Saturday, April 21, 2012

On the Death of Ted Williams

[NOTE: This is a reprint of a column I wrote on deadline following Ted Williams' death for Boston Baseball. I also think it says a few things about Fenway Park. Copyright Glenn Stout 2012. All rights reserved.]

I heard a rumor, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Ted Williams isn’t dead.]

Close your eyes for a minute and look. Do you see it? All green and gorgeous? Ted’s house – Fenway Park. Mid-summer, in the sunshine. Ted Williams isn’t dead. He’s everywhere here.

I’ll show you. See up there, way, way, way up in right field? See the red seat? Ted’s still there — section 42, row 37, seat 21 – 502-feet from home plate. In 1946 he hit a home run that landed there. Well, sort of. It put a hole in the straw hat of an engineer from Albany.

Now look up a little farther. The Jimmy Fund sign. No one’s ever done more for the Jimmy Fund than Ted. Even when Ted was getting booed and fighting with the press and complaining about everything, that all stopped when it came time to go to a hospital and see a sick kid. See, when Ted was a kid and his mother spent all her time with the Salvation Army and his dad was away even more, Ted just about had to raise his little brother, Danny, all by himself. Then Ted ran away to play baseball and Danny got in trouble and then got cancer and died. Ted never said no to the Jimmy Fund.

Now look over to your right, on the fa├žade of the roof. 9-4-1-8-42. The way it was before they changed it. The way it should be now.

Everybody knows number 9. That’s Ted. First, as ever.

He’s right next to number 4, Joe Cronin, Ted’s first manager. Ted drove Cronin and everyone else crazy in his first spring training. He never shut up and he never stopped thinking about hitting. But he was too young. When Cronin sent him down to the minors and a few vets gave Ted the business on his way out the door, Ted vowed he’d come back and make more than all of them put together. He was right, and he did.

Then there’s number 1, Bobby Doerr, who played with Ted in the PCL, the only guy on the team who could calm Ted down. When Ted talks about “my guys,” he means Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky. His guys.

And number 8, Yaz, Ted’s successor out in left field. At his first camp with the Sox Ted gave Yaz a long complicated lecture about hitting. When Ted finished and walked away, Yaz turned to a reporter, almost shaking, and admitted, “I can’t understand half of what he says . . . He scares me.” And then there’s number 42, Jackie, who should’ve played with Ted and would’ve if the men who ran the Red Sox had been half as smart as Ted was. You know what Ted said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965, don’t you? He said, “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as somebody else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”

That’s right, that’s what he said. Ted Williams was the first guy, the very first guy to bring this up. And this was in 1966, when it wasn’t cool or p.c. to talk about such things, but he did anyway because that’s the way Ted was. He just thought it was right and he said it. Five years later the Hall of Fame took Ted’s advice.

Now look down a little lower. That’s right, look at the bullpens, where a lot of pitchers got a lot of extra work because of Ted. Tom Yawkey had them built in the winter after Ted’s rookie year so he could hit more home runs. Didn’t work, at least in 1940, when Ted tried too hard and didn’t hit a single home run there. The press called it Williamsburg, but the name never really took. It made the fans mad, if you can believe it. They thought Ted was getting special treatment. They were right of course. Ted’s always been special.

See the awning above the bench where the Red Sox pitchers sit? Out toward center field? Yeah. That where Ted’s last home run, number 521, the one that made John Updike famous, landed. Smacked it off Baltimore’s Jack Fisher in the eighth inning on September 28, 1960. Ted didn’t stop at home, didn’t tip his cap, just crossed home plate and ran into the dugout and sat there by himself.

Notice how big right field is? The biggest in baseball. That’s where Ted played his rookie year, 1939, all arms and legs and enthusiasm. Between pitches, he’d stand out there and practice his swing. When the fans cheered him, he’d pluck hit hat off his head by that little button and wave it like mad. Oh god, the fans. They loved him at first, and truth to be told, Ted loved them. That’s why he got so damn mad later, when he got booed. You have to care about something to get angry about it, and Ted cared.

Now look out to left field. That’s where they moved Ted in 1940, to save his eyes. It worked, and Ted learned to play the wall when it was part tin, part wood, part concrete, when it had dead spots like the parquet floor at the Boston Garden and the scoreboard was bigger and had National League scores, too. Ted played the wall well. This was before it was called the Green Monster. This was when it was covered with ads for Gem Blades and Calvert Gin.

Oh, but the fans in left. With the wall catching the sound behind him, Ted could hear everything they said. And the fans were so close, they could see Ted’s ears turn red. The thing’s they’d say – God, he’d get mad! But you know what? That’s what drove him, that’s what got him going. The things they said and stuff those writers, the Knights of the Keyboard, the stuff they wrote. Every word just made him madder. And then Ted would pick up the bat, he’d pick up the bat and walk to home plate and dig in and look out to the pitcher, another guy trying to make him look bad, and Ted would dig in, and then, and then . . .

