40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2004
What Richard Cramer did for a biography on Joe DiMaggio, Leigh Montville has done for a biography on Ted Williams. The book is nearly 500 pages long, and I remained riveted to it until I finished it in a few days. All facets of Ted's personality, warts and all, are included in providing us with information on Ted's dysfunctional family, his love of fishing on the Florida Keys and the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, his initial success in managing the Washington Senators, his hair trigger temper that produced a string of profanities, his difficulties with his marriage partners, and his experiences in World War II and the Korean War. In regard to baseball his obsession with hitting led to his goal of being known as the greatest hitter that ever lived. Ted paid the price to reach his goal in studying hitting as no other hitter has ever done before. He enjoyed picking the brain of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby who told Williams the secret in hitting is getting a good ball to hit. By this he meant getting ahead in the count (2-0 or 3-1) so the pitcher was put in a situation where he would throw the pitch you, the batter, would be looking for to hit. The book is full of anecdotes of Williams's teammates and opponents from his playing days. It also includes the controversial freezing of Williams's body by son John Henry and sister Claudia while Williams's first child, Bobby-Jo opposed it. Whether Ted, himself, approved of this is left open to question. To me, an interesting story is told by one of his nurses, Virginia Hiley-Self, a Christian, said that Ted Williams accepted the fact that God forgives and provides eternal life. "He prayed," Hiley-Self says. "He knew that Christ was his savior." I have read other biographies of "Teddy Ballgame", but this effort by Leigh Montville stands above the others. Williams's last few years were marred by poor health, but he lived a full life serving his country in two wars, carving out a Hall of Fame baseball career, and fishing for game fish on the Florida Keys and for salmon on the Miramichi River. His was a life fully lived and Leigh Montville has done a wonderful job in presenting all sides of the personality of Ted Williams. To me, this rates as the top baseball book of the year, and maybe even the top biography of anyone for the year.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2008
Leigh Montville's biography of Ted Williams is exhaustive in its analysis of one of baseball's greatest hitters. At times childish and self-absorbed, but always focused upon his art, Ted Williams emerges as a troubled genius in this wonderful book. Some of the anecdotes about Williams' intensity evoke a character who loves a few things in life to obsessive delight while ignoring almost everyone and everything else. An absolute master in the science of hitting a baseball, Williams loves his talent and nourishes it in a way that illuminates how beautiful, powerful, and fragile is the human desire to achieve greatness. A must for baseball fans.
Donald Gallinger is the author ofThe Master Planets
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
There's no part of Leigh Montville's biography of Ted Williams that is not excellent. In a baseball literature field typically dominated by vapid autobiographies (speaking of which, I just finished Don Zimmer's second book), few third-person bios merit repeat readings. In the last 30 years, books about Babe Ruth, Mo Berg and Sandy Koufax probably own the top of the field. Of course, each of those books used wildly differing approaches. Robert Creamer took an almost mythical approach to The Babe ("The Legend Comes To Life"), and hurries through his final, post-baseball years in literally a dozen pages. Nicholas Dawidoff's take on Moe Berg, on the other hand, uses baseball almost as prelude to the heart of the book, Berg's bizarre late-life wanderings.
The strength of Montville's meticulously written book is that any random chapter is equally fascinating, whether it's about baseball, World War II or Korea, Williams' active role as a Sears spokesman and board member, his fishing life, or his prolonged demise. The baseball chapters are refreshingly free of prolonged statistical parsing. The accuracy of many anecdotes is left up to the reader; the book, as fits a popular biography, is not footnoted, and it seems as if Montville relies heavily on probably embellished stories from Williams' acquaintances and their children. This provides the same mythical air as in Creamer's book (and the Babe himself makes a ghostly cameo here as well).
For my money, though, the creepiest, and therefore most memorable, part of the book is the final three chapters, covering Williams' troubled final eight years. This equals the closing chapters of the Mo Berg book. Montville, whose writing occasionally verged on the florid or melodramatic, has a clear intent here -- in an almost literary device, he introduces John-Henry Williams to the story by way of voiceover. John-Henry did not provide an interview for the book, and was dead by the time it hit the stores. His lone representation comes from his lawyers, who spend more time assailing his betrayed half-sister Bobbie-Jo Ferrell than in justifying (or even explaining) his unusual actions. Therefore, you can't walk away from this book with any ounce of sympathy for John-Henry. I tried to feel sorry for him at the end, truth be told. Almost did, but not quite.
