"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
At 1999′s All-Star Game at Fenway Park in Boston, Major League Baseball showcased its All-Century team. It was expected to be a sweet history lesson for baseball fans, a reminder of the names and stats of yesteryear. But it turned into an almost religious experience the second Ted Williams rolled onto the field in a golf cart.
Today’s baseball biggies — Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken Jr., Mark McGwire — gathered around Williams, basking in their hero’s glow. Each wanted his own special moment with the last man ever to bat .400, and many, including Williams, were moved to tears. No one wanted to leave the field.
“It was kind of funny,” Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra told the Associated Press. “When the announcer asked everybody to go back to the dugout, everybody said no. It didn’t matter. What time was the first pitch? Nobody cared.”
Why did Williams — more than Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax or Mike Schmidt, who were also on the field that night — inspire such an emotional tribute? Look to his full-throttle energy, his stated dedication to being “the greatest hitter who ever lived” and the clear drive he had to make it so; his absolute refusal to bow to media pressure and the fact that when Williams makes a promise — to himself or others — you better believe he’s going to follow through on it. And don’t forget his nearly mythic status as one of the game’s wildest characters.
This is the man who has worn a necktie only a handful of times in his 82 years, because he can’t stand the things. This is a man who has had the finest Chesapeake oysters and bayou crayfish flown to his home in Hernando, Fla., because he refuses to eat second best. This is the guy who, when he was drafted in World War II (he served in the military for four and a half years), set a still-standing gunnery record in training. This is the guy who refused to ever tip his cap to Boston fans from his second season with the Red Sox onward, no matter how much they begged, and who can’t let an argument go. If he doesn’t like the outcome of a conversation, he’ll spend a week gathering information until he decides he’s ready to pounce again. This talent led Sports Illustrated to name him the last man to “hit .400 and argue 1.000.”
Hitting .400, of course, is Williams’ biggest claim to fame. When he hit .406 in 1941, he joined 17 other big hitters in the history books, including Rogers Hornsby, who batted .424 in 1924. And, of course, although a few talented fellows have come close, no one’s done it since. Hornsby, who also made the All-Century team, gave Williams a piece of advice early in his career: Be patient; wait for your pitch. It became a Williams mantra.
Although he gained fame for his rages against the Boston press, Williams managed to remain patient at the plate and rode Hornsby’s advice to six batting titles, two American League MVP awards, 18 All-Star appearances and an induction into the Hall of Fame in ’66. He also used the tenet as the cornerstone for his bestselling 1970 book, “The Science of Hitting,” written with John Underwood. That book may be single-handedly responsible for raising the collective batting average of generations of Americans.
Of course, Williams’ killer 20/10 eyesight played a big role in his batting prowess, though he’d never admit it. When he took his physical for World War II, the examining physician called in a colleague to marvel over Williams’ visual acuity. A couple of other things that didn’t hurt the 6-foot-4, 198-pound string bean in his quest for greatness: He didn’t drink, hated smoking and was always in by curfew. He also disliked parties; he wasn’t interested in standing around “listening to a lot of bullshit,” he told Esquire’s Richard Ben Cramer in 1986.
But what truly brought him such a sweet swing was his devotion: He spent his whole life swinging a bat. As a child, he’d go out in the yard at night when everybody was sleeping and swing, swing, swing at an imaginary ball. His nocturnal ritual continued when he turned pro. In fact, his Red Sox road-trip roomies would often be awakened by Williams swinging a bat, a newspaper, a pillow, anything, and accidentally hitting something: a wall, a bureau, a bedpost.
Williams would also spend hours working over his bats to make sure they were precisely the proper weight (between 32 and 33 ounces). He kept his bats off the ground so they wouldn’t pick up moisture and put on excess ounces. Just to be certain, he’d take them to the post office to weigh them.
Williams no doubt inherited his extreme enthusiasm from his mother, May Williams, known to all in his San Diego hometown as Salvation May. A dedicated Salvation Army missionary, she spent her days and nights in the bars and bordellos of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, tambourine in one hand and collection plate in the other. When Williams was a child, his mother took him on her proselytizing parades; he recalls trying to hide behind the pounding bass drum.
Salvation May’s zeal would haunt Williams even after he signed with his first team after high school, San Diego’s Pacific Coast League Padres. May Williams would show up at games, ask spectators for cash and point out her son on the field. Deeply embarrassed, Williams asked her to knock it off and even gave her money to stop. She took the cash and kept passing the plate at his games anyway.
