Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Facing Ted Williams (2013)

Edited by Dave Heller

Some years ago, a book was written about what it was like to fight Muhammad Ali. An author tracked down some of his opponents over the years, and they talked about going into the ring against "The Greatest." That was followed by a book on fighting Mike Tyson, and one on hitting Roger Clemens (which, as I recall, was released shortly before the PED stories) came out.

It's a good concept, and it seems logical to hear about other all-time greats in this fashion. Thus, "Facing Ted Williams" was born. The problem was that the idea came along about 10 to 15 years too late, which will be explained in a minute.

Credit Dave Heller for doing plenty of homework here. He pulled together a list of how Williams did against every pitcher during a long career with the Red Sox, and then went about the business of tracking them down. He also talked to a few others who played other positions.

Each interview subject gets a heading with the times he was in the majors and career statistics. The pitchers get a breakdown of how they fared against Williams, complete with an at-bat by at-bat listing when available. For example, Williams was 4 for 8 lifetime against Dick Hall, who you might remember from some great Orioles teams in the Sixties, with a double, homer and five RBIs.

The biggest problem here is one of mortality. Williams finished his career in 1960, which is 53 years ago. Even the rookies in that year are in the their 70's and the veterans would be past 85. Sadly, there aren't many left, and some of them must be tough to find. If you go back a few years into the early-1950's, there are even fewer available candidates.

Even more to the point, the late 1950's and 1960 seasons weren't particularly good ones for the Red Sox. Most of Williams' important moments, the ones you'd like to read about even today, came in the 1940's. Therefore, we read first-hand stories about the end of a legendary career instead of its peak. There are a couple of accounts of his last game, in which he hit a home run in his last at-bat. 

The interviews have their ups and downs depending on the source. Virgil Trucks pitched in the 1940's and 1950's, and has seven pages of stories to tell. It's good stuff. Then there's Phil Regan, who needs two paragraphs to talk about walking him in 1960 in their only meeting. Everyone falls in between, obviously, but the brief ones outnumber the longwinded versions. The other positions' tales begin on page 185 of a 300-page book. Heller did find some players who had relationships with Williams that extended into retirement, who add some insight.

The editor also makes the slightly curious decision of including question-and-answer sessions with players who gave one-sentence (or so) answers to questions under sections called "Interviews." They really don't add much to the discussion.

Without stories to tell, most of the players go back to similar themes. Williams talked to practically everyone in a baseball uniform, friend or foe, about the game and had a fabulous memory. Activity used to stop when Williams went into the cage for some batting practice before games. And many people are convinced that if Williams didn't swing, few umpires would call a pitch a strike.

One interesting part of the book is that Heller has so much information at his fingertips. Therefore, when a pitcher talks about how nervous he was when he came into pitch as a rookie and the first batter was Williams, there's often a footnote - explaining that Williams was actually the third man up. Or someone says he pitched to Williams before a sold-out Comiskey Park, when the actual attendance was 19,121. Memories does play tricks after 60-plus years.

"Facing Ted Williams" does feature a good foreword by Wade Boggs and afterword by announcer Bob Wolff. The longer interviews do a good job of bringing Williams' vibrant personality back to life. There's just not enough of them to carry a book, which can be read in a day rather easily. Note to authors: don't wait 30 more years to do a book on Michael Jordan like this; get to work on it soon.

Two stars

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