The Sportswriter and the Slugger
OF all the larger-than-life figures who paraded across Boston's sports horizon from 1939 through 1960, none was more visible than Red Sox outfielder Theodore Samuel Williams, the last of baseball's .400 hitters.
Williams, whose immaturity early on and split personality often got him into trouble, was alternately roasted and toasted during his career by the Boston press.
There were times when Ted spit at fans, threw his bat recklessly, made rude gestures to the crowd, and failed to run out a ground ball. The media had a field day. Neither side ever seemed to take much interest in trying to understand the other.
Yet even though Williams detested sportswriters as a group, he was actually close to several individuals from the press. Among them was the late Ed Rumill of The Christian Science Monitor, who for years traveled regularly with the club.
Over two decades, Rumill also wrote several lengthy magazine articles about Williams. And, as a former national president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, he was on the platform in Cooperstown, N.Y., years later when Ted was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.
I bring this up because there is a new book about Williams on the market, "Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams," (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 437 pp., $23.95). In it, author Ed Linn relies several times on background information provided by Rumill.
My connection with Ed is that he showed me the inside of my first major-league clubhouse. He also taught me the fundamentals of writing when I was a young sportswriter for the Monitor.
Part of Rumill's expertise on Williams stems from the fact that in 1939, Ted's rookie year in the American League, Ed was still putting on a uniform occasionally and pitching batting practice for the Red Sox.
Williams soon recognized that Ed was one writer he could trust and tell things to "off the record" and not have his words come back to haunt him.
Rumill also thought enough of Williams to introduce him to his mother, and they hit it off immediately.
There was seldom a Wednesday afternoon when the Red Sox were playing home in the 1940s when Williams didn't wave or actually stop by and chat with Rumill's mother in the stands at Fenway Park. Back then, almost every ball club had a midweek "Ladies' Day," when women were invited into the park free of charge.
Physically, except for his face, Rumill could have doubled for the Red Sox slugger on any movie set. Fans often approached Rumill in hotel lobbies, when the Red Sox were on the road, and asked for his (Williams's) autograph.
When the 6 ft., 3 in. Rumill tried to tell these people that he wasn't Williams, Red Sox players and writers standing nearby couldn't wait to tease, volunteering that Ed was indeed the big-name heavy hitter. After a while Rumill began to sign Williams's autograph in self-defense, a practice Ted knew and laughed about.
Rumill finally began to show fans his Massachusetts driver's license. But the hard evidence only elicited cries from Ted's followers that the license must be a fake.
Frequently, when Williams was burning over something the Boston press had written about him that he considered unfair, he would put up walls. The Red Sox outfielder - who was originally called the Kid and later the Splendid Splinter - would simply refuse to talk with any writers, often for days at a time (except, of course, Rumill).
Always the newspaperman first, Rumill would argee to solve this pressing problem for his fellow writers by carrying their questions to Williams, getting them quotes for feature stories and updating them on any injuries Ted might be fighting.
Williams, urged to go along with this by Rumill, never really put up much of an argument. Ted knew that even sportswriters have bosses to please and families to feed. In fact, Williams once quietly picked up a hefty hospital bill for a Boston writer who still doesn't know the name of his benefactor.
I heard Rumill tell this next story only once, but I think it bears repeating: On the night of September 4, 1954, against the Philadelphia Athletics, Williams hit one of the longest home runs of his career.
The ball rocketed out of Connie Mack Stadium, flew over 20th Street and then landed on the flat roof of an apartment house. It was home run No. 362 in Williams's career - important because it pushed him one ahead of Joe DiMaggio (retired by then) on baseball's all-time list.
Had the baseball been corralled by a fan in the stands, which is usually the case in a situation like this, an usher would have quickly offered an inducement for its return. The exchange traditionally includes a newly autographed ball for the fan, or a bat, or maybe both. But once a ball leaves the park under its own power, the chances of getting it back are as slim as if someone tried to unring a bell.
But fleeing the Philadelphia press box after Williams's home run, Rumill went immediately to the far end of the right-field stands. He got his message across by shouting down to the people who were sitting on their porches and front steps along 20th Street.
Finally one rugged-looking guy on a nearby rooftop admitted that he not only had the home-run ball but that he intended to keep it. Instead of arguing with the man, Rumill handled the problem like an interview.
By the time Ed returned to the press box, he had the man's name and a promise that he would exchange the record-breaking ball for an autographed one. The guy liked bowling better than baseball anyway.
When Rumill presented Williams with the ball after the game, Ted was not only surprised but extremely grateful.
Williams's bat speed was lightning-fast: Opposing catchers sometimes claimed that they could smell the aroma of burning wood when he made contact with a 90 m.p.h. fastball. Ted was also one of the first of baseball's modern-day power hitters to choke up on the bat with two strikes against him and try to hit the ball through the middle.
One of the smartest things Williams ever did was to cultivate the friendship and respect of American League umpires.
Because umpires determine the strike zone in baseball, regardless of what the rule book says, Ted studied the ball and strike patterns of the men in blue almost as closely as he did opposing pitchers. He knew which umpires gave pitchers the high strike and vice versa. And he never argued a call, even if it happened to be strike three.
An incident in 1941, the year Williams hit .406 for the Red Sox, says a lot about his integrity. With a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics remaining on the last day of the season, Manager Joe Cronin offered Ted the day off to protect what was still technically a .400 average.
"No," Williams told Cronin. "I'm going to play. If I'm going to be a .400 hitter, I'm not going to do it sitting on the bench."
By the time the doubleheader ended, the 23-year-old Williams had pounded out six hits in eight times at bat to finish at .406.
Rumill had the right idea when he began to seriously contemplate whether Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio was the greatest player of this era. Rumill got the answer he wanted one day while en route to the West Coast: He stopped in to see ex-Yankee skipper Joe McCarthy at his farm in upstate New York, and there he dropped his question in the lap of the man who had managed both players.
"I'll give you an answer," the retired McCarthy told Rumill, "if you promise not to write it until after I'm dead." Hedging just a bit, McCarthy called DiMaggio the greatest all-around player of his generation but named Williams the better hitter.