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Ted Williams is most commonly identified with the images of precisely two of his 521 career home runs. One, naturally, was the triumphant last-at-bat homer that inspired John Updike to write:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap.[1]

The only other Williams homer that rivals The Kid bidding Hub fans adieu in the popular baseball consciousness was the moment Williams walked off Claude Passeau in the 1941 All-Star Game. When you compare the footage of the two home runs, it becomes clear that this Midsummer Classic starred a Ted Williams who Updike never met.

Take another look at the All-Star walk-off and you’ll see one of the happiest moments of Williams’s career. The instant he connects, he knows the game has been won. As he lopes out of the box, he stares at the ball headed for the Briggs Stadium facade with mouth agape at what he just pulled off. Halfway to first, he claps his hands twice as if he wishes he could join the crowd in applauding his accomplishment. And as he rounds the bag, it appears the only things keeping him from floating off into the clouds are the laws of gravity and the rule that he touch all the bases.

Today, of course, such a demonstration would be known as “a Carlos Gomez bloop single.” You have to remember, though, that this was the 1940s, an era when Joe DiMaggio uncharacteristically kicked the dirt at second base after a long fly out and the country reacted like it was the Pine Tar Incident, but with George Brett on gamma radiation. Williams’s display of uninhibited joy was the 1941 equivalent of the José Bautista bat flip or the Bryce Harper staredown and primal scream, and the baseball culture of his day treated it much the same way.

Toward the end of his life, a 79-year-old Williams reflected on the All-Star home run and told Boston sportscaster Bob Lobel, “I was ashamed when I saw it for the first time on Movietone News. … I was sorry to see it like that. I’d never seen anything like it! You know, I was jumping and everything … which is good. I like enthusiasm in the game.”[2]

The root of Williams’s shame in the wake of a career-defining moment was his realization that his reaction was emblematic of the exuberant and emotional player he had been during his first few years in the game. In being so outwardly enthusiastic, Williams ran headlong into conformist baseball culture and became an early casualty in the Players with Personality vs. Fun Police battle that still rages today. In short, for a brief time, Williams was Harper, Javy Báez, and Yasiel Puig decades before any of them were born.

The main difference was that The Kid was a lone wolf struggling against a game united in support of the DiMaggios of the world. It was because he had no one to publicly support him that Williams eventually felt pangs of regret over his home run celebration, which soon enough led to his permanent adoption of the “hurriedly, unsmiling, head down” trot that Updike immortalized.

Walking (107 times in 1939) on Sunshine

As anyone who has read My Turn at Bat can attest, if Ted Williams were any more closely associated with anger, his statistics would be considered Tool lyrics. But surprisingly, for the first few years of his professional career, Williams was one of the most fun players in baseball. From the moment he first set foot in Red Sox spring training, he combined the cocksure self-confidence of Yasiel Puig with the on-field eccentricities of … well, Yasiel Puig—even down to his knack for getting to first base with his bat.

Williams’s career began inauspiciously when he arrived over a week late to his first spring training, in 1938, then, upon being introduced to Red Sox manager and future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin, blurted out, “Hiya, sport!”[3] Apparently Williams was under the impression that the number one way to impress teammates in a baseball clubhouse was to make as many Great Gatsby references as possible. Classic rookie mistake.

As Williams later explained it, he was “a kid away from home really for the first time in his life, feeling alone, a little scared, seeking attention.”[4] So he compensated by being the most compelling and dynamic player organized baseball had seen in years. Williams combined the justifiable braggadocio of Puig and Harper with the sound outfield fundamentals of Manny Ramirez.

The baseball world of 1938 had never seen anything like Teddy Ballgame. Hell, the baseball world of today hasn’t seen anything like Teddy Ballgame. There are demonstrative, inconsistent, and enigmatic outfielders in recent memory, but on multiple occasions that year, Cronin or minor-league manager Donie Bush would look to the outfield and find Williams with his back to home plate, practicing his swing. When the ball was hit his way in the middle of his mummenschanz BP, things got even more interesting: Williams would gallop after it, slapping his glove on his thigh as if spurred on by an invisible jockey, yelling “Hi-yo, Silver!”[5]

