What Ted Williams Is Like Today

The new manager found the players had changed in the eight years he’d been away. Had he?

  1. “No other player visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the heart with joy.”—John Updike, writing of Ted Williams.

    It was the afternoon of March 4 in Pompano Beach, Florida, windy and cold. The Washington Senators had just played their first intra-squad game of spring training. The game had lasted five innings. There had been one ball well hit and 14 bases on balls.

    Ted Williams, his jacket collar turned up against the wind, the red cap shading his face, walked quickly toward the concrete pillbox where the Washington Senators changed clothes. Old men, even more than children, crowded toward the fence at the edge of the field, asking for autographs, quickly clicking the shutters of cheap cameras. He was an old man’s hero now; a bridge to the years when their blood was warm. The children knew only the name. Seeing the man sparked no memories, triggered nothing in the heart. But for the old men…

    “Ted, hey Teddy…”—click-click-snap-click—“Sign this please, Ted. I’m from Worcester.” The bald heads glinted in the sun.

    "Later,” he said. “I will, I will, as soon as I get dressed.”

    Some of the old men said nothing. They just looked, and remembered, and tried to stop shivering in the wind.

    Ted Williams stepped inside the locker room. His players were undressing quickly, anxious to get back to their motel.

    The manager asked, "Where was the ball that Alyea hit?"

    "Sir?” The one he asked had not been born—his parents had not even met—the year, 1941, that Ted Williams hit .406.

    “There was one decent .ball hit all afternoon. Alyea hit it. Was it a high pitch? Low pitch? Inside? Outside?"

    “Oh.” The kid thought for a moment. Who remembers the pitches from the first game of the spring? He held his right hand out, three feet in front of his chest. “It was right about there, I think."

    Ted Williams turned away. “Where was the ball?” he said to a player on his left.

    “It was lower than that." the player said. “Down here." And he held a hand in front of his stomach.

    Ted Williams walked across the room. With Frank Howard absent, holding out, the manager was taller than anyone else in the room.

    “Where was the ball that Alyea hit?”

    “Right about here, sir." This player’s hand was at the level of his hips.

    “Was it?”

    “I think so.”

    “You think so.” Ted Williams turned away. “Where was the ball?”

    "No, it was higher than that. About chest high.”

    Then he asked Brant Alyea, and Alyea, who in September of 1965 had become the first player in American League history to hit a home run off the first ball thrown to him in a major-league game, but who spent half of 1968 in Buffalo, batting .253, held his hand in front of his waist.

    “You sure that’s where it was?” Ted Williams said.

    “I think so.”

    “You think so. All right.” Williams turned. “Where’s the catcher?" A young man stepped forward uneasily.

    “Where was the ball that Alyea hit?”

    “Alyea…Alyea…”

    “Number three. The big right-hand hitter.”

    “Oh yeah.”

    “Where was the ball he hit?”

    “The one to left field?”

    “No, dammit, the one to right field. The only well-hit ball of the game."

    “Oh yeah. I think I remember.”

    “Was it a high pitch? Low pitch?"

    “I think it was high. Up here.” And the catcher, who had called for the pitch, held his hand in front of his chest. Ted Williams did not say anything more. He turned, rather quickly, and stepped onto the carpeted floor of his office. He closed the door. Outside, his players were running, one to another, asking, “Well, where was the ball?” Ted Williams began to untie his shoes.

    “What the hell,” he said. “First time out, a bad wind and all. It wasn’t that bad. The main thing is to hustle and to get in shape and to have fun doing it.”

    “What about all those walks?” someone said.

    “What do you mean, ‘What about all those walks?’ There weren’t that many.”

    “There were l4.”

    Fourteen?

    The man checked his figures. “That’s right,” he said.

    Ted Williams slumped back in his chair and let out a long, deep breath. “Fourteen," he said. He shook his head, mumbling an obscenity.

