Those of you too young to really remember Ted Williams -- and I can tell you that I am supposed to have seen his last at-bat, a home run, though I don't have a conscious memory of it -- were probably wondering what all the fuss was about. Let me put it to you in a nutshell: Ted Williams was the last surviving hero of white baseball. That is, he was the last of the great living legends from an era when big-league ball meant, exclusively, white guys.
I know that's not entirely true; much the same could be said for Stan Musial and Bob Feller, but Feller never quite held the same spot in the hierarchy of sports as Williams and Musial, and if you skip the World War II years, Stan didn't really begin to matter until the late '40s.
I don't mean to imply Williams was racist by calling him a throwback to white baseball. Though some have compared Williams to Ty Cobb in terms of temperament, I never heard a whisper from black ballplayers who knew him that this Southern California cracker was anything but decent to any player of any race or background who was not a pitcher. For the record, I've listened to Larry Doby go on at length about how Williams was one of the few players who went out of their way to congratulate him on making the big leagues. The list of white players with far nicer images than Williams' who were not quite so accommodating to black and Latin players might shock you, but until those players themselves wish to discuss it, I'll let it pass. I just thought someone should make that point about Williams.
Ted Williams was a giant in the last era of American sports when athletes transcended the game itself, and in Williams' case there seemed to be some justification for this point of view. Everything about Williams was big -- his height, his batting average, his ego, the scope of his achievement, his tantrums. If Joe DiMaggio was supposed to be the Cary Grant of baseball (though I insist Gary Cooper would make a more fitting comparison), then Ted Williams was baseball's John Wayne. The difference between Wayne and Williams, of course, was that Wayne played characters larger than life while Williams lived a life larger than any character's. Wayne preached patriotism while playing war heroes in movies. Williams said nothing, but he interrupted his career to jump into the cockpit of a fighter plane in two wars.
No athlete in American sports history waged a fiercer or more unrelenting war with the sports press. Mike Tyson hates the press because it prints what he regards as bad things about him. Williams seemed to hate the press for writing anything about him.
There was something so pure, so medieval, about Williams' war with reporters that one at times almost had to admire it. No ballplayer ever took such perverse delight in battling the sports press; if there was no provocation for a clash, Williams was more than happy to find one. No ballplayer ever owed more of his fame to what he accomplished on the field and less to what writers said about him personally.
Williams was intense, and he was all of a piece. Those who found him mysterious or inscrutable -- two words that littered many if not most of his obits -- were simply unwilling to take him at face value. He told us early on what he wanted: "All I want out of life is for when I walk down the street, people to say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" I for one was happy to give him what he wanted. At a baseball-card show in Atlantic City several years ago, he limped by me in a hallway while I whispered out loud to my cousin's 12-year-old son, "Derek, there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." Williams stopped in his tracks, turned his head, smiled, and winked at us. It was a wonderful moment, and cheap at the price.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
I am outraged by the stunt Bud Selig pulled on baseball fans in the recent All-Star Game. Let's not blame this one on the managers. The managers are always caretakers of their owners' investments, and it is perfectly understandable that a manager wouldn't want to risk overusing (or, just as bad, to be accused of overusing) someone else's pitcher. That's why it was the commissioner's job to overrule the managers' requests -- in other words, to overrule the owners' wishes -- and let the game continue. Fans paid, on average, $75 to be present at this travesty, and then they're told -- what? -- that it wasn't a game after all but just an exhibition? Isn't one indignant Milwaukee fan going to file a class action suit to have their money refunded?
As for what is to be done if future games go into extra innings, I would have thought the solution to be staggeringly simple: Let the players play. I mean, this isn't the World Series; isn't everyone entitled to a little fun? Why not let the fielders pitch an inning apiece until the issue is settled? Call for volunteers among the players already in the lineup: Who wants to pitch an inning? I don't mean that they would have to go out there and throw like they were back in high school; I'm just talking about putting it over the plate. Wouldn't the fans have gotten a kick out of that? Wouldn't the players? What a great headline if Barry Bonds gave up the winning home run to Derek Jeter, or the game was saved on Mariano Rivera's diving catch of a sinking line drive? I don't think anybody, least of all the players, would have objected to what amounts to a couple of innings of schoolyard ball, and it would have worked wonders toward lightening the tone of idiotic solemnity which for some inexplicable reason continues to hang over the All-Star Game.