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Examine Ted Williams with author Ben Bradlee Jr. at Toadstool Bookshop in Milford this weekend

Thursday, January 30, 2014

By MICHAEL CLEVELAND

Correspondent

MILFORD – Ted Williams might have been the greatest pure hitter in the history of baseball.

But does it matter? Yes, to pure fans, and yes, even to Ben Bradlee Jr., who has written a huge tome about Williams, the long-time left fielder of the Boston Red Sox.

But it wasn’t Williams’ prowess with the bat that hooked Bradlee, a former Boston Globe reporter, on his subject, which he writes about in great detail in “The Kid.”

“What got me into the book was not the baseball,” he said in a telephone interview with The Cabinet last week. “I don’t skimp on the baseball, but the reason I did the book was, I was struck in his death how much interest there is in his life and how many lives he touched.”

When Williams died, Bradlee said, The Globe ran pages of letters about his death “in which grandfathers talked about introducing their sons to Ted Williams and their sons talked about introducing their sons to Williams. He was a glue in the social fabric.”

But he was also a deeply troubled man, apparently, a situation caused at least partly by his upbringing and the little-known fact that Ted Williams, American hero, was a Mexican-American.

“He grew up in Depression-era San Diego the son of a Salvation Army zealot who was out until all hours of the night saving souls, but largely ignored him,” Bradlee said. “He was Mexican-American and covered that fact up, which was fascinating.”

In these days of baseball players seeming to live tabloid lives with little regard for anything but making millions, or so it often appears, Williams would stand out even if he had never hit .406.

“He fought in two wars,” Bradlee said, “which would be unheard of today. He was multi-skilled: He’s in three halls of fame, including fishing and military aviation. He’s endlessly fascinating.”

And today, he probably wouldn’t have to hide his Mexican-American heritage, but when Williams hit the Big Leagues before World War II, it was a different world.

“He was worried that the prejudice of the day would hurt his baseball career,” Bradlee said.

That was one of the fascinating things the author learned about his subject, but there was also, Bradlee said, “the depth of his anger and why that existed and how he struggled with it and how he used it to his advantage on the baseball field, but how it hurt him in his personal life.

“The depth of all that surprised me.”

Bradlee will discuss Williams and his book at the Toadstool Bookshop in Lorden Plaza on Saturday, Feb. 1, from 2-4 p.m.

He calls his book “a warts-and-all biography,” but said he developed, in his research, a liking for Williams.

“He was a very complicated guy and an angry guy, but he also had a good heart,” Bradlee said, and his book is “ultimately sympathetic because I concluded he was a kind and decent guy who had the same struggles we all do.”

The difference being, of course, was that he could hit a baseball the way few others could.

He’s hoping that the folks who come to Toadstool will ask a lot of questions and he expects that because of the feeling Williams still evokes.

“He’s endlessly fascinating,” Bradlee said. “He’s an important figure in American life, a national icon.”

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