    ***

    There are two things a hero should not do. He should not become 50 years old and he should not wear a Washington Senators uniform. Ted Williams was doing both, without apology. He was having no trouble with the age. The only place it showed was in his stomach, where the muscles were starting to sag. Except for that, he looked the way he always had. Like a hitter. But the Washington Senators’ uniform…Well, the Washington Senators lost 31 times more than they won in 1968 and finished in tenth place—last place—in the American League. They had a team batting average of .224, which was 120 points below the average that Ted Williams sustained through 2292 games, starting in 1939 and ending on September 28, 1960, with a home run—his 52lst home run—against Jack Fisher of the Baltimore Orioles in Fenway Park.

    Then he had disappeared for eight years to chase fish from New Brunswick to Costa Rica and back again, and to marry a Vogue model half his age. It seemed a good life for a man of 50—particularly for a man like Williams, who likes to be alone—but eight years had been enough. He came back. To baseball. To Pompano Beach. To the Washington Senators, a team only one breath above the four new expansion teams. Maybe.

    The manager undressed slowly; already harassed, a week into his new career. It was not the incompetence that bothered him at this stage as much as it was the attention. “This is the worst rat race I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve got nine million guys on my back. There’s more writers down here than players.”

    “Oh, yes, Ted,” someone from the Washington front office said. “The guy from Newsweek called and he wants another hour with you tomorrow.”

    “What!” He swore. “No, that’s impossible. I just spent an hour with the guy.”

    “Yes, but he says he needs more.”

    “Well, I’ve got too many things to do. What do these guys expect, that I’ve—”

    “Well, would you see him tomorrow, Ted, even if it’s not for an hour?”

    “Yeah, yeah, all right. Tell him to come around in the morning, before we start. But I’m not going to spend any hour with the sonafa———, I mean ———. . .”

    The big room outside was emptying fast. The players seemed anxious to leave the field. The names on the lockers were strange. Milestones marking the game’s decay. Brescher, Brinkman, Unser…

    Wayne Brescher was a rookie catcher. He had hit .053 for Burlington in the Carolina League; .123 for Savannah in the Southern Association, and .059 for Buffalo in the International League in 1968. And he had been brought to the major-league camp. And put on the major-league roster. And there were a lot of others like him. Ed Brinkman, the shortstop, had played seven years for Washington and hit over .200 once in the past four seasons. And Del Unser, the center fielder—the center fielder, that position of DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays—had gone to bat 635 times for Washington in 1968 for an average of .230, and had been named by his fellow players in a Sporting News poll as American League Rookie of the Year. With a batting average of .230.

    “There’s no question," Ted Williams was saying, “the hitters are not as good as they were. It’s not just this team, it’s everybody. The game is not getting the caliber of athlete it used to. Too many get diverted. Sh-t, the colleges emphasize football and basketball so that’s what the kids grow up playing. Sh-t, kids today don’t have dedication. Their parents have all this extra leisure time so the kids go on vacation. Or if they stay home they watch television. Sh-t, when I was growing up, between the ages of nine and 17, all I did was learn hitting. From morning until night. And I lived in San Diego, so that was all year round. That’s the kind of dedication it takes to be a hitter.”

    Ted Williams was still sitting in his office. His uniform was unbuttoned but still on. His wife had just come up from their home in the Florida Keys to join him for the duration of spring training and he had not yet seen her and she was waiting outside, but someone had asked about hitting so all the rest would have to wait.

    “Remember,” Ted Williams said, “hitting a baseball is the hardest single thing there is to do in sports.”

    His audience was silent. “Don’t you think so?" he said. No one agreed or disagreed.

    “Well, what’s harder? Golf, for sh-t's sakes? Golf?” He stood now, driven to motion by just the thought. “Don’t tell me golf. Hitting a golf ball doesn’t require either eyesight, reflexes, strength or speed. Golf. Sh-t. Fifty-year-old men play golf. And win tournaments, for sh-t's sakes. I’m in as good shape as any of them, too, but you don’t see me still playing my game. Do you? No, and you know why not? Because it’s harder. Hitting a baseball is the hardest single thing there is to do in sports.

