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Tuesday, July 16, 2002
Updated: July 22, 12:06 PM ET
One Splendid day

By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist

There are not many icons among us these days, for we get better at icon-smashing all the time. And there are not many days when we mortals get to spend time with our icons, most especially what turn out to be perfect days with icons.

Ted Williams
Ted Williams always believed that a good hitter needed to swing slightly upward.
But 14 years ago, when I was working on a book about the 1949 pennant race involving the Yankees and Red Sox, I spent 12 hours with Ted Williams, who was an icon to me (and millions of other American males of my generation and to generations even younger). It was as close to a perfect day as I have ever had professionally.

The word "charismatic" is used much too casually these days, applied all too often to movie stars who happen to look good in front of a camera, and rock stars, and a few politicians with better looks than most of their contemporaries, and even athletes who excel at critical moments more often than their contemporaries. But real charisma is something different, and very few had it. Ted Williams did.

It was the sum of many things. Some of it was that he had been one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- hitter of his era. Some of it was the fact he had served in two wars and given up a large segment of a brilliant career in order to do so, and had served uncomplainingly. Some of it was his astonishingly good looks -- he was one of the best-looking American men of his era, and he had the kind of rare good looks that improved with age. He was leathery, rough and, above all, authentic.

And no small part of it was that he was always his own man, and never bent to fashion, and went his own way even when that cost him in terms of immediate popularity. He was the man who had been living the real life that John Wayne had been playing all those years in the movies. He did things when he was young and when he was old alike, on his terms, according to his codes.

He had been judged in the popular culture of his time (in no small part, because of a particularly vicious Boston press), as being sullen and ungrateful, (even briefly, it should be noted, back in 1942, a draft dodger). He had been raw meat for a number of Boston papers which were dying and which needed to exploit his raw nerves in order to hype circulation. Years later, he had mellowed and those judging him had changed. What stood out then was his love of the game and those who played it well -- an unwavering absolutely true purists' love for the game and the people who played it the right way.

Ted Williams
Williams' career as a war hero only added to his legend.
That, as much as anything else, added to the charisma -- that he had stayed true to himself, and had been misjudged all those years. In the end, it was us -- not him -- who had changed.

There is a quote from Emerson which Bobby Kennedy was fond of and it is worth applying here to Williams: "If one good man plants himself upon his convictions, the whole world will come round." That seemed to fit Ted Williams handsomely. In his 60s and 70s, it was the world which had come round to him. A younger generation of reporters which had not been caught up in the sturm and drang of another era, accepted him on his terms, (which was what an earlier generation probably should have done) and had the good sense to listen to him, for he had a lot of say and was highly intelligent. They finally sensed somehow that whatever else, Ted Williams was an American original, and we would not see, given the changes in our society, his like again.

If he had begun to mellow, he still remained skeptical of the media, or as he liked to call writers, "knights of the keyboard." If good things had happened, then his memory was still long. But my intermediary for that interview was Bobby Knight, who having had his own problems with the media, was the perfect ambassador for me.

In time, logistical arrangements were made for the interview, copies of my earlier books were sent to Williams (he read them, by the way, and particularly liked a book called "The Powers That Be," which was a study on the rise of modern media).

The night before I went to see him, I had gone to a dinner party among the powerful in New York -- nothing but Wall Street and media heavies where the usual degree of one-upmanship was in play. I had bided my time in terms of ego games, but then had announced late in the evening, near coffee, that I was going to interview Ted Williams the next day. For a wonderful half-hour, I owned the room, and I could easily have auctioned off the job as my assistant to all sorts of Wall Street tycoons who were quite willing to come along for the occasion.

Days like this, with men who loom so large from your childhood, are not always that wonderful; we are prone to disappointment. That someone was a wonderful baseball, football or basketball player when you were a boy does not meant he is necessarily a wonderful interview 46 years later. But this was different.

Ted Williams
Williams had a love for the game and those who played it well -- like Babe Ruth.
I was told to be ready in my motel room at 8 a.m. (at least I remember it as 8 a.m.,) and at 8 a.m., there was a ferocious knock on my door, and I went to open it, and the legend himself -- tanned, fit, stunningly handsome -- looked at me, and said, in a loud voice, "Well, you look just like your goddamn picture. Let's go!"

And off we went; we did 12 hours together, and when we parted, we were pals, and if we saw each other in the future at other baseball events, he always went out of his way to be generous.

What I remember most from the day was the animal force of him, the enthusiasm, and the curiosity, and, above all, the zest for life. He wanted to talk, and talk we did, for 12 hours. Talking to him meant arguing as well, which he loved to do. He was born both to hit and to argue, and so we talked about baseball (where he argued not with me -- who was I to argue with Ted Williams about hitting? -- but in absentia with his close friend, longtime teammate, that goddamn Bobby Doerr, as he always referred to him.

Bobby Doerr was 3,000 miles away in Oregon and almost surely fishing at the moment of our debate. But Doerr had, it seemed, one fatal character flaw (in spite of being one of nature's true noblemen) of believing that a great hitter should have a level swing, when Ted knew, by God, that a great hitter had to swing slightly up.

We had also talked about Vietnam where I had spent nearly two years, and we argued a bit about that, because in general we disagreed politically. We talked about Salvador, a subject on which we also disagreed, though he did not see me as being a lesser for my dissent, in no small part, I think because I had actually been to Vietnam, which legitimized me partially in his eyes, and also because I had managed to tick off the government of the United States, which I think greatly amused him.

Ted, it should be noted, had an opinion on everything. Talking and arguing was like life itself. Arguing came readily to him, and he did it fearlessly and without hesitation, never doubting that he was right on all subjects. He might have been a .344 lifetime hitter, but in his own mind he was a 1.000 arguer, because he had never lost an argument. His winning streak in arguments was even longer than the DiMaggio hitting streak.

Life after baseball had been good to him, in no small part because of his life as a fisherman. Unlike a lot of other driven and obsessed men who had excelled in sports but who had never known what to do with their passions when they retired, Williams had always had his great love of fishing, as well as his uncommon skills. Once again, he had been among the best, if not the very best. He had, in effect, replaced his old teammates on the Red Sox with a new set of teammates, the Islamorada bone fishing guides, rough, unvarnished men, much like himself, and he liked their company because he knew his acceptance by them came not from his old deeds at Fenway, but how well he handled himself on the flats.

The world had, as Emerson suggested, come round to him. If he was good, as he always had been in the company of men, then he was not nearly as good at being domesticated, and he was probably imperfect as both a father and husband. But those were roles, unlike fishing and hitting, where he was never able to master the mechanics.

But he was what he was, naturally and without affectation, and he could not be otherwise. He was uncommonly generous as well, to friends, to those who were ill, and to former teammates who were perilously close to being destitute and whom he quietly helped out, but made sure that no one outside knew what he was doing. My date with him had been as close to perfect as you can get: the interview had been very, very good, he had taken me out to dinner, and he had even worked on my swing (I'm a left-hander, too, and almost as tall as he was).

And when I got back to Nantucket that summer, I tried to swing slightly up on the ball in the softball games I played in, but sadly, I think he got to me as a coach a little too late in my career.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes occasionally for Page 2.