One of the few things Teddy Samuel Williams’ father, Sam, gave him was his name (Teddy, not Theodore, though Williams hates being called that). Sam Williams, known for rarely cracking a smile, had spent time in the Philippines with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Busy running a tiny photography shop or working as a prison inspector in Sacramento, Calif. — or, more often than not, drinking — Sam was seldom around. Williams didn’t hear much from him until the scouts started coming around, talking big money.
Williams was a star even before high school. Neighborhood kids would finish up their paper routes and go watch him hit at North Park. He would go there every day after school (and sometimes during) and take pitches from playground instructor Rod Luscomb, a former minor leaguer and one of the slugger’s many surrogate fathers. Later, Williams led Hoover High to the state championship and, on the way home, ate 18 Popsicles to celebrate.
Williams started playing with the Red Sox in 1939. His first season he could do no wrong. Everybody loved him. What’s not to love when the new kid is having the best rookie season (31 homers, 145 runs batted in and a .327 batting average) of all time?
Outside the stadium, adoring kids followed Williams around. Occasionally, he gathered them together, took them to a local amusement park and rode the roller coaster with them. Sometimes, he took the whole team fishing, a passion of his. On other days, the 19-year-old would come to the park early and shoot pigeons in the outfield with Sox owner Tom Yawkey. Once, he just went ahead and shot out the scoreboard’s ball, strike and out lights. What the hell! He gladly tipped his hat after big plays in 1939. Life was good.
But that winter, his parents divorced and he wanted none of that mess. So instead of going home to California, he spent the off-season with a girlfriend in Minneapolis, Doris Soule (whom he later married; they had a baby girl, Bobby Jo, in 1948, and divorced in 1955). He started the 1940 season slow. For the first time in his life, Williams couldn’t hit the baseball. Fans wondered what had happened to the golden boy, and the press started writing about his sophomore jinx.
While Williams was out of town with the team, one writer finished a screed against him with the following: “Whatever it is, it traces to his upbringing. Can you imagine a kid, a nice kid with a nimble brain, not visiting his father and mother all of last winter?” The seven other ultracompetitive Boston papers went nuts for this story, with none of them digging up the real dirt. Williams returned to Boston as public enemy No. 1. Oh, that burned him. So he let members of the press know they were on notice, that he didn’t trust them one iota — and he wouldn’t ever again. And Williams is a man of his word.
Later, when reporters came into the locker room, he yelled, “Hey, what stinks? Hey! Something stink in here? Oh, it’s you. Well, no wonder with that shit you wrote.” The sportswriters kept on him, and fans eventually followed suit. Their incessant heckling, despite his consistent batting feats, led him to his self-imposed no-cap-tipping rule. He’d show them. Finally, late in the year, Williams told a reporter he didn’t like Boston anymore; he wanted out, which the fans and the press just loved. As he grossly understated in his autobiography, “My Turn at Bat” (also written with Underwood), “I am certainly in the upper bracket of sensitivity, maybe the top 3 percent.”
This sensitivity burned Williams’ teammates. Fellow Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx called him a “spoiled child,” and Lefty Grove threatened to punch him in the nose if he didn’t get his act together. But the left-fielder railed on. And as the years progressed, other Boston players stopped talking to the press, too, out of reverence for his ball-playing prowess.
Despite eventually having a great year at the plate in 1940 (.344, 23 homers, 113 RBIs), Williams had blown it with Boston. Who would let their kid ride a roller coaster with this bum? Nobody. In fact, he began spending more time alone, going to movies during the day, sometimes three at a time, tying fishing flies into the night and giving extra time to his beloved bats.
He did nothing to solve the media problem in the ensuing years, and that cost him an MVP award (voted on by sportswriters) in 1947. One Boston writer left Williams off the ballot that year simply because he didn’t like him. The “Splendid Splinter” lost the MVP by one point to Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio. Ouch.
Even in the short speech he gave before his final game, Williams made sure to mention that he didn’t appreciate the treatment he had received from the “knights of the keyboard,” as he called them. The lowest point in their relationship came when Williams hit his 400th home run (of an eventual 521) in 1956. He deviated from his usual trot around the bases, which John Updike once described in the New Yorker as “hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of.” This time, Williams created a storm of his own when, after the ball had safely cleared the fence, he paused and spat toward the press box. He spat again after he crossed first base, second, third and then — in case you missed it the first four times — on his way back to the dugout. Williams doesn’t do anything halfway.
