As the son of a legendary Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. had a future in the newspaper business that seemed almost preordained, and even as a young boy he exhibited the sort of resourcefulness and determination that serve reporters well.
He was just 10 when he parked himself in a parking lot outside Fenway Park, waiting for his quarry: Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all time.
Williams barked at Bradlee and the other kids who had stalked him, demanding they form a line and act civilized. Then he gave them autographs.
The signature on the baseball Williams handed back has faded with time, but Bradlee never forgot that odd, intriguing combination of gruffness and kindness in his boyhood idol. In some ways, it was in this parking lot that Bradlee’s fascination with the bundle of contradictions that was Ted Williams began to blossom beyond the posters on his bedroom wall, so that what followed was inevitable.
Only it wasn’t so inevitable. Bradlee began researching the book that became “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” shortly after Williams died in 2002. He figured it would take a couple of years. Indeed, his publisher gave him a two-year delivery date.
Bradlee missed his deadline by nine years. But his publisher was extraordinarily patient, and so, like a good reporter, Bradlee let the story lead him, like a seeing-eye dog, at a measured pace.
“The reporting process took on a life of its own,” Bradlee explained. “It’s like putting a giant puzzle together. One piece leads you to the next one. People who had never talked about Ted before opened up, and that led me to someone else and then someone else.”
In the course of 11 years, there were 600 someone else’s, including Williams’s daughters, Bobby-Jo and Claudia. Born to different mothers, Bobby-Jo and Claudia wouldn’t talk to each other, but they talked to Bradlee, for many years my colleague and for some time my boss at the Globe.
Bradlee just showed up at Bobby-Jo’s house one day and found her husband raking leaves. The two men got talking and, to be polite, the husband insisted on introducing his wife. Whatever Bradlee said worked, because Bobby-Jo invited him back.
After initial reticence, Claudia was even more accommodating, sitting down with Bradlee 16 times. She trusted Bradlee enough to leave him alone in her father’s house, to let him rummage through Ted’s papers, a gift that Bradlee called “a biographer’s dream.”
There were letters to and from the likes of John Updike and Richard Nixon, the latter being a much closer friend of Williams’s than previously known. Like Williams, Nixon could hear the one boo in a room of cheers.
Bradlee’s Ted Williams emerges even more complicated than the curmudgeon who gave kids autographs, someone who could deny his Mexican heritage but use his Hall of Fame induction to plead for the inclusion of Negro League players.
But the spiritual spine of Bradlee’s reportage is Williams’s relationship with his son, John-Henry. Bradlee does not flinch from chronicling the bizarre, macabre end to Ted Williams’s life, in which his son had his head severed and both head and torso frozen in a medically derided form of science fiction called cryonics. Nor does he dwell on it.
In fact, Bradlee’s reporting reveals John-Henry Williams not so much as a scheming, exploitative son trying to cash in on dad’s fame but a misguided dreamer who couldn’t stop trying to please and impress his father, sometimes to cringe-inducing effect. If Ted Williams’s ability to hit a baseball ensured his figurative immortality, John-Henry was determined to somehow, against all medical science, give his father actual immortality.
It is, in the end, unexpected, graceful empathy from an accomplished reporter and writer who knows what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of a larger-than-life father, at that busy, noisy intersection where you eventually learn you can fulfill no one’s expectations but your own.