    "But I will say this. I haven‘t seen one player on this team—sh-t, there’s not one guy playing the game—who can’t be improved. Fifty percent of hitting is from the neck up. Concentration. Learning. Studying. Remembering where every pitch was and what it was. I ask these guys today where the ball was that Alyea hit. They didn’t know. But maybe now they start to think. To study. To remember. Maybe by the time we start the season they’re in the habit of remembering. That part of hitting is something that can be taught. This is where I can help them.”

    ***

    In the mornings, after calisthenics, the Washington Senators took batting practice. There was a sense of anticipation in the stands each day as Ted Williams walked toward the cage. The old men knew he would talk about hitting—and even though they could not hear the words—they got excited. As a hitter, wrote John Updike, Williams “exuded…the hard blue glow of high purpose.” As a manager he did no less.

    “You got to be coiled,” he was saying, leaning against the cage. “It’s a lot of bull about good hitters being relaxed. I was never relaxed. I was very tense. Before you can hit, you got to grab that bat. You can’t swing hard until you grab it.” His voice was—if such a thing can be imagined—a staccato John Wayne.

    One by one, the young men in gray suits stepped into the cage and swung. Frequently, they swung at pitches that Ted Williams, had he been holding the bat, would not have bothered to spit at.

    “Was that a strike?" Williams said to the batter.

    “No, sir.”

    “Why did you swing at it then?”

    For this there was no answer. He had swung at it because he was a .180 hitter. And one of the differences between .180 hitters and Ted Williams is that .180 hitters swing from whim.

    A young man who had hit .259 at Burlington, stepped up. He swung late at a fastball. “You’re a little late,” Ted Williams said.

    He swung late at a fastball again. “Still a little late.”

    He swung late at another fastball. “You’re still late.

    You’ve got to be quick, dammit. You’ve got to be ready. Pretend you’re actually batting in a game.”

    The pitcher threw a curveball. The batter swung early and missed.

    But this was only the second week. The exhibition season—and the eight straight losses which began it—had not started. Ted Williams still saw hope.

    A young man named Tommy Grieve, 21 years old that day, stepped into the cage. He had hit .290 with Salisbury, North Carolina, the year before. “Now here’s a kid who wakes me up a little,” Ted Williams said. “Just a raw, young recruit, but he really stings the ball. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll never hear of him…” Williams paused to watch Grieve pull a line drive to left field. “…but he really stings it.” Grieve hit another line drive.

    “That’s my hitter!" Ted Williams yelled. “That’s my hitter!”

    Williams looked at Bemie Allen, who had played in the American League since 1962, with a career average of .239, and said, “Gehringer never looked any better.” Bemie Allen laughed.

    "No, I mean it," Williams said. “You’ve got his swing. The style’s the same." He paused. “Of course, Gehringer might have hit a little better in a game.”

    And then there was an 18-year-old infielder named Jimmy Mason. He hit a series of weak groundballs and pop ups. When he was done. Ted Williams walked behind the cage with him and handed him a weighted bat. “Play a little game with yourself." Williams said. “Stand here and swing at imaginary pitches. Imagine one high inside, one outside. Keep mixing them up on yourself. And swing at them just like you would in a game."

    Then Williams stepped back to the cage and began to explain to Mike Epstein, a first-baseman who hit .234 in 1968. that the big thing, the really crucial, cardinal thing to do with a pitcher who is especially difficult to hit, is to wait. “You tell yourself right away, with this guy I’m not going to try to pull the ball. You tell yourself, I’m going to wait." And Jimmy Mason. who was in the fourth grade when Ted Williams hit his last home run, stood by a fence and swung at imaginary fastballs and curves. That afternoon, in an intra-squad game, he went three-for-three.

    ***

    The sun was high now, the sky clear blue. The wind blew in strongly from center field but it was not as cold as it had been the day before.

    All morning, at the batting cage, Williams had been like an alcoholic in a distillery. Now he succumbed. “Fox!” he shouted. Nellie Fox, a coach, stepped forward. “A little contest,” Ted Williams said. “We hit until we make three outs.”

    “All right.”

    Williams looked out to the pitcher’s mound, where Wayne Terwilliger, another coach, had been throwing. “You tired, or you think you can still throw a couple of strikes?"

    “I can throw strikes."

