Ted Williams Goes to Washington—And Says a Lot of Bad Words

By Jack Limpert

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One of December’s big books is The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee Jr. The book, written by the son of former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, has “strikingly precise and colorful reporting,” according to the New York Times, and “provides documentary evidence on every page to bolster the book’s presumption that Williams was, to use the cliche, larger than life.” The Boston Globe, where Bradlee Jr. worked as a reporter and editor for 25 years, says the 784-page book “is packed with great moments” and “For every high point, there’s a spectacular low.”

Williams played for the Boston Red Sox from 1939 to 1942 and again from 1946 to 1960; during the 1943-45 war years, he was a Marine Corps fighter pilot. In his 19-year major league career, all in Boston, Williams finished with a .344 batting average and 521 home runs. He was an all-star 17 of those years.

Williams is so identified with the Red Sox, and his later life was so colorful, that people sometimes forget he managed the Washington Senators for three years, from 1969 to 1971, before the team left Washington to become the Texas Rangers.

In 1969, his first year in Washington, the Senators won 86 games, a big step up from the team’s 65 wins in 1968. But that was the high point—the Senators won 70 games in 1970 and 63 games in 1971, with the only excitement toward the end Frank Howard’s towering home runs and the hall-of-fame aura of Williams.

In that first Williams season of 1969, Washingtonian writer Tom Dowling hung around the Senators to put together a cover story for the magazine’s March 1970 issue. How interesting was the DC sports scene back then? In 1969, Dowling also wrote a big Washingtonian story on new Redskins coach Vince Lombardi, who had won six NFL championships coaching the Green Bay Packers. Coming to Washington in 1969, Lombardi broke a string of 14 losing Redskin seasons by going 7-5-2. Sadly, he then was diagnosed with colon cancer and died in 1970.

“The Uncensored Ted Williams”—here are some excepts from Tom Dowling’s story.
—–
Williams was a surprisingly big man and walked with a half saunter, half swagger, his shoulders in rhythm with his stride. He still had the look of remoteness, of total concentration on some inner issue that had always marked his face as a ballplayer.

We walked down the tunnel to the dugout, and I asked how he found managing. The season was half over and he was still at the job, content at it according to the papers. And the question was why. Either Williams had changed, mellowed perhaps, or his character and temperament had been distorted in the press.

“Well,” he said, nudging me on the arm, “a lot of it is fun. A lot of it’s horseshit. When it gets to be more than fifty percent horseshit, I’ll quit.”
—–
Williams moved up and down the bench, chattering encouragement all the time, prowling the length of the dugout, clapping, yelling, beating his hands against the dugout roof, imploring a hit from each player. It was impossible to resist the infectiousness of his enthusiasm, the nervous energy he generated for each player’s turn at bat.

“Okay, Brant, let him pitch to you a couple of times and when it gets big as a balloon, rip that soneofabitch.”

“Come on, gang, we need some runs here, for chrissake. C’mom Cazzie, you  can do it, you can hit that bum.”

“Okay, Big Frank, rip one. Jesus Christ, that’s a nothing pitch this guy has got. He’s been nothing from the start. You can crunch one out of here.”

“Come on, we need another run, let’s have a little life down here. Let’s hear a little chatter down there, Allen.” Like a man nudged by a cattle prod, Allen jerked forward on the bench. “Hey, hey, way to go, team.”

“Christ, Allen, you can do better than that. Talk it up,” Williams said.

“Let’s get a hit here,” Allen said, clapping his hands. “Atta a way to chatter,” Williams grinned.
—-
I asked Williams if he had read the piece John Updike had written for the New Yorker on Williams’ last turn at bat, immortalizing that last career home run.

“A great piece,” he said. “It really had mood. I’ll tell you, they’ve been after me to write my life story for a long time, and years ago I told the publishers, ‘Look here, you get this Updike kid to help me write it, you got a deal.’ Well, I guess they got ahold of Updike, but he said he’d never written a sports book like that before. Didn’t think he could handle it.”
—–
“How about the pitchers, Ted?”