America’s entry into World War II, in 1941, immediately followed one of the best baseball seasons of all time. DiMaggio had captured the nation’s attention with his 56-game hitting streak (still unmatched) and Williams had finished the year with his ever-famous .406. At season’s end, with one more double-header to play the next day, Williams’ batting average stood at .39955. Manager Joe Cronin offered to let him sit out the games in order to guarantee the rounded-up .400 average. Williams and clubhouse boy Johnny Orlando walked the streets of Philadelphia that night and just talked about hitting, the A’s pitchers he might face and whether he should play the game. Williams finally said, “The record’s no good unless it’s made in all the games.” And so he played, batting 6 for 8 and bringing his average up to the now seemingly insurmountable .406. The Splinter had taken home his first batting title and had conquered the Boston media, the fans, the world.
The euphoria didn’t last long, of course. With World War II breaking out, Williams’ draft status was 1-A. He requested — and received — a deferment because his mother was dependent on him. By the time he got to spring training in 1942, his press pals were making his “un-American” life miserable. The fans crucified him. It was becoming increasingly popular in New England to hate Ted Williams. The heckling got so bad that, in one early-season game, Williams intentionally hit foul balls into the stands in attempts to hit one vociferous verbal attacker. Eventually, Williams relented and enlisted in the Navy Reserve, where he spent the next three years discovering a new love: flying.
He never made it into battle and returned to the field in 1946 with a vengeance, jawing at journalists and striking poses at the plate, hitting the first pitch he saw for a homer. That year, he had a new problem to deal with: a new defense, designed specifically for him by then Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau. The “Williams shift” consisted of the opposing team moving right, leaving the left side of the field open, since Williams rarely hit there. It proved fairly successful until Williams clinched Boston’s first pennant in 28 years with an inside-the-park homer poked up the left side — away from the dreaded shift. Still, it was a tool managers used sporadically and effectively for years against Williams. Once, in an exhibition-game joke, nearly the entire opposition went and sat in the right-field bleachers when Williams came to bat. Even with the shift, Williams took the American League MVP that year (.342, 38 homers, 123 RBIs).
Finally, Boston was in the World Series and Williams had a chance to prove himself on higher ground. He bombed, batting .200 with one RBI. The poor numbers are mostly the result of an extremely swollen elbow from a league-demanded exhibition game. But the Boston press didn’t care. Williams failed them.
Around this time, he had his first real temptation to tip his cap. Sox catcher Birdie Tebbetts nearly convinced him that when he did it, the crowd noise would be so loud he could say whatever he wanted to the fans — “You goddamn SOBs!” — and nobody would ever know. As Williams wrote in his autobiography, “That kind of appealed to me.” When he hit his next homer at Fenway, he took the bases slowly, but he was still turning the idea over in his mind when he reached home plate. He took another batting title in 1948 (.369) and missed one by two-thousandths of a point in the 1949 season. He had to settle for just MVP that year.
In the ’50s, Williams spent his time fighting a war in Korea, attempting to stay off the injured list, spending endless hours with kids with cancer and occasionally having lunch with Vice President Richard Nixon.
Williams’ involvement with kids with cancer began through the Jimmy Fund, which raises money for research and for a Boston hospital. “I love kids, that’s all, it’s no virtue. A guy likes kids, he has to hope their lives are going to be good, that they will avoid the pitfalls he had. I think one of the greatest things ever said is that a man never stands so high as when he stoops to help a kid,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Williams particularly enjoyed making speeches and visits to sick children without the media’s attention. As former Jimmy Fund chief of security Mort Lederman told Ed Linn, author of “Hitter,” a Williams bio: “Unlike most celebrities, Williams never had a demand. He doesn’t care about getting into front door, back door, special car, special food, special spot. He never saw himself as a celebrity. He was a back-door guy, and I admired him for that.” Perhaps because his brother had died of leukemia in 1960 or solely for his love of the cause, Williams didn’t stop his work with the Jimmy Fund when he stopped playing ball. He is still sending plenty of checks, publicity and goodwill the fund’s way.
As for Nixon, he began calling Williams’ D.C. hotel to ask for lunch dates whenever the Sox were in town to take on the Washington Senators. What did they talk about? Well, Williams’ passion, the Jimmy Fund, of course.
The Korean War put Williams in contact with quite a different kind of American celebrity: John Glenn or, as his war pals called him, Old Magnet Ass, because of the number of anti-aircraft artillery always coming after him. Glenn, who became an idol for Williams, chose Williams to fly at his wing and the pair went through some harrowing times together. While Williams earned a slew of medals, he also lost part of his hearing (resulting in his booming voice gaining even more volume), contracted a mysterious virus that stuck with him for years and had a couple of near-death experiences as he crammed his tall body into the tiny cockpit for 39 missions.
