Second of three articles adapted from “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” by Ben Bradlee Jr., to be published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Company.
When Ted Williams prepared to start his second season with the Boston Red Sox in 1940, he was in a buoyant mood and why not? He had posted some gaudy numbers in his rookie year: a batting average of .327, 31 home runs, and 145 runs batted in, which led the American League.
Owner Tom Yawkey tended to Ted’s every need. When the Kid complained at the end of 1939 that the fence in right field at Fenway Park was too far away, Yawkey ordered it moved in. Bullpens were built in front of the old fence and this likely new repository for Ted’s home runs was dubbed “Williamsburg” by the Boston press.
Besides Williamsburg, there were two other significant changes for Ted in 1940. First, he would be playing left field, not right, as he had when he was a rookie. Second, he would switch places with Jimmie Foxx in the batting order and hit third rather than fourth. If Sox manager Joe Cronin thought this would help the team, Ted was thinking more about how the change would affect him.
“Heck sakes, there goes my runs-batted-in championship,” he said when the move was announced.
The comment foreshadowed a fundamental shift in Ted’s mood, and it was not long before the attractive, boyish charm and innocence that Williams had radiated all of last season faded altogether and Ted unveiled his dark side.
He got off to a bad start, getting only two hits in five games the first week the Red Sox were home. After a few fans jeered him for early hitting and fielding miscues, the highly sensitive Ted overreacted and told a few teammates that he would never tip his cap again.
When some reporters wrote that he was not hustling on every play, Ted was outraged and started a vendetta against the writers. After Williams finally hit his first home run into one of the new bullpens at Fenway, the Globe took caustic note with a banner headline: “Ted Locates Williamsburg.”
Seething, Ted popped off to Austen Lake, a columnist for the Boston Evening American: He couldn’t stand Boston’s fans, its press, and the city itself. “I don’t like the town, I don’t like the people and the newspaper men have been on my back all year,” Ted said. “Why?”
Williams finished 1940 with more than respectable numbers: a .344 average, with 23 home runs and 113 RBIs. His average was 17 points higher than his rookie year, but his power production was off, with eight fewer homers and 32 fewer RBIs compared to 1939. And of his 23 homers in 1940, only nine were at Fenway and just four of those went into the new bullpens.
But the story of 1940 was not a set of numbers that, however good, came in below expectations. The story of the year was Ted’s psychic tailspin, an evolving public meltdown that had played out in, and been shaped by, Boston’s newspapers.
* * *
It marked the first season of what would become a career-long jihad waged by Ted against the baseball writers, a group whom he would famously deride as the “Knights of the Keyboard.” This was a conflict largely manufactured by Williams to fuel his drive to excel. Though his press was overwhelmingly positive, he would seize on a negative story or column to portray all writers as a contemptible lot bent on invading his privacy and stirring up public opinion against him. The newspapers became a bogeyman that Williams constructed to feed the fire of antagonism that was central to his ability to perform well. He always said he hit best when he was angry.
The interplay between Ted and the writers would become an important window into his character, and one of the longest-running dramas in his career. Now, reporters who had fawned over Ted his rookie year and even part of this season had to recalibrate their relationships with him as he cussed them out and treated them like dirt. In the process, the rules of engagement between newspapers and baseball began to change.
Between 1939 and 1960, the years spanning Ted’s career with the Red Sox, Boston had eight major newspapers, or nine if one counted both the morning and evening editions of The Boston Globe, which had separate staffs and circulations. The morning papers were the Post, the Herald, the Record, the Daily Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. The evening journals were the American, the Transcript, the Traveler, and the Evening Globe. The Post and the Record dominated the city in 1940 with circulations of 369,000 and 329,000 respectively.
In the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, major league baseball was by far the dominant sport in the country, and would often take up a third of the front page of newspapers in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. To be a baseball writer assigned to cover one of the big league teams was a highly prized assignment.
The writers wore suits. On long road trips, they’d play poker on the trains with the players and among themselves. Some great yarns came out of those trips, but in the fraternal milieu, it was understood that the stories would stay in-house, never to turn up in print.
On average, the writers were a generation-or-more older than the players they covered. Before World War II, the vast majority had not gone to college, and in the ’40s, their salaries ranged between $5,000 and $7,000 a year. But you couldn’t beat the perks. In what seems a quaint anachronism today, it was common practice at least into the ’60s for the ball clubs to pay all the expenses of the writers when the teams traveled. The reporters would stay at the best hotels, order from room service, and eat at fine restaurants. Moreover, they spent six weeks in Florida for Spring Training on the teams’ tab as well. In return for such largesse, the clubs of course expected, even demanded, favorable coverage, and they received it. On the rare occasions they did not, the teams would not hesitate to assert their economic leverage over the papers.