Ted Williams' head in a freezer. There's more to the story than just that -- Montville spends most of three chapters covering the extended decline and fall of John-Henry's media empire, and sometimes seems to go out of his way to find people to declare John-Henry a creep even based on limited interaction from two decades ago. However, Montville allows another creepy, ghoulish episode -- one of Ted's nurses declaring that she delivered him to Jesus and saved his soul, even while Ted was near to death and, based on other evidence in the book, long past his final moments of lucidity -- without the critical comment it so richly deserved. John-Henry was not the only one trying to write himself into the Williams legacy.
While the last three chapters are dark, "Death of a Salesman" dark, the epilogue, a selection of Williams anecdotes, will definitely bring a smile. Now out on the market is a book and audio CD from John Underwood, who co-wrote Williams' own books. That becomes a must-own item, but Montville himself writes so clearly that you can practically hear Williams' booming laugh rising from the page.
An astonishing read.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Ted Williams was the greatest hitters in baseball history. But there is so much more to him than baseball. Leigh Montville's biography is comendable on many levels, though far from perfect. Four and a half stars would be more adequate rating than I gave the book. Still the book is worth the price.
The books starts out jumping all over the place, making the story hard to follow. But once it begins the chronological story of his life, the book is well written. Montville plainly writes of the childhood neglect that influenced Williams life. The absence of his parents is largely the reason he behaved so immaturely early in his career. He was not used to living with rules, so the structure of professional baseball was an adjustment that caused a talented player to spend an extra year in the minors. Ted's only focus was baseball during his youth and career. He always picked people's brains, learning from anywhere he could about hitting. His dedication made people take notice. It is also how he developed his philosophy of hitting. Winning triple crowns and hitting .400 were among his great achievements. He would have hit .400 more than once if batting average were figured as it is today with sacrifices and walks not hurting the average. John Wayne was an actor, but Ted Williams lived the role. He served his country during World War II and the Korean War. Had Williams not sacrificed those years for his country, we would surpassed Ruth's home run record and no doubt other records as well. Yet he is still recognized as the greatest hitter in baseball history.
During his career the media gave the public the impression that Williams was a bad apple. But during his late career and in retirement, the public saw otherwise. Williams did have a foul mouth. His works of charity tell where his heart was. Knowing the good human being he was, it is unfortunate to read how his final years were spend. The way his son manipulated him is beyond shameful.
Despite the somber note most biographies end with, Montville had a different approach. He ended the book with an epilogue that is a collection of humorous antidotes with Williams as the star. It is wonderful that the book did not end on the same note as Ted's life.
20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2004
This is a magnificent book.
It is difficult to delineate why this book is so special. Perhaps the book succeeds based on the fact that Ted Williams was a much larger than life person, with great achievements, extraordinary character, heroic courage, and tragic flaws. Or, the book could be so wonderful because of the writing talents of Leigh Montville. Either way, this book is appealing to a wide range of readers: Red Sox fans, baseball followers, or even those who have a general interest in the history of 20th century America.
As a sports book, this is a gem. And as a biography, it is exceptional.
Although not as well known as a David Halberstam or David Remnick, I feel confident in saying that Leigh Montville is as great a writer and biographer. Among those who have followed his work for decades with the Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated, Montville is known as the sportswriter's writer. When you want to see a very unusual feature story, or a conventional story with a unique point of view, Montville is the writer to read. This is a "sports" book which could well qualify for all of the biography book awards this year.
You will not regret putting this book at the top of your reading list. Wonderful work! TEN stars!
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2006
Leigh Montville's biography presented quite the conundrum for this reader. Quite extensive (weighing in at just over 500 pages) the book is crammed full of wonderful anectdotes that give a great look at both the positive and negative aspects of Ted Williams the man and player. It also contains more information on his post-baseball life than most biographies do. What bothered me about the book though was the numerous mistakes in key dates from Williams' life. Montville's book lists the wrong month for Williams' birth, the wrong date for his first homer, his first 2-homer game, opening day 1942, and even the wrong date for his wedding to Doris Soule (just to name a few). If you are only looking for a book that brings you a closer look at Ted Williams personality, then this is the book for you, but, if you are a stickler for details, then perhaps stick with the earlier biographies by Ed Linn and Michael Seidel which do not suffer from so very many errors.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2004
Throughout his 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox, Ted Williams was perpetually in quest of the perfect batting stroke. Wherever he went, Williams would be swinging a bat. Or a cardboard tube. Or a hotel pillow. Or a rolled-up magazine.