He was discharged in the summer of 1953, and he didn’t think he ever wanted to play ball again. But the league invited him to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game and he was welcomed like the hero he was. So he started working out and he was back in action for the last 37 games, hitting .407. You couldn’t make this guy stop hitting — except when he got hurt.
Williams broke his elbow in the 1950 All-Star Game going up for a Ralph Kiner fly ball. Everybody thought he was done. He was back in two months. In 1954, his first full season back from Korea, he broke his collarbone in the first 10 minutes of spring training. He missed six weeks after getting a pin put in his shoulder. According to Updike, he forever looked like “a Calder mobile with one thread cut” after this. When Williams returned to the lineup against Detroit, he hit two homers, a double and four singles in a doubleheader. Yankees manager Casey Stengel said, “I’m going to have all my players put pins in their shoulders.”
Through the late ’50s, he battled injuries, but the real problem was his mind-set. Even though he kept up his hitting feats (.388 in 1957!), the old man grew increasingly disappointed. His team, after all, was one of the worst in baseball. In 1959, he had his worst year ever, hitting .254, the first time he had ever gone below .300. Owner Tom Yawkey asked the paunching Splinter if he wanted to hang ‘em up, but Williams couldn’t go out that way. Not only did he not quit, he asked for a huge salary slash — from $125,000 to $95,000 — possibly the first and last time that’s happened in professional sports.
The 1960 season, his last, ended up being a decent year: He batted .316, drove in 72 runs and hit 29 homers. The last of those homers came in his final at-bat in Boston. While the crowd heaped huzzahs on him, he decided by second base that he couldn’t tip his cap. It just wasn’t his style. He ran right into the dugout and out of baseball and wouldn’t come out again. His teammates prodded him to go take a bow. The umpires waved at him to get his 40-year-old ass back on the field. And the fans howled for him. But he couldn’t do it. He just sat in the corner of the dugout with a huge smile on his face and said, “Fuck ‘em.”
Which is pretty much what he said in the ensuing years: He fished, hunted and cooked (another love) to his heart’s content. He married and divorced two more women. One was a socialite model from Chicago, Lee Howard, who thought she was marrying a celebrity and instead got a dedicated fisherman who got up at 4 a.m. and disappeared for the day. The other was a former Miss Vermont, Delores Wettach, who had never heard of Ted Williams. They had two children: John Henry, born in 1968, who handles most of his father’s business dealings these days and runs Hitter.net, and Claudia, who was born in 1971.
In 1966, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He went up to Cooperstown, N.Y., gave his speech, took his plaque and went home. He didn’t even go inside.
He made a splashy reappearance in the majors in 1969, managing the Washington Senators. He earned manager of the year that first season, but those good times were short-lived. “I could see it was the kind of job you suffer through,” he wrote in “My Turn at Bat.” And suffer he did through three more seasons as the team moved from D.C. and became the Texas Rangers. Still, they lost. He finished out his contract and moved on.
Since then, he has started his Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla., a pilgrimage destination for young players. He met another woman, Louise Kaufman, whom he never married (he’s not the marrying kind anymore), but she stayed with him longer than the rest, at least 20 years. She died three years ago. Williams isn’t in the greatest shape, either. Since 1994, he’s had two strokes and a broken hip, and his once-stellar vision is eroding rapidly. These days, he stays at home and receives visits from his family and close friends. And, of course, he still follows the Sox. He can’t get them out of his system.
But it’s not the ailing Ted Williams that America will remember. We’ll remember his smooth, sweet swing flickering in sharp black and white; his long, thin figure turning with his lethally lightweight bat; that unsmiling, “just doing my job, ma’am” way he put his head down and took off for first base after he slapped another one over the wall. It’s all been permanently tattooed onto the American sports consciousness. We’ll remember him yelling, “Goddamn, what the hell stinks in here?” (even though we never witnessed it). And we’ll remember him for his absolute passion for a boy’s game.
In 1991, 50 years after Williams had hit .406, Fenway Park hosted Ted Williams Day. He got up and gave a little speech that started with the following: “I realized about 42 years ago I was playing for super-great fans. I had a love affair with them, but I never showed it. When I finally consented to do this, I started to think, ‘What am I gonna say?’ Then I thought it might be nice to tip my hat.” And he did just that.
Mark Miller is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has written for ESPN magazine, MTV.com and the Washington Post.More Mark Miller.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)