Tim Horgan, who covered Williams and the Red Sox in the 1950s for the Boston Herald and Evening Traveler, said the Red Sox once got a colleague of his at the Traveler fired for writing a story the team deemed too critical of catcher Birdie Tebbetts.
In 1947, Boston Braves manager Billy Southworth was arrested for drunken driving. To try to keep the news out of the papers, the Braves or Southworth himself supplied police a false name. When the Globe’s Hy Hurwitz, in a then-rare burst of enterprising zeal, got wind of the story and began poking around, Braves PR man Billy Sullivan, who later became the founder of the Boston Patriots, protested vehemently to the Globe. He argued that no writer whose expenses the Braves covered should even be contemplating stories like that.
* * *
The willingness of the Red Sox and other teams to pay the writers’ expenses, and the newspapers’ ready acceptance of the arrangement established a corrupt foundation for the player-reporter relationship. In addition, some writers of the day were personally corrupt — part of a culture that was built on sloth and collaborating with one another, not competing.
Writers who were on the take had non-baseball “accounts,” as they were called, that paid them to write stories — usually short items. The sponsors were racetracks, boxing promoters, wrestling promoters, dog tracks, or anyone else who wanted publicity. This system allowed the papers, which knew of the practice and encouraged it, to pay the writers less money knowing they would supplement their salaries through their accounts.
The other prevalent practice among many of the leading beat writers of the day was a general non-compete ethos whereby scoops were discouraged — and often shared — because they made those that didn’t get them look bad. In addition, there was collaboration in the writing of stories and sharing of quotations.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Williams began to change the dynamic of player-press relations. The other players — even if they privately held writers in the same contempt Ted did — were polite and friendly and at least pretended to like them, fearful that otherwise their careers could be hurt by bad press.
“I remember one time I asked Ted how he could talk to the writers the way he did,” said Don Buddin, who played shortstop for the Red Sox from 1956-1961. “He said, ‘Son, if you hit .350, you can do a lot of things.’ ”
At first, the writers had thoroughly enjoyed their repartee with Williams. He was new, immensely talented, raw and ebullient, amusing, clever, and he talked nonstop. He’d received a charmed press his rookie year, but in 1940, as he brooded and sulked, he began to lash out at the writers with increasing frequency. Like the fans, reporters found Williams easy to provoke, and then his public rages would become fair game to report.
By far the leading Boston sports journalist of the day — the most widely read, the most outrageous and the most brilliant, even in the non-sports realm — was Dave Egan, a columnist for the Record whose nom de plume was “The Colonel.” And this leading light had a vendetta against Ted, to whom he referred as “T. Williams Esquire.”
Egan was about 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, and dapper. An elegant writer, he was a provocateur, who delighted in cutting against the grain, seven days a week. If Ted was the darling of Boston, Egan, by definition, had to knock him down.
Egan was far more educated than his brethren on the sports pages. Born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1901, the son of a milkman who fathered 16 other children, Egan won a scholarship to Harvard, sailed through in three years, cum laude, and went on to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1925. He practiced law for a year, and then went to work as a sportswriter for the Globe, where he had been a night office boy and done some writing while in college.
Egan ranged widely and colorfully. When a dog wandered on to the floor of the Boston Garden once during a Celtics game, the Colonel linked the moment to his antagonism for referees, writing that the refs had “whistled him in off the street.” In 1943, when a cab driver struck Boston Braves manager Casey Stengel one rainy night in Kenmore Square and broke his leg, Egan suggested that the cabbie should be hailed as “Man of the Year.”
The core of the Egan indictment against Ted was that he was the consummate individualist “just not suited for a bicycle built for nine,” that he was too money-hungry, and that his boorish on-field behavior such as spitting and gesturing to fans set a poor example for young people. But his harshest charge, the one that frosted Ted the most, was that he failed in the clutch. The evidence for this, the Colonel kept saying, was that in the 10 most important games of his career — the seven World Series games of 1946, the playoff game for the pennant against the Cleveland Indians in 1948, and the final two games of the 1949 season against the New York Yankees in which the pennant was on the line — Ted hit just .205.
Williams’s defense, of course, was that in a career that spanned 22 years, wherein he played in 2,292 games and hit .344 lifetime, it was unfair to cherry pick 10 games and ignore the countless other times when he did come through.
Ted always read Egan carefully when the Red Sox were at home. When the team was on the road, Williams would have his pals in Boston call and read him what the Colonel had written. If it was bad, Ted’s anger would usually help him to go on a tear. Then he’d want to know if Egan had mentioned any of the good things he’d done. Invariably, there would be nothing, which would only fuel Ted’s theory that the Colonel was simply out to get him.
