New Ted Williams biography reveals interesting Detroit anecdotes

ted-williams-biography-the-kid-the-immortal-life-by-ben-bradlee-jr Weighing in at 2.5 pounds, the sheer size of Ben Bradlee Jr.’s impressive new biography, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, lets one know that one of baseball’s most legendary players led one hell of a life and that this would be the definitive word.

Upon reading this massive biography you will learn more things than you would every want to know about the “Splendid Splinter,” and some things you wish you never knew.

I did not know my father because he died when I was two years old, but I do know that he saw Jackie Robinson’s first game at Ebbetts Field, and that Ted Williams was his favorite player. I therefore always had a fascination with the last player to hit .400 (.406 in 1941) and the man who gave up virtually five years at the peak of his baseball career to serve his country.

When I was 14 years old I had the nerve to call Williams at the Sheraton Cadillac Hotel when he was in town as manager of the Washington Senators. The hotel operator directed me right to his room and when he answered the phone, (in a slightly perturbed tone) I told him he was my dad’s favorite player and asked that if I came down to Tiger Stadium the next day would he sign an autograph for me. He said “Sure, come down near the dugout and look for me.” To my great regret, I never made it.

Bradlee’s book once again confirms that Briggs Stadium was Ted Williams’ favorite ballpark and the venue where he had what Teddy Ballgame said himself was his “greatest thrill in baseball.”

When the first All-Star game arrived in Detroit on July 8, 1941, Williams was batting .405 with 16 homers and the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio had hit safely in 48 consecutive games. (Williams would finish the year with a .406 average, and DiMaggio’s streak would reach 56 games. It is highly doubtful that these marks will ever be matched again.)

Trailing the National League 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth the American League loaded the bases after the first out. DiMaggio hit a certain double play ball that would have ended the game but a hard sliding Cecil Travis caused Billy Herman’s throw to pull the first baseman off the bag allowing a run to score.

Now behind 5-4 with two outs and two men on, Ted Williams strode to the plate to face Cubs’ hurler Claude Passeau. Just two years earlier as a rookie Williams became the first player to hit a home run over the right field roof at the newly renovated Briggs Stadium. The ball had one hopped onto Trumbull Avenue before bouncing up against the Checker Cab building. (Bradlee also describes that homer in great detail.)

On a 2-1 count, Williams swung with all his might and smashed a towering drive to right field.

Bradlee wrote:

The only question was whether it would be fair or foul. There was a brisk wind blowing across the field from left to right, but the ball was crushed so hard the breeze couldn’t alter its path much before it struck the facing of the third tier about twenty feet fair. The ball bounced back to right fielder Enos Slaughter who picked it up and stuffed it in his pocket as a souvenir.

Thanks to the heroics of Ted Williams, the American League had defeated the National League 7-5 in storybook fashion. Bradlee writes that instead of “painting the town” after the game, Williams returned to room 1812 of the Book Cadillac Hotel where he wrote a letter to Doris Soule (his future wife) and remarked to Boston Globe writer Gerry Moore, “Do you know the biggest kick I get out of this whole thing? I’m tickled for my mom’s sake because she was listening.”

Below are a few of the interesting anecdotes about Williams and Detroit from the book:

  • Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey loved Williams and delighted in needling him and horsing around. Yawkey once stationed himself in the right field stands of Briggs Stadium masquerading as a Tigers fan and heckled him mercilessly. In the clubhouse after the game Yawkey said to Williams, “That fellow in the bleachers was certainly riding you today. “He was plenty loud, the cheap punk,” Williams replied, “I’d like to have busted him in the puss.” Yawkey broke up laughing and confessed.
  • In 1949, Williams gave Briggs Stadium visitor’s bat boy Danny Dillman, 15, $35 to take a cab downtown to get “a five pound box of chocolates and a big box of rubbers.” (Dillman’s recollection is hilarious.) Dillman also said Williams would stand in front of a full length mirror wearing only his jock strap, a sweatshirt, and shower clogs and swing a bat repeatedly saying “My name is Ted Fuckin’Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball.”
  • In the final months of his life, Williams called his close friend, Bill Reedy, (the owner of Reedy’s Saloon which was just across from the Detroit Athletic Company) several times to complain that he was feeling increasingly isolated and held captive, cut off from friends and asked Reedy on more than one occasion if he could come up to Detroit and live with Reedy.

Besides my rather lame attempt to meet Williams when I was 14, I came close on two other occasions.

In 1980, I traveled to Cooperstown to see my hero Al Kaline inducted into the Hall of Fame and Williams was there to induct the late Tom Yawkey. Inside the Lake Otesaga Hotel the Splendid Splinter brushed right by me after being interviewed before rushing away as fans descended upon him.

And finally in 2001, as a freelance writer for the Detroit Free Press, I planned to do an article for the 60th anniversary of Ted’s 1941 All-Star game heroics at Briggs Stadium. I had contacted Bill Reedy to see if he could arrange an interview and Reedy said he could make it happen. (He also told me that he and former Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer went down to Florida every year to visit Williams). Sadly he called back a few days later to explain that Ted had suffered a stroke and was in the hospital.

Three strikes and I was out.

So I never met Ted Williams and unfortunately never saw him play since my first Tigers game occurred two years after he retired following the 1960 season.

However through Ben Bradlee’s wonderful book, I finally met the man, warts and all.