Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Public reaction to Williams' 'obscenity'

This concludes our presentation of Sport Life magazine's assualt on Ted Williams in its May, 1951, issue. The series began with our June 24 posting and continued on June 26.

We're running in its entirety the article penned by veteran Boston sports (and baseball card) writer Austen Lake.

The article picks up with reaction to a display of what was termed obscene, or at least vulgar, gestures made by Williams to a booing crowd at Fenway Park.

In at least a nod towards journalistic fairness, the author also reported on Williams' generosity, possibly to the chagrin of the editors who assigned the piece.

by Austen Lake
The ball writers, secretly delighted, unboxed their toy-typewriters and pained Ted as a fungus-growth on baseball, a vulgarian who threatened junior morals and a coarse bumpkin whose posterior should be publicly shingled.

A typical editorial was that which one paper headlined in bold type face, "Keep it clean" and went on to scold, "With public gestures as old as obscenity itself, Ted Williams removed himself from the ranks of all decent sportsmen. There were kids in the stand who idealized him as baseball's greatest hero and who imitate his every action.

If your young son was there are came home making obscene gestures, take it out on Ted Williams. If your young daughter was there and arrived home with somewhat timid questions as to what this gesture and that means, don't suspect her of travelling with lewd company. She saw them directed at her by baseball's so-called Great Man."

It created a considerable civic tizzy until Ted delivered a ho-hum apology by proxy. He, himself, said nothing for direct quotes. But the Sox front office issued a bulletin, saying "Ted is sorry. He obeyed a foolish impulse." But Theodore Samuel went his way wearing his contemptuous manner like a pirate flag nailed to the mast of a buccaneer's ship.

Still, on the next appearance of the Red Sox at home, Fenway Park was jammed to the rafters. Ticket scalpers did a boom business along Jersey Street. And the crowd came in a vast, eager horde, not so much to witness the scientific beauties of baseball, as to watch for more Williams antics and act as his judge, jury and attorney.

Thus, as the most controversial figure in baseball crouched in the little lime-marked circle waiting to take his inaugural cut at the ball, he gave no sign of any tumult which may have raged inside his soul. He flicked his bat, toyed with his toys, fidgeted with his cap and waggled his fluid hips in a way to suggest nonchalance.

As he prepared to march the 30 fateful feet to the batter's box, he knew the crowd would either give him a happy, endorsing holler or a loud, condemning hoot. He knew, too, that once the collective verdict was fixed there would be no appeal, no influence and no revision to alter the attitude of future Boston crowds. As THIS crowd did, so would all succeeding throngs--the brief instant which affected his already tumultuous career.

Did the Whizzeroo hesitate or cringe? Did he glance around with a shy appeal for mercy? He did not! He strutted forward with the posture of a springtime robin. His step was jaunty, his chin level. Yet undoubtedly every fibre of his auditory nerves were centered on the sound which began slowly and swelled to a great crescendo--a curiously mixed noise with a heavy, guttural growl that was gradually drowned in a hearty bellow of welcome which bounced back from the green-painted fences.

Even in the midst of its vitriolic attack on
Ted Williams, the magazine's editors
were forced to concede his generosity,
especially with children.

 It was not, by far, an unanimous cheer. But predominantly it was a vote of confidence even though strong minority undertone persisted beneath the applause.

His critical moment was over, temporarily. For with Ted, it's always a question of removing one critical moment to make way for another, later critical moment. You don't know how, when or why the next one is going to happen. But you KNOW it will!

There is a habitual pattern in the crowd's daily attitude toward Ted at Fenway Park, stemming from the mob's love for inciting any hot-headed party who fizzes up like a bottle of soda pop. The fans usually reserve their goads for foreign, or opposition, athletes like Joe Page of the Yankees or Jimmy Dykes of the Athletics. But Ted is so easily agitated that the home-town crowd can't resist touching a match to his emotional fuse.

Thus the patrons remain respectfully silent or give an apathetic patter of applause when Dom DiMaggio's and Johnny Pesky's names are mentioned by the electric trumpets. But when Ted's name is announced the sound is like the autumn wind moaning through an apple orchard. Still, I have heard visiting ball authors liken it to a barnyard cacophony of duck squawks, mule-brays and hen-cackles.

Usually Ted pretends not to notice, though sometimes he fires back some forensics which would make a longshoreman blush with envy. The "human clothes prop", as he is sometimes termed, or sometimes "flamingo legs" or "spindle shanks", stands in left field calling back insults at his nearest detractors by curving the palm of his glove around the corner of his mouth. And the fans in adjacent areas seem to enjoy being slurred right back, though, for appearances of refinement, they issue howls of indignation.

There are times, too, usually in the early sun-tanning training period of Florida, when Williams peels of his moroseness and hobnobs fraternally with one and all. No snarl curls his lip! No bulge of irritation swells his jaws! He is cordial! He smiles! He chats in his airedale yipp.

At such times the press box begins to speak about the "New Ted Williams." But shucks, it's only the Jekyll and Hyde in his makeup. Next day his happy humor dissolves like the soapy mist of a busted bubble. Like that day when he arrived in his Sarasota Terrace room and found the overworked chamber maid was tardy with her housework. His bed wasn't made. The linen in his bathroom hung limp and moist. Last night's clutter still strewed the floor.