If Egan helped shape, even manipulate, public perceptions about Ted, he also directly affected Williams’s views of the writers as a whole. It didn’t matter to Ted that the vast majority of his press was favorable; when the Colonel unloaded on him, it was as if all the nice notices had never appeared.
Egan died suddenly in 1958 at age 57 after several heart attacks and decades of drink. Boston Archbishop Richard J. Cushing presided at his funeral.
* * *
For the writers, their daily encounters with Williams were a tumultuous mixture of riveting theater, sheer excitement and resentment at having to absorb a matinee idol’s torrent of bile and abuse. But their front row seat also gave them a fascinating perspective on the development and evolution of Ted’s mercurial and fragile persona.
They learned his moods and eccentricities, what approach he might favor, how he would play them off against each other, how he could be extraordinarily kind to people, and how, for all his raging at the press, he devoured everything that was written about him. They also learned how he craved fame, but not the inconvenience of celebrity — a naivete which betrayed a basic misunderstanding of the writers’ role in ferreting out information about him, an outsized personality that the public thirsted to know more about.
Bob Ajemian of the American was a young reporter thrown into the Williams fray in the late ’40s and early ’50s. He had grown up in suburban Boston as a great fan of Ted’s. “We were all just crazy about him … But to be with him in the locker room was scary. He radiated so much energy and appeal, and he intimidated us. His voice was unique. He spoke with certitude. ‘What the --- do you know?’ He was a transcendent figure. You didn’t want to be on the wrong side of him. The press was largely afraid of him. He would berate you publicly and loudly, as opposed to taking someone aside for a private beef.”
Following the upheavals of 1940, there would be many more outbursts, fulminations, obscene gestures and spitting episodes as Williams’s career unfolded, but in the end, he was able to gradually turn public opinion in his favor.
The crowd could lash out at him if he made an error or behaved like a lout, and the boos would grow even louder after fans saw they could provoke the thin-skinned Kid into some outrageous response. So it was in 1950, after he gave them the finger, and in 1956, after he spat at them.
But in each case, after Ted took his medicine with a fine or a half-baked apology that the team forced him to issue, the fans would welcome him back and bathe him in their cheers and applause. The 1950 reception was especially meaningful to Williams. “I got an ovation that I’ll never forget,” he said years later. “It was one of my biggest thrills in baseball. I learned that night that New England fans really were for me and cared about me.”
* * *
Ted’s central claim that it was the malevolent writers who prompted the harsh treatment from the fans was spurious, at best, but gradually the fans seemed to conclude that Williams was right. They came to accept Ted’s fragile psyche, and his insistence that he was being persecuted. They admired his independence, his individuality, and his determination to buck convention, stick to his guns, and do things his own way — even if that stubbornness hurt him in the short term.
After the fans again welcomed Ted back after he spit at them in 1956, even some in the press began to take note of the shift in public opinion and questioned whether reporters had overstepped their bounds.
“The tide has begun to turn in this case of the Boston sports writers versus Ted Williams, and the verdict is becoming increasingly favorable to Ted as public opinion starts to make itself felt . . . ” wrote the suburban Lowell Sun in an editorial. “If there has been a case of injustice done by a group of sportswriters to a great sports figure, this is it. Time after time they picked Williams apart, they have tormented him, they have knifed him, roasted him, flayed him, tortured him, and have obviously taken what can only be called a sadistic glee in doing so. It is sports journalism at its lowest.”
In 1957, when Williams was defying nature and batting close to .400 late in August at age 39, the Fenway crowd nearly rioted when a decision by the official scorer, the Globe’s Hy Hurwitz, initially went against Ted.
In a three-week newspaper strike that same month, fans flooded the sports departments with calls wanting to know first what Ted did, and then what the Sox score was.
The American responded to the shifting public mood in January of 1958 by running a 15-part series entitled “The Case for Ted Williams.” The series totaled 18,000 words and was prompted by letters objecting to criticism of Ted and demanding more positive treatment. The Herald followed with a flattering, seven-week serial of Williams’s life by cartoonist Vic Johnson — 49 strips in all.
The warm communal feeling toward Ted held through the end of his playing days in 1960, and would grow exponentially in his retirement. He became a beloved figure. Visiting Boston later in life, Williams would always be struck by how fans showered him with unabashed affection of the sort he’d not been able to sustain in his playing days.
He would take great satisfaction from this, and delight in the fact that he had outlasted the bastards: the writers.
This article was adapted from “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” to be published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Company. Ben Bradlee Jr. is a former Globe editor and reporter.