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Jewish World Review July 15, 2002 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

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'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived' | He corrected me before I could even finish my sentence.

"John Wayne sounded like me," Ted Williams said.

There wasn't exactly mirth in his voice. He had agreed to speak with me a little over two years ago; I wanted to write about him for Life magazine, and although he was never much of a talker, he had said yes. As our conversation began, I was struck by how closely his voice resembled that of John Wayne, and I started to tell him so, which is when he set me straight.

Ted Williams was the original. He didn't sound like - or look like, or act like - anyone else.

He had been ill - he had suffered a series of strokes, the beginning of a long series of physical ailments that would lead to his death at age 83 - and one of the effects of what he was going through was that his vision was severely impaired. Ted Williams - with one of the greatest pairs of eyes in baseball history - could no longer see clearly.

"There are no shadows at night," he told me.

He was recalling the difference between being at bat during day games, and under the lights. He was explaining that he preferred to face a pitcher after dark - no shadows then.

"The only time I could savor an evening is if I had done something well," Williams said. "My most disappointing things all my life were always related to baseball. I didn't feel good because I did something successfully - I felt bad if I failed to do something that I was expected to do."

Most of his career he had seemed to thrive mainly on conflict and anger. Yet toward the end of his life - hobbled from a broken hip, helped to the mound at a baseball All-Star Game or World Series by friends - he appeared so vulnerable that the sight of him brought tears to strangers. He said that was fine with him: "I can't believe how well people have treated me, how nicely."

The famous quote attributed to him as a young ballplayer - "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street, people will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived'" - came true. He got his wish - he heard people say those words.

"I would slide down in my seat a little bit when I heard someone say that," he told me.


"Because I wanted people to believe it, but I didn't believe it myself. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, they were so good. When I would be at a dinner and someone would say that I was the best, I would want to hide out of sight and sink into the floor."

I asked him when he first knew he was special.

"I might have started to think that the year I hit .400," he said.

But that was 1941, his third year in the majors. He must have known he was special when he was a child, or a teenager.

"No, no, no," he told me. "I was scared. I was always afraid I might fail. I was pictured as being so cocky - I might have been cocky to some people, but not in my heart. All the time, I was just hoping to make whatever league I was in."

He said that at the end of every baseball season, "I would be so tired. . . . Coming down with a cold, and worn out. I got worn out."

Yet still, in his 80s, he told me, when he would meet new people he would introduce himself: "I'm Ted Williams, of the Boston Red Sox."

If he could change one thing in his life, he told me, it would be this:

"I wish to Jesus Christ I could run like a deer."

I thought he was referring to the present - saying that, infirm, he would like to be able to stand up and run with the grace of a youngster.

But he was talking about back then - when he was a player.

"I would run to first, and there would be that boom-boom. . . ."

The ball hitting the first baseman's glove - then his foot hitting the bag, just too late. He's out.

"If I could have run a little faster . . . how many at bats did I have?" he asked me. "Seven thousand?"

Seven thousand seven hundred and six, I said. With 2,654 hits.

"If I could have run just a little faster, I bet you I could have had 50 more hits," he said.

"Maybe a hundred."

He told me that he was made happy, in his 80s, by five clocks in his house. They all had chimes that sounded like birds singing: "They all sing different songs, on the hour.

"At 10 a.m., I might hear eight or 10 birds sing at the same time. I've learned to love to hear those clocks sing. The beautiful songs. . . ."

Sometimes, he said, he would awaken alone during the night and realize it had been hours since he had heard the clocks singing to him.

"I've gotten so that I miss them when I don't hear them," he said.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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