Ted Williams' honesty was refreshing - and rare

Ted Williams in 1941: The Splendid Splinter seemed incapable of disguising his true feelings.
Ted Williams in 1941: The Splendid Splinter seemed incapable of disguising his true feelings. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 21, 2014

It was just past midnight on May 1, 1952, when Capt. Ted Williams, recalled by the Marines during the Korean War, reported to Willow Grove Naval Air Station for refresher training.

The unusual arrival hour had its purpose. Williams wanted to avoid the local press.

"These Philadelphia writers," the Boston Red Sox star told a friend who'd accompanied him here, "are the worst."

Despite that assessment, it would have been a delight to cover Williams. For all his eccentricities and crudities, his stubbornness and immaturity, the Red Sox superstar was, I believe, the last honest ballplayer in America.

That honesty wasn't necessarily a virtue. Williams' congenital inability or unwillingness to disguise his true feelings meant he often acted childish, petulant, foolish, even cruel.

Before, during, and after his frequent feuds with Boston's media and Red Sox fans, he made no attempt at tact. No player since, certainly none of his stature, has been as dangerously blunt or, because of that, as intriguing.

As Ben Bradlee Jr.'s richly detailed new biography, The Kid, makes clear, Williams rarely behaved as he was supposed to, as fans wanted him to, or as management expected him to.

How many players have wanted to respond to nasty hecklers? Williams did.

Once, when he thought Fenway Park crowds were harassing him unreasonably, he angrily shot both middle fingers at them. On other occasions he spat or fired baseballs in their direction. He frequently told Boston writers - whom he despised even more - that he hated the city and wanted to play elsewhere.

When Red Sox fans sought to make amends with great ovations, he refused to acknowledge them with a tip of his cap.

How many players would like to vent nightly at critical sportswriters? Williams did.

He disdainfully referred to Boston writers as "the knights of the keyboard." A voracious newspaper consumer, if he saw something he believed unfair or overly personal, he told off the author, usually loudly and profanely.

How many players mired in long funks would like to rail at the world? Williams did.

When he failed, he didn't don a happy mask. He moped, questioned his career choice, and sometimes threatened to quit. Once in a while, after a bad call or a prolonged 0-fer, he'd even fail to hustle.

That behavior wasn't admirable. But, from the perspective of 60-plus sanitized years later, it certainly seems refreshing. And Williams, dead for 12 years now, remains a far more complex figure than any of today's emotionally restrained stars.

In baseball, as in other sports, increased scrutiny and money have yielded less candor.

Players are coached in how to behave in public, how to interact with the media, how to protect their brand. Their answers to questions, more often than not, are bland and safe. Their real feelings remain sheltered. Though in essence they're always on camera, they've learned to reveal less, not more, of themselves.

"The pitch got away." "Our fans are the greatest." "We all make mistakes."

It's understandable. In a world in which the slightest indiscretion can go viral instantly, an honest reaction can be perilous.

Broadcaster Roy Firestone was once asked how athletes could avoid making media mistakes. His response was a guidebook for contemporary athletes.

"[Avoid] anything involving brashness. Any confrontation. It's always a big mistake to challenge the media. Keep it to yourself. Never ever . . . name- call. You don't ever make the mistake of trying to exchange verbiage with a member of the broadcast or newspaper business, because you're going to lose. And you're going to look bad. . . . Don't ever confront a member of the media. It's a mistake. They play it over and over again on TV, and you look like a fool."

Williams was a big-enough talent and a strange-enough individual that he didn't care. It's hard to imagine anyone ever behaving like him again. As a result, as well as we'd like to think we know our favorite ballplayers, we really don't.

Last week one of the greatest players of this generation, Derek Jeter, made his final appearance in an All-Star Game. At 40 and in the last season of a near-flawless career, Jeter is a great baseball ambassador. He's smart, talented, dedicated, and gracious to all.

And yet it seems that even though he's played nearly two decades in New York City's relentless glare, we don't know every side of Jeter.

Surely there were times when he didn't feel like being nice, when he wished he could vent or rage at the cupidity - and frequently, the stupidity - of New York's fans and media.

That he never did adds to his luster but diminishes our understanding of the man.

Before the All-Star Game, the Yankees shortstop granted numerous interviews. Almost nothing I heard in them was particularly interesting or revealing.

Williams rarely had that problem.

When he was recalled for the Korean War in 1952, he ripped the Marines, the Selective Service System, and President Harry S. Truman. After that war, when asked about his commendable record as an aviator, he suggested to reporters that we ought to have used the atomic bomb on the North Koreans.

Again, not wise or admirable, but honest and refreshing.

On the day of his final game, in 1960, Williams meant to make peace with Boston. But even then, in the midst of a valedictory thank-you, he couldn't suppress the honesty that in the end was as noteworthy as his hitting.

"In spite of all the terrible things that have been said about me by the knights of the keyboard up there," he said at one point, gesturing toward the press box. Then, on this occasion when he'd tried to suppress it, his true nature interrupted him.

"They were terrible things. I'd like to forget them," Williams said, "but I can't."

And because he couldn't, we'll never forget him.



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