In her turn at bat, Ted Williams’ lone surviving child comes out swinging.
Claudia Williams, the youngest child of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder, has written a blunt, uncompromising memoir about her father — but also a very sentimental and tender one.
“I learned his complexities long before I learned his statistics,” she writes in “Ted Williams, My Father” (Ecco; hardback; $26.99; 307 pages). It’s true. The first time Claudia saw her father in uniform was at an old-timer’s game at Fenway Park in 1982, when she was 10.
There have been biographies of Williams before. Leigh Montville wrote a nice one a dozen years ago, and Ben Bradlee Jr. came out with a fabulously researched book (“The Kid”) late last year. Bradlee’s research was helped greatly by Claudia giving him access to Williams’ letters, logs, and other personal effects that had never been brought to light.
But neither author had the perspective of watching Ted up close in a family environment. And that’s where Claudia shines in “Ted Williams, My Father.” She does not gloss over Williams’ ill-tempered outbursts and his epic swearing sessions, and concedes that he was not a very good parent. In fact, she gives her mother, Dolores, much of the credit for raising her and her brother, John-Henry. And it wasn’t a perfect family setting, as Claudia’s parents were divorced when she was young. She and her brother would get their famous father in doses, spending weekends and summers with him.
Ted Williams could be a complex, brilliant, generous, profane and dysfunctional man.
He was a perfectionist — a fabulous baseball player and an excellent fisherman who could tie fishing flies expertly. He was a fine photographer. He had a passion to learn, was curious and driven. He was determined to be the greatest hitter that ever lived.
He had a soft spot for children in hospitals and would curse the heavens after leaving a child who was suffering or had an incurable disease. There is a touching scene where Claudia and John-Henry accompanied their father to Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in 1991 and watched how he interacted with the children.
After asking questions and paying attention to all of the kids, Williams announced he had a serious question for them, who became silent until Ted asked, “Do you guys get any ice cream in this joint?”
For every tender moment, Williams had quirks. He did not like driving after 5 p.m. — “There is nothing but traffic and people going to get drunk,” he tells Claudia. He did not like getting telephone calls during dinner and would take the phone off the hook or rip it from its moorings if it began ringing.
Some of the anecdotes are funny now, although Claudia certainly did not think so at the time. For example, she accidentally stopped up the toilet on the second floor of her father’s Islamorada home. Ted, on the phone, saw evidence of the overflowed toilet when water began dripping from the ceiling. Angrily, he ripped the phone off the wall and threw it across the room — not realizing that he now had no way to call a plumber.
Claudia is determined to set the record straight on matters involving her father — particularly in his later years, when she and John-Henry took care of him. She also does not mince words about her contentious relationships with Louise Kaufman, Williams’ longtime companion; and her much-older half-sister, Bobby-Jo, whom she met for the first time at Kaufman’s funeral in August 1993. She actually thanks both women, plus her mother, for showing her how to handle her father.
“In reality, they showed me what not to do in order to have a successful relationship with Ted Williams,” she writes.
Claudia does credit her father for teaching her “very valuable lessons, both good and bad.”
“He taught me to be who I am and not apologize for it,” she writes. “I learned to appreciate and enjoy the parts of Dad that I liked and compartmentalize the rest. … I relished the good and ignored the bad.”
Claudia does strike out on some baseball statistical research, although to be fair, in one instance she was influenced by a comment her father made. She quotes her father saying that he hit more home runs off Detroit’s Jim Bunning than any other pitcher he faced.
“He had a quirky little loopy slider that I could not figure out,” Ted tells Claudia and John-Henry during a road trip from California to Oregon, parts of which John-Henry taped.
“John-Henry added a side comment on the tape, ‘Research Jim Bunning,’” Claudia writes.
Baseball-reference.com was not around during the 1990s. But according to that site, Williams hit eight homers in 76 plate appearances off Bunning from 1955 to 1956 (one every 9.5 plate appearances). But he hit nine off fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller in nearly twice as many plate appearances (150). He also hit .377 off Bunning (23-for-61).
Claudia also writes that her father struck out more times against Bunning than any other hurler. In fact, Williams struck out a mere seven times against Bunning; Mike Garcia and Billy Pierce fanned the Splendid Splinter 14 times each.
Williams certainly was right about striking out three times against Bunning on May 16, 1957, but Claudia adds that “when he next faced Bunning in July, he hit two home runs off him.”
Great story. But on June 16, Williams went 1-for-4 against Bunning, who once again tamed the Red Sox 2-1. On July 12, he hit homers in the first and third inning off Bunning in a 5-3 loss (I don’t think retrosheet.org was around in the 1990s, either, but they are here now).
Claudia clearly worshipped her brother, sharing many fond memories from their youth. John-Henry, who died in 2004, always has been painted as the villain in the cryonics controversy that followed Williams’ death in July 2002. She asserts that it was a private matter that should have not been publicized and puts a lot of the blame on Bobby-Jo, who battled her siblings in court before her death in 2010.
This portrait of Ted Williams may be biased by the fervent love of a daughter, but it’s clear that Claudia Williams has presented an insider’s look at her father that can never be achieved by other authors. Bradlee came close with his amazing factual detail and research, but Claudia connects with the reader in a different way, providing a more intimate, firsthand look. And that is where this book excels.
“I didn’t try to change him,” she writes. “I just wanted him to accept him and love me.”