Thursday, March 23, 2006

Scott Ostler: Clearing the air about Teddy Ballgame

Scott Ostler
The San Fransisco Chronicle
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ted Williams, bad guy?

The Splendid Splinter was no charming diplomat, no suave schmoozer. But when this column inducted Williams into our Baseball Hall of Fame All-Dysfunctional Wing recently, it struck a nerve with one Bay Area man.

His name is Ted Williams. He lives in Oakland and he's the nephew of Teddy Ballgame.
"Whoa," e-mailed Ted Williams of Oakland (we'll call him TWO), the son of the outfielder's brother. "I think you're going too far. Yeah, he had a bad temper, hated the fans because they would cheer when he got a hit and boo when he didn't. And he hated the sportswriters because they got into his personal life instead of sticking to his baseball performance.

"Some of it (well, the temper was real) was an act to get people to leave him alone."

TWO tells of a side of the late slugger that is at odds with his rep as surly and self-centered. I dropped in on Williams, he poured coffee and hauled out old trophies, photos and memories of his uncle.

TWO's father, Danny, was Ted's only sibling. Danny died of leukemia when Ted was 41 and nearing the end of his Red Sox career. Williams' diamond heroics were minor compared with the battle he waged for several years to save his brother.

"TW did all he could," TWO said. "He flew my father all over the country for treatments, flew him to Salt Lake City every couple weeks for transfusions. TW was making $100,000 then, and we figured out that in the last year of my father's life, Ted spent more on my father that year than he (Ted) earned in baseball.

"I was always in awe of TW, he was so big and loud, but he was always absolutely great to me, my brother and mom. He liked kids, he always took time to sit and talk with us. I remember when he would visit my father when he was dying, and Ted would leave just shell-shocked."

On Danny's deathbed, Ted promised his brother he would take care of Danny's wife and sons, then 9 and 8. When the boys were in high school, mom told them of the promise and gave them their uncle's phone number.

Williams, then managing the Washington Senators, flew the boys from San Diego to meet him in Oakland for a series against the A's. He treated the boys royally and told them that when they were ready for college, "Whatever you need, I'll take care of it."

TWO would itemize his college expenses in letters to his uncle, asking only for tuition and books.
"He always came through for me," TWO said. "There's no way I could have gone to college without his help. We had nice conversations through our letters, too. And he loved women; he always kept in touch with my mother."

In a letter Ted of Oakland received near the end of his college career, his uncle writes, in a graceful and flowing hand, "I'm enclosing a check for $500. It's of great importance you finish up strong."

This from a man who barely finished high school. His high school report cards show only one A, for a semester of PE, and numerous Ds (English, metal shop) and Fs.

Ted sent checks and gifts to his nephews on Christmases and birthdays, and also sent baseball shoes, Red Sox uniforms, gloves and many boxes of baseballs.

Williams also supported his mother, grandmother and many members of his extended family. He had a charity, the Jimmy Fund, and quietly helped former teammates and strangers.
During a hospital stay, Williams met a young girl who needed swimming therapy but had no access to a pool, so he insisted she use his swimming pool.

One Ted Williams trick: He would hear of a former teammate down on his luck, phone the guy and badger him into donating $5 to Ted's charity. Once Williams had the man's check with the account number, he anonymously would deposit $10,000.

Williams lived simply -- drove an old pickup, had a small home in Florida -- but spent lavishly on others.

"He routinely took friends and acquaintances on hunting and fishing trips and gave them the finest equipment," TWO said. "He never let anyone pick up the check for anything, and boy, you better not try."

When the Splinter was a youngster, his mother would drag him and Danny to her Salvation Army duties, and they hated it.

"But I think it rubbed off on Ted," TWO said. "He was always aware that he was better off than most people and he always tried to share."

Ted of Oakland -- he's a graphic designer/photographer, married, with a 13-year-old son -- said he considers it one of his purposes in life to set the record straight on his uncle.

"He was a character," said the younger Ted Williams, "but certainly not a bad one."

In light of the evidence, I have no choice but to dis-enshrine Ted Williams from my All-Dysfunctional Hall of Fame.

E-mail Scott Ostler at
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