By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ben Bradlee, Jr.
Narration by: Dave Mallow
There is a whiff of guilt in spending 35 hours listening to Ted Williams’ life story. It is the same guilt one feels when watching a sport’s event, going to a movie, seeing a theater production, or visiting a museum. But, when good stories are well written, actors fully engaged and human interest stimulated, a viewer/listener’s time is pleasurably (if not) well spent. Ben Bradlee, Jr’s writing, Dave Mallow’s narration, and Ted Williams’ life story are near perfectly executed, thoughtfully engaging, and revelatory.
Ben Bradlee’s experience, as writer and editor of the Boston Globe, perfects the story of “The Kid”, the biography of baseball’s last full season “.400 plus” batting average player. Some say Williams is the best hitter ever to play. Dave Mallows narration sounds like a sports caster’s reflection on the mercurial personality of a baseball legend. The complexity of human nature is amplified in revelatory facts about a talented kid growing to manhood.
Bradlee notes that Ted Williams is associated with the greatest players in baseball history, e.g. Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Willey McCovey. Williams is a gangly 6 foot 3 inch teenager when drafted by the San Diego Padre’s farm team. At 19, he reaches the “bigs” when acquired from the Padres’ by the Boston Red Sox in 1939.
In one of the greatest years of baseball and worst years for America, Williams bats .406 in a season; Joe DiMaggio achieves a 56 game hitting streak, and America declares war on Japan for bombing Pearl Harbor. World War II begins. Both Williams and DiMaggio join the military in 1943. Williams becomes a Marine fighter pilot. Both remain stateside during the war but upon return to baseball, they cement their legends as two of the greatest players of the game.
During WWII, Williams serves as a pilot instructor. Quite an accomplishment for a high school graduate, but it takes three and a half years out of his peak baseball-playing’ career. Williams, and no other baseball player in the modern era, achieves a season batting average of .400 or better. DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak is never equaled, either by him or any player since.
DiMaggio plays for the Yankees and has the good fortune of being a multiple World Series’ winner and ring holder. The Red Sox, during William’s playing years, arrive at the big game only once (1947) but fail to win the ring. Williams plays as an All-Star for seventeen seasons. He is the most valuable player for the American League twice and a batting champion for the AL for six seasons. Williams life-time batting average is .344 with 521 home runs. His on-base percentage is the highest of all time at .482.
Bradlee compares the two great players. Williams comes off as the more colorful and interesting of the pair. DiMaggio is described as a miserly dandy that insists on being recognized as the best all-around player of the two. Though that argument can be supported by DiMaggio’s statistics and team accomplishments, Bradlee suggests Williams, in spite of wars with the press, phenomenal batting accomplishments, loss of peak-performance’ years, and diva-like actions on the playing field, is a better human being; and possibly the greatest hitter in baseball’ history.
Bradlee obviously admires Williams’ accomplishments but clearly reveals a number of his human failings. Williams is “The Kid”, an admired sobriquet but also a label that reflects immaturity, an immaturity that is only partially overcome by Williams’ military experience. Many episodes of what might be called diva tantrums are shown by Bradlee.
Williams’ fielding errors were often related to a lackadaisical attention span in his left and right field play. Fielding is shown to be a distant second to Williams’ obsessive study of pitching psychology and batting technique. Bradlee recounts episodes of Williams’ hi-jinks when using his glove to practice batter’s stance and swing while playing in the outfield. Episodes of Williams’ spitting toward the fans or failing to acknowledge adoration with a tip of his cap, because of fan-based booing, are sprinkled through Bradlee’s pages.
Many surprises are found in Bradlee’s fine biography of Ted Williams. Williams’ mother is Mexican; Williams parents are divorced but he continues to financially support his mother until her death and is deeply saddened by the passing of his alcoholic father; he meets George H. Bush when training to be a military pilot in WWII; he serves as a wing-man in Korea for John Glenn; his first position in farm-team baseball is pitcher; he bats left-handed but is a natural right-hander. Despite a career playing for the Red Sox, owned by the bigoted owner, Tom Yawkey, Williams professes a deep respect for Black ball players and their right to play professional baseball.
In the end, Bradlee’s adoration of Williams is uncloaked. Bradlee shows the generous nature of a complicated superstar, a human being that at once makes cold calculations about insults from the press while hiding personal contributions of time and money to childhood charities. Bradlee tells the story of a baseball player that rarely questions an umpire’s call; makes friends with working people rather than the rich and famous, and risks his life for his country in two wars when safer alternatives are available. “The Kid” is a pleasure to lovers of the game and to audio book listeners.