In his mind, he could see the ball approaching from 60 feet, 6 inches, spinning and cutting and whirling toward home plate until -- thwack! -- Williams swung away. His friends understood. That was just Ted. Crazy Teddy.
The thing is, Williams was chasing the impossible dream of a 1.000 batting average. Though he expected to drive the ball every time he dug into the batter's box, the best he could do was hit .406 in 1941. No man has batted above .400 since.
Much like Williams' successful pursuit to become known as the best hitter who ever lived, there has long been an effort to write the definitive Williams biography. Throughout the years, no fewer than 10 authors have taken cracks at Williams' life. The best -- Ed Linn's "Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams" -- is fantastic. Others -- Michael Seidel's "Ted Williams: A Baseball Life" and "I Remember Ted Williams" by David Cataneo -- come up short for one reason or another.
In "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero," Leigh Montville reaches a threshold even the mighty Williams could never touch: perfection. If his book is not the best baseball biography ever written, that's only because there are a handful (Jane Leavy's "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy" and Richard Ben Cramer's "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life" come to mind) at an equally outstanding level.
Montville interviewed more than 400 people for the project, and it shows. "Ted Williams" leaves absolutely no stone of its subject's life unturned, from his boyhood in a modest San Diego neighborhood to his final hours at a hospital in Inverness, Fla., three years ago. The beauty of Montville's work is that it is not a baseball book, per se, so much as the life and times of -- like DiMaggio, Williams' greatest rival throughout the 1940s -- an oft-perplexing, always fascinating man.
We are presented a Williams who is as loud and obnoxious as Babe Ruth at his inebriated best, who strings together four-letter words with impressive indecency and wages a career- long battle with the Boston media that borders on militant. Williams could be biting and irrational and childish, as well as unforgivably selfish. How else to describe a person who intentionally missed the births of his three children to go fishing?
Yet Montville makes it impossible to hate Williams. There is a genuine decency to the man, and it has little to do with his work as a U.S. Marine pilot during World War II and Korea (Williams, Montville tells us, did everything he could not to fight) or his three-year tenure as a cuddly major league manager. No, what brings the likeability to light are the little things. Williams, who refused ever to wear a tie, once ordered lunch at a stuffy country club dining room -- tie required. Writes Montville: "He tucked his napkin into his V-necked T-shirt. ... The soup arrived. He picked up the bowl and started drinking. The excess soup rolled down the napkin, across the front of the T-shirt. He finished the bowl, walked out and never returned."
When he wasn't barking at pitchers or slurping soup, Williams could often be found at hospitals, visiting children's wards for hours on end. Unlike DiMaggio, whose good deeds were always accompanied by a price tag, Williams never refused the chance to sit bedside and chat with a dying kid.
In painful detail, Montville recalls a time when a young boy grabbed Williams' finger and wouldn't let go. Instead of pulling away, the legendary hitter stayed the night. It is impossible not to recall this goodness late in the book, when we learn that Williams' money-obsessed son, John-Henry, is having his dad's body preserved in a cryonics factory, the hope being that one day people will purchase his DNA for cloning. How, Montville asks the reader, can such a grim fate await such a great man?
The book is something of a career homecoming for Montville, who grew up near Boston worshiping "Teddy Ballgame" and vividly recalls receiving an autographed postcard from Williams in the mail. In Beantown, Montville is considered one of the great all-time newspaper columnists for his 21 years at the Boston Globe. He was, however, an odd fit at Sports Illustrated in the late 1990s, when the magazine's stories got shorter and shorter and there was less of an emphasis on athletic nostalgia.
Since leaving SI in 2001, Montville has turned exclusively to authoring books. The move was a good one. He is a writer who likes to stretch out a paragraph with longer than usual quotes and vividly painted portraits. In the world of chop-chop print journalism, such attributes (sadly) don't seem to have a place anymore. But here, on the pages of "Ted Williams," Montville is at his very best. It's a good thing. The legacy of Ted Williams deserves nothing less.
Jeff Pearlman is the author of "The Bad Guys Won!" a biography of the 1986 New York Mets.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
When I sat down and asked myself what I most remembered from this biography, my very first recollection involved a lizard and a spider. To put this in perspective, the lizard was consuming the spider in the Washington Senators' dugout during a Florida spring training game. Manager Ted Williams, fascinated by this, commanded all the players on the bench to join him in watching this little drama of nature unfold. The Senator then batting, Mike Epstein, struck out and was berated by Williams--not for striking out, but for scaring away the lizard when he returned to the dugout.
