Portraying an American Icon

 

Writer Ben Bradlee Jr. sets out to discover and document the forces that created baseball legend Ted Williams

By Robert Gillespie
Photography by Fred Field
 

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The Splendid Splinter. The Kid. Teddy Ballgame.

Your everyday baseball fan knows Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941 and knocked 521 career home runs, 14th among the all-time Major League leaders. The shelves are stacked with books about the Red Sox Hall of Fame great, most by "adoring sports writers" about his performance on the field, said Ben Bradlee Jr. '70, an investigative journalist who resigned in January after 25 years at The Boston Globe to write,what else?,a full biography of Williams, "warts and all."

One major league wart: the slugger's contentious relationships. "Very, very contentious," Bradlee said.

In 1939, his first year in Boston, Williams had a tremendous season, "and it was just a total love-in," Bradlee said. But the tall, gangly, unsophisticated kid from San Diego "was totally honest and raw. . . . He was one of the original politically incorrect, and he began popping off." That landed him in trouble with both sportswriters and fans, who take their cues from the press, Bradlee says, and started a war that continued throughout Williams's career.

When Williams "popped off," "he would just go on a tear. I think he used anger as a motivator," Bradlee said. "One of my goals is to try and explore his anger. . . . I want to try to get to the bottom of that."

Getting to the bottom is right down Bradlee's alley: he headed the Globe investigation team that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the priest sex-scandal story. "'Investigative journalist' is a term that's widely used and misunderstood," he said. "Often it's just diligent and dogged reporting," He thinks there's "much still to be learned about [Williams's] life, about his childhood, about his three failed marriages, about his life as a father, his business career, his military service. He lived a very full life."

Williams was "a man's man" and treated women largely as adornments, Bradlee says. "He was a very hard guy to live with. . . . He wasn't good at being married."

A skilled fisherman, Williams took his second wife to his beachhead on Islamorada in the Florida Keys, "where she was literally a fish out of water,a gorgeous woman, a runway model, never fished a day in her life,and got her out there . . . do this, do that, and it didn't work," Bradlee said. He admits he doesn't know much about sport fishing, either. Doing the Williams biography means "I've got to make myself an expert."

The Williams story is a switch from "political crimes," a field of bad dreams Bradlee covered in his three previous books. Nevertheless, plenty of family politics followed Williams's death in 2002.

"The press largely revolves around conflict," so the squabbling among the three Williams children, who had no great affection for their father, "was a natural," Bradlee said. Newspapers everywhere reported that a will scrawled on a napkin revoked Williams's previous wish to be cremated. His son stored his frozen body and head separately at a cryonics lab in Arizona.

"I haven't really mapped it out how I'm exactly going to handle that," Bradlee said in his office in Boston's John Hancock Building one blustery morning last April. Through the north-facing wall of glass, the Back Bay area looks remote and serene as foothills; the Charles River is a narrow stream. His work area across from the window contains shelves lined with files and folders. And the computer.

"The Internet provides modern tools and databases to locate people," he said. That morning he was working on Williams's military phase, tracking down people Williams served with during World War II and Korea, where he flew 39 combat missions. Bradlee makes initial contact by phone and sometimes conducts telephone interviews. The best interview is in person, he says, but people are all over the country, and to fly to them all would be prohibitively expensive.

"Most people who aren't celebrities are flattered to be asked and have been very cooperative," Bradlee said. When he struck out with the unwilling, he wrote letters to mutual acquaintances asking for help as go-betweens. "You have to have a thick skin in this business and be prepared to have the door slammed in your face. You have to be persistent."

After Williams retired from the Red Sox in 1960, he promoted hunting, fishing and other sports gear for Sears Roebuck, went into a fishing tackle business with the golfer Sam Snead and made Nissen bread commercials with his fishing buddy, Bangor, Maine, sportswriter

Bud Leavitt. That's another little-examined period Bradlee will take a crack at. And he'll explore Williams's sports memorabilia business, which helped ex-ballplayers catch up with modern-day salaries.

Bradlee has always been interested in sports, and the idea of doing a sports book appealed. "There was a certain symmetry to it for me, because it connected back to my childhood," he said. Growing up near Boston, he'd seen Williams play in the last years of his career. "I'd hang out for his autograph. Sort of a case of hero worship as a kid." When Williams died, "I was struck by how much interest there still remained in his life" and "the sort of treatment that his life got, really national icon treatment." Williams and Joe DiMaggio were "two of a kind in an era when baseball was really in its glory."

Bradlee pulled together rosters of the Red Sox teams in the 1939-1960 era to trace Williams's living teammates and talk with them all. His first swing at the book was an interview with three other legends in the Red Sox pantheon: Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky.

"Imagine spending a day with those guys," Bradlee said. "If you're a fan, it's a treat."

Bradlee's won't be just another "adoring" contribution to that Williams shelf when Little Brown publishes his book. "New information I've uncovered I don't want to reveal now," he said, but "mine will be different."