Sunday, April 25, 2004

Baseball’s greatest hitter since Babe Ruth lived a long life — nearly 84 years — but it might seem more like 184 as you struggle through Leigh Montville’s “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero” ($26.95, Doubleday, 513 pages, illus.).

Most fans know the vital baseball facts about the man who called himself “Teddy Ballgame”: the since unmatched .406 batting average in 1941, the lifetime .344 average (sixth-best all time), the dramatic home run on his last at-bat in 1960, the cantankerous nature. That doesn’t stop Montville, a former Boston Globe columnist and Sports Illustrated senior writer, from plowing the same turf in detail.

And if that seems agonizing, wait until Williams hangs up his spikes and enters his 42-year retirement from baseball.

We get endless accounts of his fishing exploits. Of his three failed marriages and his estrangement from his children. Of his eight-year decline before his death in July 2002, including multiple examples of how his avaricious son, the recently deceased John-Henry Williams, controlled his ailing father’s life and used him as a money-making machine on the memorabilia front. Finally comes the sad, surrealistic story of how Williams’ remains were frozen in an Arizona cryonics laboratory, head and torso separated, to await future cloning.

When you close the book, you feel exhausted. It would have been better at half its length and with much of its purple prose reduced to, say, lavender. Above all, it is a depressing book — as was David Halberstam’s much shorter “The Teammates,” which related how Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky visited Williams in Florida shortly before Ted’s death.

None of us likes to remember relatives and friends in their dotage. I’d much rather retain a mental picture of Ted whacking a pitch into the right-field bullpen at Fenway Park than one of him enfeebled by strokes and other illnesses, nearly blind and weighing perhaps 130 pounds.

Even in death, though, Williams remains a towering figure. Like many persons of extreme talent, he did and said what he wanted regardless of consequences — a luxury most of us don’t have. And because Montville tries to paint a true picture, the language in the book isn’t fit for the eyes of children — or perhaps for many adults, either.

Considering the space he devotes to Williams’ peccadilloes, it’s odd to learn Montville grew up idolizing him. Early on, the author describes his man somewhat breathlessly as “a figure from mythology or fiction … Spiderman, Superman, Popeye the Sailor Man.”

Along his torturous way, Montville has more than a few lapses. Williams’ prickly (an appropriate adjective on both sides) relations with the Boston press were “roughly the same [as those between] South Korea and North Korea since the war. … Williams and the writers stared a lot across their own 38th Parallel.” And he devotes 13 pages to reprinting a mundane interview with Williams’ third wife, Dolores, obtained but never broadcast by a freelance radio reporter. Huh?

Washington area readers might find of some interest Montville’s account of Williams’ startlingly successful (86-76) first season as manager of the usually moribund Senators in 1969. Former sportswriter Russ White, who covered the team for the old Washington Daily News, describes the first meeting between Williams and fellow icon Vince Lombardi, recently hired to coach the Redskins: “Ted said to him in that big voice [Ted was hard of hearing and nearly always shouted], ‘I understand you can walk on water.’ Lombardi said, ‘I understand you can, too.’”

For that one season, Williams’ enthusiasm and hitting tips inspired the Senators to play way over their heads, though the magic disappeared long before owner Bob Short made a disastrous trade for over-the-hill pitcher Denny McLain in 1971 and the team moved to Texas the following season. Ted would tell the troops how he used to swing at the bottom half of the ball for the first seven innings to produce line drives and then aim at the top half to go for home runs.

“[The players] would look at each other,” catcher Rich Billings tells Montville. “I’m going up there against Nolan Ryan, and he’s throwing 95 miles an hour, and I’m trying to hit a particular half of the ball?”

For Ted, it was easy.

Montville notes that Williams’ frequent tantrums were involuntary; his second wife, Lee, wonders whether modern drugs like Prozac or Ritalin might have tempered them. But then, of course, Ted wouldn’t have been Ted.

In many ways, Williams was a good guy: kind to children (except, notably, his own), involved in charitable causes like Boston’s Jimmy Fund for young cancer victims and never devious. During his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, he spoke movingly of the need to admit former Negro League stars to Cooperstown — at a time when no one in the baseball establishment had conceived of such a thing.

But for Williams, as for many other athletes, life after 40 rarely matched what came before. Ted enjoyed himself immensely until his first stroke at age 75, but his decline afterward was precipitous. Better to remember him as the man who wanted to be, and very nearly was, “the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

Like this: When Williams was discharged by the Marines at age 35 after spending most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons flying jets in Korea, he visited Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey at Fenway Park. Yawkey begged Williams to put on a uniform and hit a few. After resisting momentarily “because my hands are soft,” Ted agreed, stepped into the cage and hit the first nine pitches over the right-field wall.

Or this: In 1972, when Williams was fat and nearly 54, he returned to Fenway as manager of the Rangers. There was a pregame home run contest, and fans began chanting, “We want Ted!” Grumbling, he stepped in and smashed one line drive after another as his players gaped. Finally, he stopped, threw the bat down and stormed into the clubhouse. Big deal. Teddy Ballgame was supposed to hit.

I’ll remember these parts of Montville’s book. A lot of the rest I’d like to forget.

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