Young Ted Williams was that rarest of baseball figures: a player whose closest hitting comparable was Jimmie Foxx and whose closest fielding comparable was Graham Chapman from Holy Grail. Baseball didn’t know what to do with such a magnetic eccentric and the fans loved him for it. Through his first year with the Red Sox, he showed love to them right back. As Williams later noted, in his 1939 rookie season, “nobody tipped or waved his hat more than I did. I mean, right off my head, by the button. Nothing put on, nothing acted, just spontaneous.”[6] Red Sox secretary Barbara Tyler elaborated: “When he’d hit a home run, he’d reach for the button on top of his cap with the tips of his fingers as he rounded first base. Then he’d lift it off his head about three inches and let it plop back on top of his head.”[7]

About the only thing missing from a Ted Williams cap-tipping celebration was the release of a flock of doves, probably because he didn’t want to steal Casey Stengel’s bit. This was, to put it mildly, not typical rookie behavior. During that year, Williams went against every unwritten rule of the game because with him, there was no such thing as emotional subtext. If he experienced any kind of feeling on the baseball field, everyone saw it, for good and for bad.

The way Williams reacted to his own displays of power that year demonstrated that his All-Star walk-off celebration was anything but an aberration. For instance, the third home run of his career cleared the Briggs Stadium roof in Detroit and landed completely out of the ballpark, against a nearby taxi company building. As if in a dress rehearsal for 1941, “Williams bounced around the bases, clapping and enjoying himself. Tigers third baseman Billy Rogell asked him, ‘What do you eat?’”[8] Williams, displaying a rare modicum of grace, did not respond, “Your pitching staff.”

It bears emphasizing that Williams was celebrating in such a demonstrative way only two weeks into his major-league career. He didn’t give a damn about the unwritten rules and playing the game the right way. He was already playing it at a level above the rest of the league.

If Williams was brashly attracting attention to his considerable skills the same way Bryce Harper would 70 years later, there was one major difference: He was also winning over opposing fanbases. While Williams was crushing Tiger pitching, The Boston Herald reported that “a tremendous, unanimous ‘O-O-O-Oh’ of amazement arose from the stands and practically all the spectators stood and applauded as Ted made the circuit and tagged the plate.”[9] In that moment, Williams became the first ballplayer in major-league history to make the entire city of Detroit orgasm simultaneously. (Not that Babe Ruth didn’t try his damnedest…)

It wasn’t just the fans who brought out the showman in Williams. By the middle of the season, The Kid was already trash-talking at a Pedro Martínez level. During a mid-July game, Williams was audacious enough to walk up to Tigers starter Bobo Newsom, while Newsom was warming up, and inform him, “I’m going to give you a going over!”[10] Sure enough, in his first at-bat, Williams gave a Newsom pitch a going over all the way to the upper deck in right. Later that same game, Williams doubled and “when he reached second base, Ted looked in at the pitcher and wagged his fingers, as if to say he’d been foolish to doubt him.”[11] It was a move straight out of the Javy Báez playbook, just 78 years in the past.

Newsom responded after the game by lashing out at Williams, labelling him a “fresh busher!”[12] This insult was one of many that Williams heard from his peers throughout the year. The cumulative effect of this abuse would change who he was as a player.

1940s Baseball: A Fun Police State

How did a player who embodied the phrase “joie de vivre” turn into the famously taciturn superstar who put up the largest spitting at the fans–to–hat tipping ratio in major-league history?

Part of the answer is Williams’s 80-grade sensitivity and anger combined with a city whose entire population consisted of guys named Sully waiting by their phones for the invention of sports talk radio. But there was more to it than that. Think about how the guardians of the game have responded to contemporary stars who play with flair, like Puig, Báez, and Harper, and remember that Williams was playing with that same flair in 1939, a time when #BaseballSoWhite wasn’t a hashtag but an actual hiring policy. If you want to picture baseball culture of that time, imagine MLB investing in cloning technology but only using it on Brian McCann.

It began during Williams’s first spring training. He was particularly, if understandably, unpopular with the three Red Sox veteran outfielders who knew The Kid was there to replace one of them. To them, “Williams was ‘the San Diego Saparoo’ and ‘the California Cracker’ and a bunch of other names that never made the newspapers.”[13] Notice the repeated emphasis on Williams’s place of origin. At a time when baseball was predominately made up of rural southerners, attention was called to Ted’s “otherness” from the day he arrived in camp. Baseball’s insular culture has never welcomed outsiders, even when every player hailed from the same country. (One of Williams’s chief tormentors during that 1938 spring training was incumbent outfielder Ben Chapman, who later gained lasting infamy as manager of the Phillies when he led his team in an unending torrent of racial abuse at Jackie Robinson in the latter’s rookie year of 1947. It’s little wonder that Chapman became the first player in baseball to have his number retired by the Wrong Side of History.)

