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Book review

‘The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams’ by Ben Bradlee Jr.

ap FILE photo/1941

If they ever decide to make a movie on Ted Williams’s life based on Ben Bradlee Jr.’s “The Kid,’’ I’d suggest this for the opening scene: Williams, wearing only a jock strap, a sweatshirt, and shower clogs, standing in front of a full-length mirror in a baseball clubhouse swinging a bat and repeating over and over, “My name is Ted F --- in’ Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball.”

“That was his mantra,” said a Detroit Tigers bat boy who ran errands for Williams when the Red Sox were in town. “He did that before every game.”

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He was named for Teddy Roosevelt, and like his namesake, he carried a big stick (not literally: he preferred lighter whip-handled bats). Unlike TR, Theodore Samuel Williams never spoke softly, particularly to sportswriters, with whom he quarreled his entire life.

At his Hall of Fame induction in 1966, he was heard cursing the memory of Dave Egan, a sportswriter with whom he had feuded for nearly two decades. (Egan had died about eight years earlier.) He never forgot or forgave what he regarded as a slight from a writer or a fan. In 1956 he was fined for spitting in the direction of fans who were booing him. “I’m going to continue to give it to those characters,” he said. “Nobody’s going to make me stop spitting.”

Bradlee’s sumptuous biography details an extraordinary American life while showing us how that life morphed into legend. “The Kid” reads like an epic, starting before Williams’s birth in 1918, outlining his Anglo and Mexican heritage growing up in Southern California, and continuing after his death in 2002 to the present. Bradlee has given us the fullest exploration yet of his monumental ego and the best explanation for his vast inferiority complex. Unlike earlier biographers, Bradlee doesn’t romanticize the account of Williams’s war service; Williams was angry that he had to give up his baseball career both the first and second time, but took an immense pride in becoming a Marine.

The book is packed with great moments: the home run that won the 1941 All-Star Game; the final day of the 1941 season when he chose to risk his .39955 batting average — officially, a .400 average — and played both games of a doubleheader, going six for eight to finish at a celebrated .406; the home run in his last big league at-bat at Fenway Park; and his gallant speech at Cooperstown in which he made an unexpected plea for Negro League players to be included in the Hall of Fame.

For every high point, there’s a spectacular low: fishing trips taking preference over the births of two children, three turbulent marriages and countless affairs, spitting food at his daughter Bobby-Jo when she angered him, and the almost ridiculous lengths he took to conceal his Mexican-American heritage on his mother’s side. Ted felt, Bradlee writes, “that his baseball career might be jeopardized by the prejudice of the day.” He nursed a lifelong rage towards his mother for neglecting him and his younger brother in favor of her work with the Salvation Army.

It must be said, though, that Williams got what he wanted out of life. He told David Halberstam that, “[w]hen I was a kid . . . I’d see a falling star and I’d say ‘Make me the greatest hitter who ever lived.’ ” He ended up with the highest batting average, .344, of any player in his lively-ball era, and the highest on-base percentage, .482, of any player in history. And he did it all despite giving up — reluctantly, as Bradlee points out — nearly five of his prime years to serve as a Marine pilot in World War II and Korea.

While there is much to praise here, there are shortcomings. Bradlee devotes a bit too much time to the Williams story after Ted’s retirement. The unfathomable neuroses of Ted and his children and their ongoing internecine warfare eventually has a numbing effect. By the time his younger two children proceed with cryogenically preserving his remains, the reader’s head may feel frozen.

In a rare lapse into sentimentality, Bradlee writes that the last 10 or so years of Williams’s life, in which he was hailed as a national monument, “he learned how to receive and return love.” Based on some of the evidence in “The Kid,’’ the old Ted was pretty much like the young Ted — at once selfish and generous, quarrelsome and forgiving, irreverent and respectful.

I suppose anyone writing about the life of Ted Williams should be allowed some hyperbole, but no one who knows baseball of the 1940s and 1950s as thoroughly as Bradlee should write that Williams and DiMaggio “were by far the dominant players of their era — baseball’s golden age.’’ More than a few baseball historians would put Stan Musial, who was almost an exact contemporary of Williams and won seven batting titles to Ted’s six, as an equal of Ted and Joe.

But then, what is a life of Ted Williams without some grand talk? “He was,” Bradlee concludes, “someone whom fathers told their sons about, generation after generation, and thus he served as glue in the social fabric. The lasting image remains one of radiant youth, Williams attaining .406, the perfect swing, the swagger, and the heroic, Bunyanesque deeds, like hitting a home run in his last at-bat — The Kid, once and forever.”

Cryogenics or not, perhaps no book about Ted Williams could be too long.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Atlantic.com and “The Wall Street Journal.’’ His latest book is “Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age.’’
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