The plane shook. The cockpit coruscated with distress lights. And Ted Williams realized the landing gear was stuck. He was losing fuel. His radio was out. Unable to slow the Panther F9, he aimed it toward the nearest American tarmac, descending at 225 mph.
And then, there it was: a smoking metal fuselage streaking and shrieking across the hot pavement. When it stopped at last, Ted Williams popped the canopy, leapt, rolled, and ran as the plane exploded in flames.
Summon all your imaginative faculties and try to picture Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter doing something similar. Can’t? That’s why Ted Williams is still an endlessly compelling figure five years after his death and ignominious repose.
In Ted Williams at War (Rounder Books), the latest in an endless procession of Red Sox books from Rounder Records founder Bill Nowlin, the five mid-career seasons Williams missed while serving in World War II and Korea get the exhaustively researched treatment they deserve.
Williams had considered ejecting from that plane, but decided against it for fear his kneecaps would be mangled as he jettisoned, jeopardizing his baseball career. He returned from Korea and put up his usual stellar numbers for seven more seasons. But one can only marvel at what might have been if the Kid had had the long, uninterrupted career of a Yaz or a Ripken.
As Barry Bonds trudges ingloriously toward Hank Aaron’s home-run record, it’s worth noting that it could have been Williams he passed on the way up last May, rather than Babe Ruth (whose career total was 714). Most projections surmise Ted would have clouted 690 to 700 home runs if he hadn’t missed those prime years, says Nowlin. “I suspect, even though he was 41 when he quit, he might have squeezed in another season.”
But Williams isn’t the only Red Sox who sacrificed his career to war. In 1942, Johnny Pesky set a record his rookie season with 205 base hits. Then he went away for three years. Upon returning, he exceeded 200 hits again in ’46 and ’47. If he’d played his whole career, says Nowlin, “he might be in the Hall of Fame.”
Or consider Charlie Wagner, who missed three seasons in his prime, then pitched just 30 innings the rest of his career. “He got some very serious dysentery in the Philippines and was never the pitcher he looked like he might be.”
Nowlin concedes that World War II was “a different era, a different kind of war.” But he’s struck by just how different. Back then, “baseball asked whether they should shut down to help mobilize the war effort. That didn’t seem to happen in 2001.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many of today’s pros (a good number of whom, you can bet, still support the war in Iraq) voluntarily trading one uniform for another. In fairness, Williams — who spent World War II in Florida and Hawaii training Navy pilots — didn’t want to go to Korea. He was 33 by then, with a wife and kid, in his prime money-making years. But when compelled to go, he grabbed his chance, says Nowlin.
“He said, ‘I’m not gonna go back and do some USO tour, entertaining for morale. If I go back, I’m gonna do the real thing. Find out what combat is like.’ ”
Ted Williams wasn’t just the only man to win two Triple Crowns and the last man to hit .400. He’s the last of a breed. And one can only dream what could have been if things had played out differently.