It wasn’t just Williams’s teammates. All around the league, players went out of their way to let him know that he was different, alien. After Williams let off some steam during a 1940 slump by telling the writers, “Nuts to baseball, I’d rather be a fireman,”[14] he had to endure an extended road trip of opposing players greeting every at-bat by donning fire helmets and blaring sirens and cowbells. Bench jockeying was an accepted part of the game, but when players got to the point of bringing in props so that everyone in the ballpark could see what they were doing, the message was clear: You’re not one of us. You don’t belong.

The message sank in. As Williams later noted, “You say, Well, that was funny, and sure it was. But I’m still a kid, high strung and prone to tantrums, and more and more I’m feeling like the persecuted.”[15] That feeling that was only exacerbated when his own team leaders dressed him down in the most public way possible. When Williams was at his worst, the Red Sox went out of their way to let everybody know he was not playing the game the right way. In a rookie-year incident at Comiskey Park, Williams pitched a fit after striking out and then doffed his cap and curtsied when White Sox fans proceeded to jeer him. With the home-plate umpire descending upon an irate Williams, Joe Cronin rushed out of the dugout. Instead of intervening with the umpire, Cronin, “trying to save his star from being run from the game, screamed at [Williams]: ‘Busher!’ followed by a string of other invectives.”[16]

There’s that word again. Throughout his life, Williams’s go-to pejorative was “bush,” probably because he had heard it constantly in his early exposure to the big leagues. By August of his rookie year, it had been invoked so much that he told reporters, “I’m not a busher and I hate that word,” whereupon teammate Jim Tabor piped up, “Sure, you’re a busher. What else are you?”[17]

It was relentless. Jimmie Foxx, a figure Williams truly respected, proclaimed after a tantrum that The Kid was “a spoiled boy. How long it will take for him to grow up remains to be seen.”[18] You can certainly hear echoes of that patronizing and condescending tone in the present day when Clint Hurdle responds to a Javy Báez bat flip by demanding, “Where’s the respect for the game?”

Today, these comments spur debate, with partisans of both philosophies arrayed against each other.  By contrast, Williams had no one to support him when the baseball establishment closed in. With his fellow players refusing to accept him for who he was, the only hope was to find a sympathetic voice among the baseball writers.

Now Ted was about to find out how it felt to be every pitcher who ever faced him.

The Boston Media Makes Things Worse*

*(Evergreen headline)

Williams’s battles with the Knights of the Keyboard don’t need to be rehashed. What’s interesting for the subject at hand is the attitude of the writers toward Williams even before their war of mutual animosity began.

As baseball historian Robert W. Creamer reflected when discussing the beginning of The Splendid Splinter’s career, “despite his hitting, no one yet really took him seriously. He was still that quirky kid in Boston, the angular, awkward one who couldn’t field and who didn’t pay attention to his manager, the one who wanted to be a fireman. The term ‘flake’ had not come into vogue, but Williams at the beginning of 1941 was considered a flake—a hell of a hitter, yes, but not a real ballplayer.”[19]

How could that be? This “not a real ballplayer” had just put up age-20 and -21 seasons of .327/.436/.609 and .344/.442/.594. Granted, no one in the early 1940s was printing slash lines on the sports page, but numbers like that are built from daily transcendent performance, not understated and underappreciated brilliance. Why couldn’t the people paid to watch baseball every day see it?

Because they were too busy focusing on the eccentricities between the dominant performances. Instead of celebrating Williams as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, the writers by turns infantilized him and depicted him as a freak. When the writers turned in stories on Williams, the Boston newspapers sounded less like a sports page and more like a cautionary tale from a finishing-school textbook. After Williams was benched for failing to hustle on a pop up, the Boston Post’s Bill Cunningham wrote, “Now the case of young Williams, and this isn’t intended as any spanking for him either. He’s a young fellow … but fate has thrust him suddenly onto what amounts to a great public stage where the simplest and most understandable mistake is magnified into a major issue. He made one.”[20]

The “young fellow” who Cunningham was piously not “spanking” was a fully grown adult, yet, because Williams expressed himself freely and openly on the field, the writers felt justified in addressing him as they would a 5-year-old. So perhaps Cunningham deserves credit after all for not theorizing that Ted failed to hustle because he heard an ice cream truck on Lansdowne Street.

