Long before he was a newspaper reporter, editor and author, Ben Bradlee Jr. was a fan of Ted Williams.
As a child of New England in the 1950s, Bradlee and other Boston Red Sox fans had little to cheer for but the excellence of No. 9 and his sweet, left-handed swing. Bradlee recalls that his bedroom walls were covered with photos of his hero, and he still has a Williams-autographed baseball he earned by waiting outside the players’ parking lot at Fenway Park.
More than 50 years after Williams’ last big-league at-bat, Bradlee can still describe how it felt to watch Williams step to the plate at Fenway; how he’d knock the dirt from his spikes, grip the bat just so and wiggle his hips as he awaited the pitch. So, it’s clear Williams holds a special place in Bradlee’s heart.
Yet Bradlee’s new book about Williams is no exercise in hero worship. “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” (Little, Brown and Co.), looks at every aspect of Williams’ life, and some of it isn’t pretty. On its release date Tuesday, the book will instantly move to the top of a long list of books written about the baseball Hall of Famer from San Diego. And at more than 800 pages, it’s also the heaviest.
The depth of Bradlee’s research is impressive. More than 600 people were interviewed, and Williams’ daughter Claudia gave him access to her dad’s private papers — journals, letters, wartime pilot’s logs, fishing logs and his personal phone book. Bradlee spent 10 years researching and writing.
In his author’s note, Bradlee recognizes the dozen or more books written about Williams, and gives a nod to many he deems outstanding, such as Leigh Montville’s “Ted Williams: An American Hero,” Ed Linn’s “Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams,” and Michael Seidel’s “Ted Williams: A Baseball Life.” Bradlee also notes that a handful of writers such as Richard Ben Cramer, John Updike and David Halberstam produced illuminating pieces. But much of what Bradlee calls “Ted Lit” didn’t dig deep.
So, Bradlee set out to write a different book. He would cover Williams’ baseball career, of course, but he wanted to focus on areas often overlooked. He hoped to tell a more complete story of a complex life.
The result is terrific. Though imposing in its size, “The Kid” flows like a novel. Bradlee has a way of spinning yarns about Williams’ life that makes scenes come to life. And so many recollections from so many people — childhood friends in San Diego, family, teammates, fellow pilots, fishing buddies, ex-wives and girlfriends, the reporters who covered him and two of his three children — give the reader a fresh look at someone we thought we knew, but really didn’t.
The chapters he devotes to Williams’ youth in North Park and his rocky relationship with the press are especially absorbing. And the sections on Ted’s last years, his declining health and the influence of his son, John Henry — who put his father’s body into a cryonics lab after his death in 2002 — explain how such a vibrant man had such a sad farewell.
Williams’ triumphs, of course, are documented: his .406 season in 1941; his near-.400 season at age 38; and his prowess as perhaps the best pure hitter ever. Plus, Williams served as a Marine Corps pilot in two wars, became an expert fisherman and was generous with his time and money to kids and causes. And, when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he used it as a platform to champion recognition of Negro Leagues players who never had a chance to play in the big leagues.
But Bradlee tells of Williams’ failings, too, as a father and a husband. His attitude toward women was often abysmal. He spent most of his life hiding or denying his mother’s Hispanic heritage. The episodes of anger he displayed throughout his life — “rage, really,” Bradlee writes — were shocking. At times, Williams was the sweetest man on Earth. At others, he was a raging, profanity-spewing bully.
In the end, Bradlee doesn’t hold anything back. The result is a remarkable portrait of a notable life.