    Ted Williams unzipped his blue jacket with the upturned collar and stepped into the cage. The old men in the stands, when they saw him move, hurried toward the fence and crowded as close as they could. Cameras came from everywhere. Brownies and Instamatics. And movie cameras held by pudgy, pale women in Bermuda shorts.

    Ted Williams stood in the batter’s box, waiting for Terwilliger’s first pitch.

    And then, starting softly, and with some hesitation, as if it were the proper thing for old men to do, there came applause. No cheering and no shouting. Nobody yelling his name. Just applause. Williams started hard toward the pitcher’s mound, as if he had not heard. After ten or 15 seconds, the applause died down and the old men stood in silence. Waiting.

    Terwilliger pitched.

    Ted Williams bunted. Perfectly. Toward third base.

    “Wish I could’ve done that when I played,” he said. “I could’ve hit eight hundred against that shift.”

    Most of his team had gathered now, around the cage, to watch.

    “All right,” Williams said. “I know I’m gonna hit better than I did the last time. I know that. Because I know what I did wrong.”

    He laughed. His players laughed. He had batted a few days earlier, with only one line drive in a dozen swings.

    Terwilliger pitched.

    Ted Williams hit a fly ball to right field. High but not too deep. In a game, it would have been caught by an outfielder. One out in his game with Fox.

    Terwilliger pitched again.

    Another fly to right. Two outs.

    And then a Hy to left. Three outs. Ted Williams stepped quickly out of the cage. There were maybe a thousand people in the stands now, and again they all applauded. Nellie Fox stepped in and hit the first pitch for a single.

    "One of these days," Ted Williams was saying, “the wind will be blowing out instead of in. And those balls will go over the blasting fence." He put his blue jacket on and zipped it tight.

    ***

    The next day had been declared Ted Williams Day in Pompano Beach. This meant Williams would eat breakfast with 400 people at the Far East lmperial House Restaurant at eight o’clock in the morning. He would eat ham and eggs and hashed brown potatoes prepared for 400, and drink orange juice from a paper cup. Then he would give a speech. After eight years of good fishing he had come back to this.

    He ate quickly and sat, tieless, at the head table, while all the people who had helped to plan the program stood and talked. It was wonderful to have Ted Williams back in baseball, they said. It was wonderful to have him in Pompano Beach.

    Then Buffalo Bob Smith, formerly of the Howdy Doody Show, drew tickets for door prizes. There were three prizes: a $25 savings bond donated by a funeral home; a baseball, and a bat. Buffalo Bob Smith drew the tickets. The holders, two old men and a middle-aged woman, who had moved to Pompano Beach from New Rochelle, New York, Hartford, Connecticut, and Worcester, Massachusetts, stepped forward to receive the prizes. But Buffalo Bob Smith was not finished. He said that in order to determine which winner received which prize, it would be necessary for each to sing a song. Since they were not likely to know the words to Ted Williams’ favorite song, “Hold That Tiger” (a joke, based on the fact that the Detroit Tigers had won the American League pennant the year before), they would each sing a chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Ted Williams sat and listened and forced his smile while each of the three sang the song. The man from Hartford won the bond. The old man from New Rochelle won the bat and took it to the Pompano Beach field that afternoon to have Ted Williams sign it, and have his picture taken with Williams.

    Then the master of ceremonies made a few remarks about how all the critics had laughed at Lawrence Welk when he first came along but he became a success because the American people recognized genuine quality when they saw it, despite the pretentious and snobby critics. It was the same with Ted Williams, the man said, and all the sportswriters who had knocked him. Then the man compared Williams and the way he had fought in two wars with the “long-haired draft-card burning hippies who are running away to Canada today" and Williams got up to make his speech.

    He was nervous, as he always seems to be when he is out of a baseball uniform. But he had known this would be part of the job when he took it, and he had promised himself he would try, just as hard as he tried at the batting cage every day.

    “I want so much to do a good job, and to do the right thing,” he told the room, “that I was even going to wear a tie here this morning.” There was laughter. “Then I met a guy in a sports shirt on the way and he said, ‘I’ll see ya at the breakfast,’ and I said, ‘The hell with this,” and I took the tie off." Much more laughter. “No kidding." Williams said. “That really happened. I got the tie right here.” And he took it out of his sport coat pocket and waved it as tremendous laughter swept the room.