Although the comparisons between Williams and Joe DiMaggio have been beaten into the ground, it is hard to find another player like Williams in the history of the game. Throughout this work I found myself comparing Williams to Mickey Mantle. They have much in common, the greatest similarity being the "what if?" factor. What if Mantle had not injured his knees? What if Williams had not missed so many prime years in the service? What if both men had devoted themselves to becoming well-rounded players?
The baseball player Williams comes across here as somewhat one-dimensional. His batting feats are well known, of course. But he was not particularly fast, and his outfield play was a subject of some concern. He was switched from center field to left field early in his career to make room for the far superior fielder Dom DiMaggio. He was a moody player who on occasion did not run out grounders or chase batted balls aggressively. He would never be confused with a Joe Morgan or a Derek Jeter, men who mastered every aspect of their game and understand the playing field as a giant chessboard.
But in fairness to Williams, he played for an organization that was somewhat unfocused itself. Montville portrays the Boston Red Sox as something of a family operation, an easy going boozy ownership and management that lacked the crisp, businesslike demeanor of their greatest rivals, the New York Yankees. Montville contends that when Williams joined the Sox in the late 1930's, the organization exploited him at a time when he could have used a Tony LaRussa or a Joe Torre to explain the reality of life to this young star. Instead, the Red Sox manipulated its lineup and the park dimensions themselves to milk more Williams home runs from his mighty bat. Expectations were set by the hard boiled Boston press and ultimately the fans, putting Williams in a no win situation. Even his 1941 phenomenal .406 season never warmed public sentiment. After World War II, when the Red Sox roster included Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky, among others, the Sox were perennial bridesmaids to the Yankees [or occasionally to the Indians], a highly talented team without the killer instinct. When Williams returned to the team after the Korean War, the veterans were gone and for his last seasons Williams played alongside bonus babies who never developed star potential.
Born in San Diego to a guitar-strumming mother on perpetual evangelical crusades, Williams never received appropriate adult focus and structure as he grew up. A creature of impulse, he developed into a demanding young man who liked his gratifications promptly and his will unobstructed. He was capable of prolonged grudges against individuals and organizations. His three marriages were by all accounts unmitigated disasters, and it is fair to say that Williams' cruelties toward his wives was repaid in kind by their offspring in his twilight years. His cursing was as remarkable as his hitting; the blasphemous edge to it shocked even veteran players.
This is not to say that Williams was a scoundrel. He was highly patriotic and served his country twice with distinction. He had many friends among the players. His charity work for the Jimmy Fund and lesser known causes went far beyond the call of the average player. Aside from philandering, his recreations were generally healthy, his greatest passion being his fishing. While he was not a tree hugger, by any stretch, he was deeply disturbed by the commercialization of the Florida Keys [though one suspects his concerns were more about the disruption of good fishing than, say, global warming.]. Montville reports that Williams did have a successful long term relationship with one lover that endured through several marriages.
While the quality of this work is consistent from cover to cover, the treatment of Williams' old age merits special attention. Williams had fathered three children, two of whom seemed contented to ride their father's gravy train. But the third, his only son John Henry Williams, demonstrated a peculiar talent for cashing in on his father's name and bringing disgrace to the Williams legacy. A rather unfocused young man in his early years, John Henry turned his attention to the marketing of his father's signatures. The senior Williams suffered from several strokes and was growing increasingly blind and dependent upon those around him. John Henry Williams made him a virtual prisoner of his own home, isolated him from his old friends like Pesky and Dom DiMaggio, and installed video surveillance throughout the residence to make sure that no autographs were spirited away for old friends or acquaintances. It is a sad ending for the Hall of Famer, reduced to the level of the absurd by John Henry's cryogenic nightmare of freezing his father after death.
It is through this final portion of the book that one feels some sympathy for Williams, though the reader will also be forced to face the realization that the apples do not fall far from the tree. Williams was indeed a great hitter, but like "Casey at the Bat" he brought little joy to Mudville in the process.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
I picked up this book shortly after the Red Sox improbable comeback against the Yankees and their World Series victory more our of curiosity than any great love of Ted Williams. After all, Williams played before I was born. What I had read before of him was interesting and being a fan of baseball I realized that there are few people who rank higher in baseball lore.