You can’t help but look to home. That’s where Ted really lived, in that little 4×6 box on the first base side of home plate, focused on that invisible rectangle exactly seventeen inches wide above home plate from the his knee to his shoulder, and the square inch or so on his bat where he tried to hit the ball every time. Remember the picture in Ted’s book, The Science of Hitting, with all the different colored baseballs in the strike zone with Ted’s batting average on them when he swung at those pitches? When I first read that book when I was a kid, I thought Ted actually saw all those colored baseballs coming at him, and that he picked out the one’s with highest number to hit, and that’s why he was so good. Maybe he did he did see them.

Because no one else in baseball history ever spent more time at bat, saw more pitches, cursed more or swung more than Ted Williams. Forget about his off the chart 20-10 eyesight or the one-in-a-million reflexes. Ted Williams was about practice. Said so himself. Listen: “There’s never been a kid who hit more baseballs than Ted Williams.”

Think about that for a minute, because Ted might be right. When he was a kid, a little kid, he spent hours and hours at the playground, swinging a bat. And he never stopped, not really. I think that anytime Ted was doing anything else he loved, like fishing or flying, he was, in a way, still just swinging the bat, concentrating, looking for a strike, tuning out the world and focusing on only one thing, the only thing that mattered, what he was trying to do right now.

That’s the first, best, and only lesson of hitting right there. Hell, it’s the only lesson of doing anything.

Can’t you see him? Can’t you see him swing?

Ted Williams isn’t dead. Close your eyes, and there he is again, bigger than life.

Number 9. Swinging. Kissing it goodbye and walking down the street.

The greatest hitter who ever lived.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wonder of the World

Good thing they’ve got Fenway.

Over the course of this offseason I’ve traveled thousands of miles speaking about Fenway Park with fans all over the country, and along the way I’ve learned a few things that I found quite surprising. One is that, although there are a fair number Red Sox fans out there, they are not quite as pervasive as they were three or four or five years ago. Not so long ago the pre-distressed and faded Sox cap was ubiquitous no matter where one went anywhere in the country, as impossible to avoid in airports and train stations as Hare Krishnas once were.

But in my travels this off season Sox hats and other paraphernalia were strictly a regional phenomenon. They are almost nonexistent in my corner of Vermont and do not begin to show up in any numbers until one reaches either Burlington or New Hampshire. Even then, once one travels through Massachusetts, the fade begins as soon as one crosses the Connecticut River. I still saw a few in New York, but elsewhere, in Pennsylvania, Quebec, Michigan, Ohio and even nether reaches like Arizona, Sox hats were as rare as Yankee caps in the bleachers.

Another observation is that after I got done speaking about Fenway Park, although Sox fans wanted to chat, they did not want to discuss this team, think at all about last year, and didn’t have a kind thing to say about anyone on who worked at Yawkey Way. They’re ticked off, not just about the beer and chicken and the colossal September collapse, but about the whole hoary ball of wax. I got nostalgia, but not for 2007 and 2004. Instead people wanted to talk about the 1990s and 1980s, when the Red Sox still seemed unique and different and were in many ways much more approachable than they are today. Once upon a time, the Red Sox were different from other franchises, and not just because they hadn’t won a World Series in generations. Now there seems to be a general consensus that apart from the laundry the Sox might as well be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a fantasy team made of money. I can’t remember a single old lady gushing to me about Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury, anyone asking if I thought Daniel Bard could make the transition from the bullpen, or even if I thought Carl Crawford was a bum or who should play shortstop. The Red Sox didn’t seem essential anymore.

The most significant observation will be obvious all year; Fenway Park is the best thing this team has going for them. While there are undoubtedly a lot of Red Sox fans I can say with utter confidence that there are a lot more fans of Fenway Park. No matter where I went after I finished speaking and was signing books three or five or ten fans would sidle up and say, sotto voce, “You know I’m really a fan of (fill in the blank – Yankees, Dodgers, football or Beyonce),” and then, voice rising to audible again, “but I LOVE Fenway Park.”

Then something remarkable would happen. These fans of things other than the Red Sox and Red Sox fans would start talking to each other and over a few words realize that they were not in opposition actually but bound together by this place. Who won and who lost mattered a lot less than when they saw their first game, where they sat, who they went with and how much they paid. Most of the time, in fact, people couldn’t remember which team won.

Yet they could remember how Fenway Park looked and smelled and how the ballpark suddenly just appear from nowhere as they walked down Beacon Street or Ipswich, and what the weather was and who they sat next to and what they ate. Most importantly, however, is that they remembered how it made them feel, which was different that any place on the planet they had ever been before or would be again. To all these people Fenway Park is nothing less than one of the wonders of the world, equal in stature to the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu or the Pyramids. And that is why, despite the obstructed views and still-too-small seats, the ungodly prices and the embarrassment of a team brought down by beer and chicken, the stands are still full of pilgrims.

Fenway Park, one hundred years old and more important now than ever, is the reason. People come here not for the game or the team, but for the continuing wonder of the place and the way it brings them together for a moment as one, regardless of the score.

Glenn Stout is the author of the Boston Globe bestseller Fenway 1912. Those interested in having Glenn speak about Fenway Park can contact him thru his website,