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San Diego Native Ted Williams’ Biography Explores Baseball Great’s Life

In a new biography of Williams, former Boston Globe journalist Ben Bradlee Jr. tells his story with the frankness of a reporter and the affection of a fan.

"The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams," by journalist Ben Bradlee Jr.
"The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams," by journalist Ben Bradlee Jr.
Written by Megan BurkeMaureen Cavanaugh/KPBS

San Diego can claim baseball legend Ted Williams as a native son, but his great days as "The Splendid Splinter" took place in Boston.

As a player with the Red Sox, Williams earned the distinction of being the greatest hitter who ever lived.

But as gifted as he was on the field, Williams was a troubled man at home.

In a new, 800-page biography of Williams, "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams," former Boston Globe journalist Ben Bradlee Jr. tells his story with the frankness of a reporter and the affection of a fan.

"I think I understand him," Bradlee said. "To the extent that anyone who spends 10 years writing a book gets to know his subject."

He said Williams was a complicated guy. He grew up in North Park on Utah Street. His mother, May Williams, worked for the Salvation Army and his father was an alcoholic and out of the picture. Williams resented his mother for her devotion to her work, Bradlee said.

"She was out until all hours of the night saving souls on the streets of San Diego in the depression era," he said. "She cared about that more than she cared about raising her son Ted and his younger brother Danny, so they were some of the first latchkey kids."

Williams started his baseball career right after graduating from Hoover High School. At 17, he started playing with the San Diego Padres but it wasn't long before the Red Sox came calling for Williams.

Bradlee said Red Sox General Manager Eddie Collins knew Williams was a natural talent the first time he saw him play.

"He said when he first saw Ted Williams swing that he just shot out of his seat as if his hair was on fire," Bradlee said. "Bill Lane, owner of the Padres said, 'no, you’re crazy — he’s not ready,' but they compromised and agreed that when the time came, Eddie Collins would get the first chance on behalf of the Red Sox."

Ted Williams is known as the greatest hitter that ever lived, his record-setting 406 batting average has remained unbroken for the last 60 years.

"Perhaps no one combined power and average the way Williams did," Bradlee said. "He wasn’t a slap hitter like Ty Cobb and he wasn’t the home-run hitter that Babe Ruth was, but he had the highest on-base percentage in baseball history.

Williams spent five years away from baseball in the prime of his career to be a Marine Corps aviator in both World War II and the Korean War.

"For his legacy it helped him that he served in those wars because it gave him a heroic sheen," Bradlee said.

But Williams was a troubled person, Bradlee said, with his anger rooted in the resentment of his mother.

He said Williams could use the anger constructively on the baseball field, "But in his personal life, this anger would bubble up at totally inappropriate times and places and caused him enormous problems."

Williams married and divorced three times. He had a daughter, Bobby Joe, with his first wife, and a son, John Henry and daughter, Claudia with his third wife. He had a difficult relationship with his three children.

"He didn’t have any relationships to speak of with those kids growing up. He reconnected later in life with John Henry and Claudia," Bradlee said.

When Williams' died in 2002, John Henry and Claudia fought with Bobby Joe about what to do with their father's body.

John Henry had become interested in cryonics, and the idea of extending life after death.

From the Alcor Life Extension Foundation: "Cryonics is an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today's medicine might be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health."

John Henry and Claudia won, and so Williams' head was cut off of his body and both were put in liquid nitrogen with the hope of someday bringing the greatest hitter who ever lived back to life.

"This was an unfortunate, sad ending for the greatest hitter that ever lived," Bradlee said.

"John Henry himself, whose idea this was died suddenly in 2004, about 18 months after his father died, died of leukemia and to his credit he went through with what he ordered up for his father and was also crionically preserved, So his remains are with Ted’s at this facility out in Scottsdale called the Alcor foundation," Bradlee said.

Bradlee interviewed Claudia about getting her father's consent to be crionically frozen.

Claudia told Bradlee that she and John Henry approached their father in 2000.

"By this time they had decided that this was something that they wanted to do. And she said, the way they framed the question to Ted was, 'will you do this for us, so that we can be together forever' quote endquote as a family. And she says he agreed," Bradlee said.

"But my reporting and research suggests that if he did, he probably was not of sound mind at the time," he said.

He said he interviewed about a dozen people who said Williams wanted to be cremated and his ashes thrown in the water off the Florida Keys. 

Listen online at San Diego Native Ted Williams' Biography Explores Baseball Great's Life.

Ron Selkovitch January 21, 2014 at 09:50 AM
My experience is very similar to that of Williams children. I have been a cryonicist and a member of Alcor since 1994.   In 2008 my mother was close to 102 years old when she slipped into a coma. I made the decision to have her frozen because, knowing her love of life, I knew she would want that possibility of surviving, and of course being together again with her family. The process was successful and she is now in Scottsdalle, resting peacefully, and waiting. Eventually I will be there too in what, I consider, is the most exciting of all experiments. I did get some opposition, but entirely from people who knew little or nothing about cryonics. My response was very simple but effective "Just show me a better alternative". There is plenty of information at Alcor.com and  my mother is case #80, the oldest person stored at Alcor.
Ron Selkovitch January 21, 2014 at 09:54 AM
My mistake, it's Alcor.org.

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