Given that there’s enough top-grade baseball literature to buckle the shelf a bit more than is customary with sports writing, it is no mean feat that of all baseball players, Ted Williams is arguably best represented in that canon.
His autobiography, “My Turn at Bat,” is so good that you do not have to give a fig about baseball to lose yourself headlong in it, whether you’re a 12-year-old sandlot master, or a middle-age housewife looking for something to read. Williams’s “The Science of Hitting” isn’t far behind — a monograph on how best to smack a round ball with a round club, that might as well be a metaphor for how to live a life outside of the white lines.
But now we have something new: a series of reminiscences from the players who battled the great No. 9, testimonies to what was a rite of passage for some, a proving grounds for others, and a hardball nightmare for plenty.
In “Facing Ted Williams,” Dave Heller did yeoman’s work tracking down a range of players, from perennial all-stars to guys whose cup of coffee in the Show was more like a shot of Joe. What emerges is not only a kind of collage-based portrait of the self-proclaimed greatest hitter of all time, but a wiseacre extraordinaire, with 20-10 vision — to just about everyone’s envy — and an obsession with hitting and talking hitting that makes you think of tuna fishermen discoursing on the ones that got away.
What is perhaps more surprising is the gentle, nurturing spirit that emerges from these recollections of a man most baseball fans think of as irascible. Hal Keller, a catcher who appeared in all of 25 MLB games, hits his one and only home run against the Red Sox, and over comes Williams, query ready: “Ted walked up and said, ‘Did it feel good?’ And of course I said yes.”
The book is divided into four parts: Pitchers, Catchers, Infielders, Outfielders, so we get everyone’s take across the expanse of the diamond. Each opposition’s career and Williams-related stats are provided, but it is the anecdotes that charm:
“I only faced Williams one time . . . he never swung at one,” said Phil Regan, of his 1960 encounter as a member of the Detroit Tigers. “The 3-2 pitch was good, down and away. Catcher said it me, ‘Phil, that is a strike to everyone else — not to Ted Williams.’ ’’
And, as seasoned fans would expect, given that baseball is baseball, so it goes that the flamethrowing ace was repeatedly lit up by the star slugger, while the random journeyman mop-up man owned him with his 12-6 curve. Not that there is a lot of “owning,” in that regard. Williams carved up most of these guys, but you can practically hear the pride all of these years later when one of these pitchers talks about the time he fanned The Kid. Bill Oster, whose final career record was 0-1, managed to chalk up a K of Williams, an accomplishment that, in Oster’s mind, requires divine accreditation. “I struck him out on four pitches. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
Most of the players are from the latter portion of Williams’s career, but then again, there weren’t a lot of seasons that weren’t prime ones for the last man to hit .400. Russ Kemmerer, a middling righty, details Williams’s love for trash talking: “ ‘Hey bush, I got you in my books.’ He called everyone bush-leaguer. ‘You’re in my book, I got you in my book, baby.’ ”
Which was not, presumably, a reference to the books he would go on to write. Many hats, that Ted Williams. Many hats. And now this worthy accessory to the Williams portion of the baseball shelf.
Colin Fleming’s first book, “Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep,” will be published in June.