On that instant impulse was born. "Quick," whispered Ted's inner counsel, "Retaliate!" So he snatched up the telephone directory and shredded it into tiny fragments, scattering the flaky bits in a big snowdrift around the room. When the mess was complete and an hour's extra toil was insured for the maid, Ted recovered his good humor. That sort of thing is duplicated hundreds of times, as his whimsy dictates.

One summer morning, recently, Ted was squatting on the slopes of Fenway's grandstand with a high-powered rifle, after using the park pigeons for target practice. He was board with winging the soaring birds. He then spotted the red and green scoreboard lenses which, during gametime, flash the balls and strikes.

Without pausing to meditate, Ted fitted the rifle to his shoulder, drew a marksman's bead on the colored globes and, with the unerring accuracy of a Hopalong Cassidy, he shot out the three green bulbs and the two red ones! It cost the Red Sox $400 to replace the damage to the internal wiring. Which is nothing to what the expense might have been if one of the scoreboard crew had been working inside the little enclosure and had intercepted one of Ted's 30-calibre slugs.

Perhaps the most apt diagnosis of Ted's ailment was made by Dizzy Dean, himself a one-time verbal gymnast and general baseball nuisance. Diz, now a soft-spoken philosopher of television was toasting himself in the humid sunshine of St. Louis, while Ted was doing some laboratory research with his bat, in an effort to find out what ailed him homerun swing. "Jus' like ah wuz ten yeahs ago," murmured Diz, with a sage wag of his head.

In his southern burr, Diz made a curious confession. "Ah thought ah had the world by the tail" he said, "So duz Ted." So I suggested: "Why don't you talk to him?" "Naw," he grunted, "Yuh cain't tell'm nuthin', no more'n you coulda told me. Us kinds guys learn the tough way."

Yes, there was an odd similarity between the two. In that other time Diz's mind also worked at tangents, his ideas leap-frogging each other in mid-flight, so that his recitations were full of challenges and frowns. "They tell me Ted has talk-jags too," said Dean. I said, "Only if he likes you, which is seldom. If he doesn't, he clams up." There is a strong strain of loneliness about Williams that is almost psychopathic in its nature.

His closet chum among the Red Sox is Johnny Orlando, the middle-aged clubhouse steward, errand runner and valet, to whom Ted endorsed his $2,500 World Series check in October, 1946--all of it! Ted, far from being stingy, a trait common among ball players, is an addicted check grabber and has often picked up the tab for a whole roomful of people. Also, he has been most lavish in mailing fat drafts to his mother, who is a West Coast Salvation Army worker, and to his remarried father, who is notoriously loose with a buck in his hands.

Last year a news service carried a nation-wide dispatch quoting Ted's dad as bleating a pitiful tale about being flat as a poorhouse purse. Dad said he was about to lose his little camera shop. He was living in squalor and on the crusts of handouts.

The implication was that Ted, then drawing an estimated $100,000, was a negligent, ungrateful son. Nothing is farther from fact! Williams, Jr., had mailed Willams Sr., a $6,000 check only a year before with the understanding he (Dad) was to restock his shop and devote himself to serious commerce. From unimpeachable sources close to this writer, Ted has given away a large part of the $400,000 he has drawn from baseball, advertising endorsements, radio, sport-show appearances and a hundred what-not ventures. His recent statement, "I can't quit baseball, much as I'd like to spend my life fishing. I need the jack," has the ring of honesty. Money is so much mardi-gras confetti to him.

Yet he has an animal cuteness with certain financial angles. When Hollywood beckoned with a substantial offer for a series on one-reelers, he blurted a flat "No!" He said he didn't want to get into any more high income-tax brackets to "Uncle Whiskers." Besides, he said, it would spoil his winter fishing. He makes a tough product for his personal business manager, Freddy Corcoran, to sell at the agent's commission of 15 per cent. "He kicks an awful lot of money in the teeth," complains Freddy.

It's a long call back to the 1939 March day in Florida when Ted made his first Red Sox appearance as a fresh, brash, impertinent kid, whom the veterans watched with lowering eye-brows. "Betche" he told me then, "In another year I lead the league in batting and homeruns." He did. That was when, in a fit of pique at some now-forgotten antic, Manager Joe Cronin called him a "fresh busher". To which Ted retorted, "Well, I ain't gonna go stale any." He hasn't! Just curdled and turned gradually more rancid.

Sport Life was by no means the only media outlet that demonized Ted Williams in that era. Virtually all of his press detractors had to eat their words, though, following Williams' deployment as a Marine jet fighter pilot in the Korean War. He spent virtually all of the 1952 and 1953 baseball seasons flying combat missions and returned a bona fide decorated war hero.

The honeymoon between Williams and the press/fans didn't last long, however, as all parties reverted to old habits by the mid-1950s.
Writer Austen Lake reported that Ted Williams once shot
out the red and green ball-strike indicator lights on the
Green Monster at Fenway Park.

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