There’s a great clip in “Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” where Bob Costas is talking with the Splendid Splinter. In between hitting .406 in 1941 and winning multiple MVPs and Triple Crowns, the Red Sox superstar served as a Marine fighter pilot in both World War II and the Korean War.
“The first time I interviewed Ted Williams, I said you really are the guy John Wayne played in all those movies. You are John Wayne,” Costas says in the documentary. “And he goes, ‘Yeah, I know it.’”
That segment is just one of several great clips that will be in tonight’s documentary (9 p.m. ET). It’s part of PBS’s magnificent new “American Masters” series, and emphasizes the enduring enigma that is the late Williams. On the surface, the two-time American League MVP and Triple Crown winner was the quintessential American hero: rugged, fearless, focused.
Williams was a genuine war hero, wrestling his flaming, shot-up fighter plane to a crash-landing during one of his 39 combat missions over Korea (He served as wingman to future NASA hero John Glenn).
He had many nicknames – The Kid, The Splendid Splinter and Teddy Ballgame, but the only nickname that he wanted was “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” pic.twitter.com/7tgQ5is54A
— American Masters (@PBSAmerMasters) July 23, 2018
The career .344 hitter’s batting theories were generations ahead of their time. He used lighter bats to increase swing speed. He advocated hitting the ball on an upwards angle. Today’s power-hitting MLB stars like Aaron Judge owe a debt to Williams.
Reds slugger Joey Votto ranks him and Babe Ruth as 1 and 1A. Former Red Sox star Wade Boggs flatly calls Williams the greatest hitter ever. “Not even an argument,” Boggs says.
On the other hand, Williams was often prideful, petty and selfish. He was a poor husband and father, off on a fishing trip when his daughter was born. He was permanently embittered about losing nearly five seasons in the prime of his career to military service (even reaching out to a young Boston politician named John F. Kennedy for help).
The 19-time All-Star feuded with a Boston baseball press that alternately loved and loathed him. The Beantown media returned the favor, with one sportswriter denying him an MVP award by refusing to put his name on an MVP ballot.
Williams was a stubborn spoilsport who famously refused to tip his cap to the Fenway Park faithful who adored him at a time when Boston was not exactly Titletown USA. It’s all explored in tonight’s documentary, ably narrated by actor Jon Hamm (Fellow Red Sox legend David “Big Papi” Ortiz served as one of the producers).
The documentary tells the story of Williams’ lonely, latchkey childhood in San Diego. His poor parents mostly neglected him until the time came to cash in on his signing bonus. They never watched him play a MLB game.
We learn of Williams’ secret shame about his Mexican-American heritage, something most TV viewers are probably unaware of. The petulant Williams actually had a joyous first season in Boston, embracing the fans and media. But when Boston beat writers blasted him for a sophomore slump, he developed a seething grudge for the press, something he maintained until his death at age 83 in 2002.
Of course, there’s plenty of discussion on Williams being the last MLB batter to average .400 for a season. Williams could have sat out the final double-header of the 1941 season and still secured his historic .400 average. But he went out and played — and went 6 for 8 at the plate.
“He wanted to earn it,” notes the great announcer Dick Enberg. “He wasn’t going to let some statistician round off to make it 400.”
No matter how you slice it, that took guts. How can you not love the irascible Williams for that?
Injured before the 1946 World Series, Williams only hit .200 in the Fall Classic and took the blame for the loss. His inability to win the big one — or get to more than one World Series vs. rival Joe DiMaggio’s dynastic Yankees — haunted him.
In 1971 Ted Williams wrote the manual to becoming a good hitter, to this day it’s still referred to as the “Batting Bible.” #AmericanMastersPBS pic.twitter.com/rFeAEpZ1Mt
— American Masters (@PBSAmerMasters) July 21, 2018
Then there was Williams’ legendary swing, often compared to a work of art. Smooth yet ferocious, the tall, slender Williams uncoiled on pitches like an anaconda.
The “atmospherics” in Fenway changed when Williams stalked to home plate, notes the doc. Urban legends grew about his batting eye. He was said to be able to see the stitches on a spinning baseball. When the Navy tested his eyesight, it was 20-15.
Watching sports heroes age from youthful phenom to fading star is how many American kids learn about mortality, notes the doc.
Williams was a perfect example: a macho, flawed-but-genuine hero. One of his best moment came at his Hall of Fame ceremony when he said African-American baseball legends such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige should be included. They were.
The reviews for this documentary have been off the charts, noted SportsBusiness Daily.
It’s must-see, much like Williams himself was.