The new Ted Williams documentary is mesmerizing
The upcoming PBS documentary “Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” could be watched beginning to end with the volume on mute.
Without context, I suppose that could be construed as a criticism. Please, take it as the fullest endorsement.
It’s not meant as an actual recommendation to watch it without sound. It’s a salutatory acknowledgement that the documentary captures everything compelling about Williams — but nothing more so than the satisfying aesthetics of his impossibly picturesque swing.
The hour-long film, directed and produced by Nick Davis and narrated by Jon Hamm, premieres Monday at 9 p.m. Produced as part of PBS’s prestigious American Masters series in partnership with Major League Baseball (David Ortiz’s production company was involved), the film is illuminating and insightful on its subject, no easy task given that Williams is an icon who has been the subject of multiple superb biographies.
Davis does a remarkable job of telling — and showing, mesmerizingly — the full Ted Williams story.
“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know who Ted Williams was,’’ said Davis. “But I was not a Red Sox fan, so my knowledge was confined to sort of this cardboard-cutout image of what we knew about Ted Williams, which is a great hitter and at times a nasty guy.
“Doing this film was eye-opening in a lot of ways about who he was and what made him tick. Yes, he was certainly difficult sometimes and had challenging personal relationships. But he also had a good heart and did some tremendously admirable things in his life. Getting the chance to paint this rich, complicated man’s portrait was really fulfilling in a lot of ways.”
Recent Williams biographers Leigh Montville and Ben Bradlee Jr. share many amusing anecdotes in the doc, as do accomplished baseball raconteurs such as Roger Angell and Bob Costas.
There’s a terrific archival clip of Costas asking Williams, “What does it feel like when you hit a baseball perfect?” Williams’s response: “Well, I could compare it to a couple of things. [Laughs] It’s one of the greatest things that ever happens . . .”
There are inspired choices for new voices, too, such as Giants legend Willie McCovey (Williams was a tireless advocate of African-American players) and Reds star and Williams worshipper Joey Votto, who was scheduled for a 20-minute interview and stayed for more than an hour.
“Joey was just so passionate about Ted and passionate about hitting and smart about hitting,’’ said Davis. “The way Ted was, obsessive and granular, when you turn your hips, when your shoulders turn, when you whip the bat around, all of that stuff, Joey spoke the same way.”
Williams famously desired to be known as the greatest hitter who ever lived, and no argument against him is coming from our corner of the world.
That swing is the reason this film could be watched and savored without audio, in admiring silence.
Some footage is familiar, but forever rewatchable, such as Williams skipping around the bases in pure delight after hitting a home run to win the 1941 All-Star Game.
But in putting together the documentary, Davis desired fresh footage and images of Williams in action. With an extraordinary twist of serendipity, he hit the motherlode.
As the New York Times reported, a fan named Bill Murphy was at Fenway for Williams’s final game on Sept. 28, 1960, a day preserved by John Updike’s New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, but one that had little lasting footage beyond grainy black-and-white film.
Murphy, then 19, brought his 8mm camera to the game and caught every meaningful moment — Williams’s home run in his final at-bat, his refusal to tip his cap to the cheering fans — in vibrant color.
The film had spent years in a drawer, but Murphy never forgot what he had. When he heard that American Masters was working on a Williams piece, he reached out to Davis to let him know about his footage. The film has not seen the light of day until this documentary.
American Masters, which has won 28 Emmy awards and 13 Peabodys since launching in 1986, is not typically geared toward sports fans. Davis’s film strikes an ideal balance between appealing to sports fans and those who may not be that familiar with Williams but are interested in understanding his legend.
“What makes it an American Masters and not on a sports channel is that it’s the portrait of a human being, a portrait of an artist, a portrait of a scientist,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in there for baseball fans to be sure. But I hope it resonates as much with casual fans or even people who are completely indifferent to baseball.”