When Williams started to lash out, it played into the image of the emotional man-child the writers had already created. Thus, the Boston Evening American’s Austen Lake could condescendingly write, “Young Ted’s attitude changed suddenly this summer from the half-artless, calf-like good nature of a year ago.”[21] At a time when he was rewriting the record books for first- and second-year players, the writers chose to focus on one-upping each other in Disappointed Dad cosplay. From such a high horse came a sportswriting prototype: the guardian of the game. You don’t have to squint too hard at the words of Cunningham and Lake to hear the voices of Bill Plaschke and Dan Shaughnessy dictating screeds against the crimes of Puig and Manny Machado directly from their fainting couches.

Other writers took a different tack, emphasizing Williams’s otherness through liberal use of the labels “popoff” and “screwball.” Each term portrayed Williams as a freak to be gawked at rather than an elite performer succeeding at the highest level of his chosen field. After his 1941 All-Star Game achievement, “a headline in the Detroit paper said POPOFF MAKES GOOD.”[22]

It’s no wonder Williams was embarrassed after seeing how happy winning the All-Star Game had made him: Everybody in baseball was telling him that his emotions were an abomination.

Kid Bids Fun Adieu

Only recently has there has been enough pushback against baseball’s archaic anti-fun code to occasionally allow players to celebrate their achievements on the field without fear of repercussion. Unfortunately for Ted Williams, he was going it alone when his personality ran afoul of the unwritten rules in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His ecstatic romp around the bases in 1941 was the last time fans would see such a public display of jubilation.

Williams explained when asked why he looked back on that emotional display with embarrassment that it was “because I’d never seen anybody else do it just like that.  And it was such an instinctive thing, it was just that moment that hit me. Nothing show-off about it. Just … there it was.”[23]

The forces of baseball aligned in unison to tell Williams that his instincts were wrong, which combined with his increasingly vituperative battles with the media and fans to ensure that he would never celebrate publicly again. Baseball gave Williams a stage to prove that he was the greatest hitter who ever lived, but to the game’s lasting detriment, it never permitted him to enjoy the title the way he should have.


[1] Updike, John. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. The Library of America, 1965. P. 33

[2] The Lost Interview of The Great Ted Williams. Hosted by Bob Lobel, DK Productions, Inc., 2009

[3] Bradlee, Jr., Ben. The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams. Little, Brown and Company, 2013. p. 93

[4] Williams, Ted with John Underwood. My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life. Simon & Schuster, 1969. p. 47

[5] Montville, Leigh. Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero. Doubleday, 2004. p. 49

[6] Williams, 65

[7] Montville, 61

[8] Montville, 60-61

[9] Nowlin, Bill. 521: The Story of Ted Williams’ Home Runs. Rounder Books, 2013. p. 9

[10] Bradlee, 133

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Montville, 43-44

[14] Williams, 78

[15] Williams, 79

[16] Bradlee, 134

[17] Bradlee, 135-136

[18] Bradlee, 145

[19] Creamer, Robert W. Baseball in ’41: A Celebration of the Best Baseball Season Ever in the Year America Went to War. Penguin Books, 1991. p. 17

[20] Cunningham, Bill. “Williams Case Grand Lesson.” Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life. edited by Lawrence Baldassaro. Northeastern University Press, 2003. p. 32

[21] Lake, Austen. “Ted Williams Blasts Boston.” Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life. edited by Lawrence Baldassaro. Northeastern University Press, 2003. p. 41

[22] Creamer, 15

[23] Lobel

Thank you for reading

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Scott Pelarski
2/28
Great article. More like this, please.
Todd Tomasic
2/28
Wow Ken-great story!
Brian Kopec
2/28
First time in years I've scrolled back up a BP article to see who the author was. Good stuff. I think war may have done a lot to harden the boyish tendencies of Williams as well.
Isaac Stephenson
2/28
Wonder how William's experiences in WW2 and Korea did to Williams emotions?
Cameron eadie
3/01
Loved it. BP hit a long ball on this one.