Ted Williams: A Baseball Life

By Michael Seidel

Chicago: Contemporary Books 1991

Mr. Seidel is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, who previously wrote a book about DiMaggio’s hitting streak. I found his biography of Ted Williams to be straightforward, readable, and informative. The book covers only his playing career, and while it covers all the controversies, it does not delve into much amateur psychoanalysis. Williams died on July 5, 2002. The next day I went to the library and checked out all the Ted Williams books that were available. Most of them seemed to be published around 1991, the 50th anniversary of Ted's great .406 seasdon. I went on a brief vacation and read through the books. This was the only one I had not heard of, and in some ways I liked it best, maybe because the author had no axe to grind.. There were some stories I wanted to get straight, some loose ends to tie up, and I seemed to find the details here. For example:

When the military draft started before World War II, Ted was classified as 3-A exempt, as sole support of his mother. After Pearl Harbor he was reclassified as 1-A, but the classification “was appealed for him” and he went back to 3-A. This was important to Ted because he was just starting to earn some big money ($30,000 after his spectacular 1941 season) and had arranged some annuities for his mother. He had also borrowed $5000 from the ballclub to fix up her house in San Diego.

With millions of young Americans – including ballplayers -- heading off to the service, some thought that Williams was shirking his duty. Writer Harold Kaese predicted the fans would ride him out of the league. Bill Cunningham wrote that the Sox should pay Ted’s mother and force Ted to enlist. GM Eddie Collins manager Joe Cronin and owner Tom Yawkey, fearful of bad publicity, didn’t want Ted to report to spring training. Surprisingly, Will Harridge, the President of the American League, called Ted with a message of support. “He told me to conduct myself as I did last year. Mr. Harridge said that he thought if I did that everybody would be pulling for me in the end.”

That was pretty much what happened. In spring training 2,000 soldiers showed up for a game and cheered him. “Stay where you are, Ted. We got enough soldiers.” Eventually, Ted did things his way. In May 1942 he requested reclassification to 1-A, and then signed up for the Navy aviation program. He finished the baseball season while taking night school aviation classes three nights a week. Williams won the Triple Crown with .356-36-137 (but not the MVP), and was activated by the Navy in November.

Typically of Williams, when he got into something, he got in all the way. Unlike many ballplayers, he played very little baseball in the service because pilot training was so rigorous. And if he had not chosen to fly, he could have spent the Korean War playing baseball, instead of being reactivated as a Marine pilot.

Reviewed by David Nevard (2002)