“Listen, when I got down to spring training I told Sid Hudson to mark down the pitchers with the breaking stuff. He marked two, Bertina and Pascual. Two out of 22! Christ, that’s a disgrace. The slider is the most important pitch in baseball. You look at the guys who won for us; they did it by learning the breaking stuff. In this sport, when in doubt throw a slider. Listen, I hate to give you guy  too much fucking dope. The whole league will know what we’re doing.”

“Not the way we write, Ted,” a reporter sang out.
—–
Brant Alyea, a power-hitter with a penchant for striking out, sidled up to the batting cage. “Looks like I’m not going to be playing tonight, eh, Skip?” he inquired, somewhat petulantly.

Williams gave him a bland look. “Have you seen the batting figures since the All-Star break?” he asked mildly. And then, his voice turning to scorn, “One lousy home run in the last 120 times at bat. How do you explain that?”

“I got some ideas,” Alyea said, obviously brooding over his infrequent appearances in the lineup.

“Good for you,” Williams said. “What are you batting those last 120 times at the plate? .168?”

Alyea, who had been leaning against the steel ribbing of the batting cage, stepped back. He drew himself up to his full height and said: “.169.”

“Oh, .169. Oh, excuse me,” Williams said in an exaggerated tone of apology. “Shit,” he said, and ambled back to the bench.
—-
The last Boston batter was retired in the ninth inning and Ted Williams smacked the dugout roof with his hands, let out a whoop of joy, and disappeared down the tunnel to the clubhouse. The 1969 baseball season was over, all 162 games worth. The Washington Senators—everyone’s candidate for the worst team in baseball at the beginning of the season—had gone into the record books fourth in the American League East, their first winning season in 17 years.
—–
“Ted, what was the big thrill for you this year?” a reporter asked.

“Beating the Red Sox tonight,” Williams said.

“Jesus, Ted,” a reporter said, “and with all the money the Red Sox have paid you?”

A radio newsman was creeping across the floor, a tape recorder slung across his chest, a cigar-mike held aloft.

“How about the fans, Ted?” someone asked. “How about the Washington fans?”

The man with the tape recorder crept even closer to Williams.

Williams looked at the tape recorder and cleared his throat. “Let me say that no one has been more enthusastic than the ninehundredthousandfuckingfans,” he beamed. “Keep that on your fucking tape if you can, buddy.”
——
I thought back to the beginning of the game that had just ended. Williams had taken the lineup card out to home plate. He had fallen into a conversation with the Boston manager and the umpire, and as they talked the 17,000 fans began to clap, the noise swelling in volume until it seemed impossible for Williams to ignore this tribute to his first season as manager.

He looked up, staring into the sea of applauding fans behind home plate. For a moment he stood still, listening to the clapping and yelling. It had been a long time since Ted Williams had doffed his cap to the cheering fans, and for a moment it appeared possible that he might.

He stared into the noise a while longer, and then he hung his head and threw his arm through the air in the classic “Aw, knock it off” gesture. As he walked back to the dugout, he glanced into the owner’s box where his wife Dolores was sitting. He smiled ruefully and gave a little shrug. A loner, a private man to the end.
—–

An editor’s note:
After the Ted Williams’ story was published, we got a lot of letters and calls (and some subscription cancellations) from parents of children who played baseball, complaining that because of the story’s  profanity they couldn’t let their kids see it. I can’t remember if we changed our policy right then, but for most of my time at the magazine we used dashes (“Keep that on your f—ing tape, buddy”) to camouflage such profanity.

In only rare cases, where we thought using the full direct quote was important to the tone and content of the story, or the user of the profanity was so prominent that the language was newsworthy, did we publish the kind of profanity that was in the 1970 Williams story. Now, with more profanity in movies and social media, newspapers and magazines with broad audiences may end up the last believers in using dashes.

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