The fate of Ted's remains is oddly emblematic. When a nation seeks to turn everything into a commodity, will it not eventually regard the lifeless husks of athletes that way too? If pro baseball wants uniforms to serve as billboards, won't someone think that maybe the bodies that wore those uniforms might yield a few bucks? There's something here to ponder about the genetic engineering debate as well. They always tout the medical miracles. Yes, and they said television would enlighten the masses.
Put the genetic ball in play and it doesn't take a genius to see what's coming. Besides, the whole enterprise seems to miss the point. Pardon me for sounding old fashioned here, but new fashioned isn't sounding so hot these days. To paraphrase Dr. King, it's not the content of our genes that counts, but of our characters.
By the time I came along, Ted Williams was no longer the Splendid Splinter, and certainly not the Kid. The face had filled out, the body had a bit of slack. In pictures, he had a hint of that dark-grained 1940s quality that made players from that era seem old beyond their years. Ted wore his cap flat in front like the old timers did, an afterthought rather than a statement.
This was the mid-1950s. Willie Mays was wearing his cap with a high cocky peak, the brim curved low like a frame. Willie had the style. You could tell something new was coming just by his cap.
Yet Ted was part of the new thing too. ("Williams" doesn't work. He was Ted Williams to us kids, always.) He had a defiant quality, a touch of Brando and Dean. Ted refused to wear a necktie for example, even to those big shot awards dinners at which he was the honored guest, which made him the patron saint of my Sunday morning protests. "Ted Williams doesn't wear a neck tie, so why do I have to?"
I said that every single Sunday, to no avail. But then the Israelites didn't always follow God either.
And then there was the Williams shift. Lou Boudreau, manager and shortstop of the Cleveland Indians, came up with the shift to foil the left-hand hitting Ted. Boudreau packed the right side of the field. The third baseman moved to shortstop, the shortstop moved deep behind second base, the outfielders shifted in similar fashion, all to plug Ted's hitting alleys. Other teams followed suit.
Ted could have tapped dinkies into left field all day and hit .500. Instead he defied the shift, hit right into the teeth of it, and won batting titles anyway. I like to think Ted would have defied steroids too. Chemical enhancement would have been like hitting singles to left, the easy way. Ted's power came from timing and technique. He uncoiled into the ball with a limber grace. Today's pumped-up bashers seem to club it by comparison.
This defiance was more than style. It had to do with integrity, a personal code. The story often has been told of the last day of the 1941 season, when Ted's average stood at .3995. His manager suggested he sit out the double header that day and end the season with a .400 average, thus virtually ensuring himself, at age 23, a place in the Hall of Fame. Instead Ted insisted on playing, went 6 for 8, and raised his average to .406. "I didn't want to hit .400 that way," he said later, speaking of the managers suggestion.
I doubt Ted would have used a word like "faith." But often those who don't use the word have more of it than do those who do. Can you imagine George Bush Jr. calling for a total rerun of the balloting in Florida because he didn't want a tainted victory--he didn't want to win "that way"? Ted Williams's insistence on playing that last day in 1941 was much like that. Jesus said his disciples couldn't walk on the water because their faith--their conviction--was too small. He said we should demonstrate our faith, not trumpet it before others.
Ted had many faults, but he had honor too. After a mediocre season in 1959 he insisted on a pay cut. When the war came, Ted had a legal deferment as his mother's sole support, but he enlisted anyway. It's true he was taking a beating in the Boston media before he went. Still, he did go. Then he served again in Korea as a Marine fighter pilot. All together, he lost almost five years from his prime.