If he had seen his own tribute last night, Ted Williams would have smiled throughout the ceremony. He would have looked up at the Fenway press box and observed that local and national writers - knights of the keyboard, he called them - were actually at Fenway Park to praise him.
He would have needled friends who happened to wear neckties to his event (he never wore ties). He would have watched old ballplayers and new take the field, some in the flannel uniforms of the 1950s and some in the polyester of today. He would have seen Johnny Pesky and Johnny Damon, Nomar Garciaparra, Dom DiMaggio, Walt Dropo, Jim Rice, Earl Wilson, and dozens of others take the field.
“Dammit, what are they waiting for?” he would have shouted. “They’ve got hitters and pitchers. Geez, somebody throw out the bats and balls so I can watch them play a ballgame!”
Those who knew Teddy Ballgame said he wasn’t the ceremonious type. But he would have made an exception last night. He had no use for ceremonies in which the dress is black tie and the conversation is polite. The ceremony of baseball? Well, now you’re on to something. More than 32,000 people passed through Fenway from - appropriately - 9 in the morning until just before 9 at night. Ted would have looked over that crowd, called a few people close to him, and given a seminar on the game he loved so much.
That was probably the best part of last night’s program, which the Red Sox called “Ted Williams: A Celebration of An American Hero.” As players and senators and governors and poets and survivors arrived to tell their stories, it was clear what they had in common: love of sport. That was the focus at Fenway, and it’s what the focus should have been all along.
We live in a voyeuristic society that enjoys peeking in on someone else’s dysfunction and chaos, so the family fight over Williams’s remains has become a national spectacle. It’s too bad. The cryonics jokes have brought pollution to Williams’s baseball legacy. We all know about the red seat in right field, .406, fly fishing, and piloting in the South Pacific. But there is an aspect of Ted Williams’s baseball life that is underrated.
Didn’t you ever wonder how an 83-year-old veteran, a symbol of baseball the way it used to be, could have so much in common with contemporary players such as Garciaparra, Mark McGwire, and Mo Vaughn? To him, it didn’t matter if you had Mexican-American, Irish-American, or African-American heritage. If you loved baseball, if you knew the strike zone and were persistent about getting a good pitch to hit, you were OK with him.
In that sense, he was an American hero. He had uncomplicated rules for accepting people with backgrounds different than his. How many of us can say that?
Garciaparra told a great Williams story last night. At the 1999 All-Star Game, Williams went up to him and told him that he was sorry that he missed his party. Imagine. Ted and Nomar having a party.
Wilson, one of Williams’s old teammates, said that old No. 9 had the capacity to understand many things. Wilson used to house-sit for Bill Russell when the former Celtic was running a rubber factory in Liberia. He remembers sitting in Russell’s Reading home, being harassed by the neighbors. He told Williams those stories and Williams understood how dehumanizing they were.
“For some reason, he really took a liking to me,” Wilson said. “I never understood why.”
Everywhere you turned, there was a person with a Ted story. Jack Fisher, the Orioles pitcher who allowed the final homer of Williams’s career, remembered how Williams loved a challenge.
“So I wanted to go at him in that at-bat,” Fisher said with a smile. “I said to him, `All right, big boy, let’s see what you’ve got.’ “ He threw the pitch, Williams connected, and another baseball story was there for us to consume.
Williams would have loved this day dedicated to baseball. He would have grinned at the huge black-and-white posters of himself in left field, making Fenway look like a giant art gallery.
He would have applauded the Marines’ flyover and the singing of “God Bless America.” He would have pointed out the doves flying from home plate and the 77-foot No. 9 in left field.
The night, Ted’s night, ended with soft light falling on the huge No. 9. A few players carried single roses to the number and then hugged one another. And indeed, just for a moment, there was a feeling that he saw it all.