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Jewish World Review August 2, 2002 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

The theft of something beyond value | There's an especially repulsive kind of crime, one you hear about from time to time, and it takes place in hospitals.

Men and women who are dying -- or men and women who have just died -- are robbed.

Their wedding rings are taken from their fingers; their watches are removed from their wrists. If the jewelry has been placed in the drawer of a nightstand, it is stolen from there. Often the crimes are not discovered right away -- the family members are so tired and distraught as they deal with their loved one's final days, the theft of the jewelry goes unnoticed for a while.

What is terrible about this kind of crime is that it is robbery carried out against the most helpless possible victim -- a victim who is already dead, or soon will be. The thought of someone in the hospital slipping the wedding ring off the hand of a woman who has worn it for 50 years . . . of taking the watch from the wrist of a man who cannot do a thing to stop the theft . . .

It is the robbery of a person's humanity, as well as the robbery of the specific piece of jewelry. That is what is so unforgivable: robbing a person who has no defenses left, robbing that person of his or her last shred of dignity.

I think of this kind of crime when I think about what is happening right now to the late Ted Williams.

Not what is being done to him by his children, who have been fighting over how his body will be disposed. But what is being done to him by us -- by the American public -- and especially by comedians and others with public platforms.

Because of something Ted Williams could have absolutely no control over -- the dispute in his family about his remains -- he has been turned into a joke. A loud national joke. The idea of freezing a man's body evidently strikes some people as hilarious -- especially if the man who has died has a famous name.

Never mind that it is Williams' children who are doing the fighting; never mind that, like the person in the hospital who has his watch unfastened from his wrist, Ted Williams can do nothing to defend himself from this.

This man -- who for his entire life stood for discipline and hard work and the unrelenting pursuit of pure excellence -- is now the object of ridicule. He is probably destined, not just for now, but forever, to bring laughter to strangers when his name is mentioned.

And what has he done to deserve this? After 83 years of living, what did Ted Williams do to make late-night comics and people in bars treat him as if he is this ridiculous, howl-inducing fool?

Nothing. He did nothing. We're stealing from a dead man -- we're stripping him of his valuables, knowing there's not a thing he can do.

Forget his children for a moment; family disputes are family disputes, and although it's none of our business, because Ted Williams was Ted Williams we know about it. But it is not the legacy of his grown children that is being thrown into the mud.

It is his legacy -- a legacy he cared very much about. Say what you will about Williams' life -- he was a complicated, often difficult man in his younger years, and many people didn't like him back then -- but he was never a joke. He wasn't a joke when he was willing himself to become the best hitter in the history of baseball, and he wasn't a joke when he was flying fighter planes as a United States Marine. No one would have ever dared treat him as a joke then. Now that he's dead, though, it's safe to poke at him.

I received a letter from a man who, many years ago, organized a U.S. Marine recognition dinner in Chicago. He asked Ted Williams to come up from Florida for the event. He offered to send a private plane, or a first-class ticket; he offered a car and driver in Chicago, and a hotel suite. Williams said he didn't need any of that. It was for the Marine Corps -- he would make his own arrangements, and he would get himself there. And he did. He showed up right on time, on his own.

What we're doing to Ted Williams right now -- the laughter -- says nothing at all about him. It says everything about us. We're robbing him.

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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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