This biography changed many of my opinions. It takes an exceptional writer to captivate the interest of a reader when the reader is somewhat ambivalent about the subject. After the reading the book, I can now say that I'm better informed about Williams (Both good and bad), understand the basis for his legend as a hitter, and am interested in reading more about him from other sources.
The bottom line is that I would recommend this book along with Montville's biography of Dale Earnhardt as well. Montville makes dull subjects interesting and interesting subjects fascinating.
My only quibble with the book is that he fails to mention a Sports Illustrated Article in the mid 1980's that Peter Gammons wrote about a meeting that Williams had with Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly. The article was a recounting of a night when the three great hitters talked about the science of hitting. I was only 12 or 13 years when I read that article, but it always stuck with me because at one point Williams claimed that on rare occaisons when you hit the ball perfectly, you can actually smell a burning or smoke smell from the bat. Until I read this book, it was the best thing I ever read about Ted Williams but Montville, a former Sports Illustrated writer never refers to it in the book.
Nevertheless, it's a great baseball book that makes great reading.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Sports biographies are usually the weakest version of that otherwise interesting genre, the celebrity biography. The weakness can usually be found in three areas. The subject didn't do much more than play a sport well. The biographee is a thoroughly loathsome person. The author didn't do his or her homework to talk about much other than sports. Even when all of those weaknesses are overcome, the book can still disappoint because the author is really just another sportswriter with starts in her or his eyes.
Ted Williams -- The Biography of an American Hero has none of those problems. As a result, I cannot recall a biography about a sports star that is nearly as good as this one.
But what can you say that is new about Ted Williams? It turns out that there's quite a lot that can be said because Mr. Montville went to the trouble to unearth much material that was previously unpublished. I could tell that I was in for a treat when the section on Mr. Williams's youth in San Diego included a detailed description of his family home based on a recent tour by the author. It also turns out that what people had to say about Mr. Williams was often so tough and painful that the material was suppressed until after he died . . . lest a lot of hard feelings follow. So you have pages and pages of things you've never read or heard about Ted Williams.
Mr. Montville also takes us into the room with Mr. Williams . . . both when he was on his good behavior . . . and when he was not. You get a sense of what it was like to be his friend, his teammates . . . or his enemy. Most painfully, you get a sense of what it was like to be in his family -- something you probably wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
Most biographers have some big theory about their subject and skew their arguments and examples to make those points. Mr. Montville does you the honor of letting you decide. He sneaks up on you. Suddenly, when you least expect it (as happened at the time), wham you find out something new . . . such as during Mr. Williams's Hall of Fame speech. Mr. Montville then goes on to explain and elaborate on what it meant, including reactions of others. It's a very fine way to present the material. Nice job!
Ultimately, we have a problem understanding the sports successes of those who mostly labored before the days of televised games. There are few objective measures of what they did. Mr. Montville painstakingly tries to sort that out. For example, did you know that there was no sacrifice fly statistic when Mr. Williams batted over .400? If there had been, his performance would have been measured at a much higher number.
The bulk of the book covers the previously hidden side of Mr. Williams's life, which he sought to keep private. That is certainly right, and makes this a great biography.
Like many heroes (his was deserved for his war-time service and his devotion to helping those in need), Mr. Williams had feet of clay. Mr. Montville doesn't try to cover up for that. In fact, he finds a reasonably inoffensive way to remind you of Mr. Williams's appalling language and behavior throughout the book. Mr. Williams had rabbit ears, a hair-trigger temper, and kept grudges. You see how those weaknesses often related to his inherent intelligence and perfectionism which caused him to be too hard on others . . . and himself.
I came away feeling like I understood who Mr. Williams was . . . and why he was that way. That's more than I can say from most biographies I read . . . whether the subject is a sports star or a former president of the United States.
But ultimately, I think I came away feeling that Mr. Williams was blessed in many ways -- not least of which was by who his biographer turned out to be. I have enjoyed Leigh Montville's columns in The Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated for decades, and have always considered him to be a writer first . . . and a sportswriter second. In this book, that gap has widened even further in favor of the writer. I hope he will favor us with many more biographies in the future.
The book includes Mr. Montville's famous SI obituary of Mr. Williams and Mr. Montville's recollections of when he met Mr. Williams in person. I thought the latter was an especially nice touch since it helped put his role as observer in perspective.
"Didja hear about the alligator?"