to military service in two wars, a devoted fisherman, the face of the Jimmy Fund charity, manager of the Senators and the ubiquitous pitchman whose likeness appeared in Sears catalogues.

Yet it was his death in 2002 that touched off a firestorm of national headlines after his body was preserved in a cryonics facility in Arizona and a messy public feud broke out among his children and friends over the authenticity of the request.

The HBO documentary, which debuts July 15, brings Williams to life, warts and all: the controversies, the contradictions and the genius who was irascible, profane and unbowed to the end.

The product of distant parents - an absentee father and a mother devoted to the Salvation Army - Williams threw himself into baseball on the San Diego sandlots and eventually turned the act of hitting a baseball into something of a science.

The game may not have had computers to crunch numbers and pitchers’ tendencies in the ‘40s and ‘50s - or much interest in doing so - but Williams, ever the perfectionist, was a highly dedicated student of the game and stored all he learned in his brain.

As Williams biographer Leigh Montville said: “He did things in his head that they do now in computers.”

As self-disciplined as Williams was on the field, he lacked that quality in his personal relationships. The thrice-divorced Williams was too restless, single-minded and combustible for married life. He was not a doting father either, although his father’s absence in his youth pained him.

That loss came through to teammate Bobby Doerr on those occasions Williams would accompany him to his parents’ home to have dinner.

“My dad had a way of talking to Ted,” Doerr said. “See, Ted didn’t have any home life at all, nobody to ever give him any feeling of confidence. [Ted] just said, ‘You’re lucky to have a dad like that.’ ”

Williams had one overriding purpose in life - to go down as the greatest hitter who ever lived. He achieved that aim, if not with his career numbers but with the prospect of what might have been if he had not missed three seasons in World War II and most of two other seasons in the Korean War.

He undoubtedly would have upped his 521 career home runs to nearly 700, and he would have passed the 3,000-hit mark.

Executive producers Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein and producer Margaret Grossi share their feelings on the subject in the title of the documentary: “There Goes The Greatest Hitter That Ever Lived.”

Robert Redford used Williams as inspiration in the making of “The Natural,” right down to his character, Roy Hobbs, wearing No. 9, the same number worn by Williams.

“[The Natural] was an homage to someone I had respected and idolized much of my life,” Redford said. “And it was a chance to really bring that to a close.”

It was 40 years ago that Williams left the streams and seas he so loved and took up with a rag-tag outfit of ballplayers known as the Senators, who had not posted a winning record in 17 years.

With Williams imparting his hitting knowledge, employing video tape and believing a team never could have too much batting practice, the Senators improved in all the principal offensive categories and finished in fourth place in American League East with an 86-76 record.

That, too, was Williams, the astute manager, if only for a season.

He was so much more than the “frozen guy,” as HBO Sports reminds us with its customary competence.

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