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Original Issue

Baseball's Splendid Splinter

Fifty years after he hit .406, Ted Williams is the subject of two biographies

Ted Williams, who was never particularly fond of being analyzed in print, is subjected to a comprehensive going-over in not one, but two biographies in this, the 50th anniversary of the season he became baseball's last .400 hitter. That's only just and fair, for, as Dick Johnson and Glenn Stout observe in Ted Williams: A Portrait in Words and Pictures (Walker & Company, $24.95), "of all of baseball's most legendary figures, Ted Williams is perhaps the most human.... [He] has, almost to a fault, been nothing but himself." Being himself has not always meant being nice, Johnson and Stout inform us, though somewhat less forcefully than Columbia University English professor Michael Seidel does in his Ted Williams: A Baseball Life (Contemporary Books, $19.95). Seidel describes Williams's lonely childhood with a mother who dedicated her life to the Salvation Army and a father who dedicated his to escaping his wife, a feat he finally accomplished in his son's rookie year (1939) with the Boston Red Sox.

Seidel takes us, season by season, through "the Kid's" magnificent, if storm-tossed, career as the greatest hitter of his time (maybe of all time) and leaves him in 1972 as the unhappy manager of the now defunct Washington Senators. Seidel is obviously a Williams fan; he is also a meticulous chronicler of his hero's many foibles. The outspoken yet vulnerable star was easy prey for the "knights of the keyboard" who jousted for Boston's seven daily newspapers in Williams's prime, and for the "wolves" in the leftfield stands who pounced on his every fielding or baserunning gaffe. His responses to this calumny were, at best, indelicate, and he earned almost as many headlines for his obscene gestures, bat tosses, profane diatribes and great expectorations as for the soaring home runs he clouted into the rightfield bleachers at Fenway Park.

Seidel also notes that Williams was not much of a family man, though he mentions only one of Williams's three failed marriages. And yet, in Seidel's view, the lonely child spent much of his manhood in search of surrogate fathers. Contrary to some accounts of his life, Williams was, according to Seidel, a reluctant war hero. He maneuvered to get a draft exemption at the outbreak of World War II and enlisted in the Navy's flight program only after suffering accusations in the press that he was a slacker. He saw no combat in that war and protested, not entirely without cause, when his career was again interrupted six years later by a call-up from the reserves for the Korean War. Williams did see considerable action in Korea, flying F-9 Panther jets on dangerous reconnaissance missions. Altogether, he lost nearly five years and maybe a thousand hits and a couple of hundred home runs to military service.

Seidel's book is marred by lapses into inexcusable slang ("bag," as in to quit, seems to be his favorite verb), horrible word play ("Bedtime for Bonzo making something of a chimp out of Ronald Reagan") and dreadful clichès ("The fans were beside themselves with glee"). He also makes some annoying errors, placing, for example, Al Gionfriddo's famous catch off Joe DiMaggio in the 1947 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of at Yankee Stadium, and having Ralph Kiner beat out Johnny Mize for the '47 National League home run title although the two actually tied, with 51 apiece.

Johnson, the curator of Boston's Sports Museum, and Stout, a librarian and freelance writer, are much more respectful of the Splendid Splinter and delve deeper into the man's private life and his later years. This includes his passion for fishing, at which he is nearly as adept as he was at hitting a baseball. Whereas Seidel tends to dismiss Williams's younger brother, Danny, as a ne'er-do-well, Johnson and Stout point out that Danny suffered from leukemia and died at age 40 in his illustrious brother's final triumphant season. Danny's illness accounts for Williams's active interest in the Jimmy Fund, which raises money for research to combat cancer in children.

Johnson and Stout's handsome book contains, in addition to a fine photo collection, nine essays by notable writers, many of whom revere Williams not so much as a skilled technician but as a true artist. Novelist George Higgins dares compare the ballplayer to Mozart and Shakespeare; poet-author Donald Hall thinks of him more as Duke Ellington; Boston Globe editorial-page editor Martin Nolan likens him to Monet and Michelangelo; and the novelist and short-story writer Luke Salisbury puts him right up there with Flaubert. One thing is certain: The Splinter could outhit any of those guys.