    When he was done with the speech, he pushed through the crowd as quickly as he graciously could, and then trotted across Route A 1 A to the shopping center parking lot where he had left his car. He got in—it was a green Chrysler—and drove away. Fast and alone. To the ballpark.

    ***

    “It’s amazing how hard he’s trying,” a photographer who had followed Williams around for a week was saying. “I went to the outfield with him a couple of days ago for calisthenics and I stood there taking pictures while he was doing situps. He did about ten and then he looked up at me—he was wearing a pair of green sunglasses—and he said. ‘Is this all right for you, or do you want me to take the glasses off?’ ”

    ***

    And all for the Washington Senators. All because it’s part of the job.

    On Thursday, March 6, the New York Yankees came up the road from Fort Lauderdale to open the exhibition season in Pompano Beach. This would be Ted Williams’ first game as a manager and the stands were filled an hour before the start. On this day, it seemed, Williams’ earlier exaggerated complaint had come true: there were more writers and photographers than players on the field. Invoking the deity, Ted Williams said. “This is ridiculous. Hey, has anybody got some Nervine? Or at least some gum to chew?"

    Then he ducked into his dugout to watch the Yankees bat. They were all anonymous gray faces beneath the gray traveling suits. It is bad enough that you go to the training camp of the Washington Senators and only recognize two of the names on the roster, but when the New York Yankees come to town and their names are just as strange—baseball is a very different game. So on March 6 it was played not by men, really, but by numbers. There was not a familiar name on either side, except for the coaches. Fox, Terwilliger, Elston Howard. Those are baseball names. But the others? They seemed just parts to a tired, slow machine.

    To Ted Williams, of course, they were totally strange. The eight years had taken almost all his contemporaries from the sport. He sat, before the game, and studied, and learned things about the new ones. He didn’t know the names yet, but he was discovering that Number 27 stood very deep in the box; that the tall left-hander with the blond sideburns had an exceptionally open stance…

    Ted Williams studied, and learned these things, while his players blew bubbles and looked at the ground.

    The game itself was an embarrassment. There were two men out in the ninth inning before Washington got its first and only hit. A single to left field. But the Yankee pitchers had given 11 walks. So the final score was 8 to 5.

    Ted Williams left the field quickly. It had been a long and wearisome game. And almost had ended in the ultimate irony of the team managed by baseball’s greatest living hitter going hitless.

    There were so many writers present that his press conference after the game had to be moved from his office to an equipment room next door.

    “Was there a feeling of relief when you got the hit?"

    “Oh, sure. I’m just flabbergasted we weren’t hitting them a little better.” Then he said it was early, and of course he had used mostly his kids and he was sure it would get better. This was after the first game. He had no way of knowing what the next seven would be like. Nor what the 162 of the regular season would bring. Although, after the first, he must have had a feeling.

    How long could he stand it? How long could the most intense, artistic batter of his generation endure the incompetence all around him? No one knew. And mercifully, at this first post-game meeting with the press, no one asked.

    "He will manage until he gets it out of his system,” one of the men who knew him best said that day. “And not even he has any idea how long that might be.”

    It would be splendid for the pale gray, wheezing game of baseball if Ted Williams kept it in his system for the rest of his life. But he never was the sort to suffer fools with grace. By October of 1969, after a full year with the Washington Senators, a year of ham and egg breakfasts in the morning, and more reporters than ballplayers on the field, and, worst of all, of watching helplessly as his batters strike out hundreds of times at wobbly curveballs in the dirt—he will be lucky if he has a system left.

    But on the afternoon of the first exhibition, despite the score and lack of hits, no one was quite that gloomy. The Senators had received 11 walks.

    “Eleven walks," someone in the locker room said. “That’s not bad. At least they weren’t swinging at bad pitches."

    “That’s right." someone else said. “Williams has only been managing a week and already he’s taught them how to take. Next week he might teach them how to swing.”

Originally published in Sport, June 1969