A tough man, a tough town
By Mike Petraglia
BOSTON -- Boston can be a tough town. Even for its heroes. Even, as it turned out, for perhaps its greatest sports icon of all time.
Ted Williams was widely regarded as a complex man with complicated emotions, especially when it came to those who would criticize or critique his on-field performance.
The man who broke into the Majors as a rookie in 1939 quickly found out that Boston was not like his hometown of San Diego, California.
"People in Boston, I think, really did appreciate Ted," says Garry Brown, a beat writer for the Springfield Union News who has covered the Red Sox since 1967. "Fans, even when the team wasn't doing well in the '50s, would come out just to see Ted swing and hit. It's just that they have always had high expectations of their athletes. It's an East Coast town, different from California.
"There was this confident, sometimes brash way about Ted when he played," Brown continued. "I think he got that reputation early in his career, even when he was rookie, when he would brag about what he would do against certain teams and certain pitchers. Then he would go out and back it up. I think some writers took that as a challenge and that relationship stayed with him his entire career in Boston."
When Indians player-manager Lou Boudreau came up with the "Williams Shift" on July 14, 1946, to take away the right side of the infield, Williams didn't seem to care.
"I remember how stubborn Ted was," Brown said. "It carried over to his play in the field. He'd always go to right field even when (Cleveland manager) Lou Boudreau came up with the "Williams Shift," putting three infielders on the right side."
Like the media, the fans in Boston were not spared an occasional flare-up of frustration by Williams. Perhaps the most regrettable moment in Williams' career-long relationship with Boston fans came on August 7, 1956. A record night-crowd of 36,350 was on hand a Fenway Park to watch the Sox and Yankees. Many in the crowd booed loudly when Williams mishandled a Mickey Mantle fly ball in the 11th. Out of frustration and in response to heckling fans, Williams spat in the general direction of the stands. He was fined $5,000 by then-owner Tom Yawkey. Ironically, it would be Williams who would win the game in the bottom half of the inning with a bases-loaded walk.
"When he had that spitting incident with the fans at Fenway," remembers Brown, "I felt bad for him. I knew from all accounts that he was frustrated with what he perceived was the fans' treatment of him. But I think, more often than not, his frustration was aimed at the press, not the fans. I don't think Ted always felt that Boston fans understood him or knew where he was coming from."
That spitting incident in the summer of '56 came at the apex of his frustration with the critics in the town. It was the third spitting incident in three weeks for Williams, who never did pay the fine. But the incident also caused the Massachusetts State House, one month later, to pass a bill banning unruly behavior by fans in the stands and fining those who use profanity. The bill was never enacted into law but Williams had received a bit of support from an unlikely source, politicians.
"In the end, really, I think Ted had a very honest relationship with most of those who covered him in Boston." Brown said. "Ted, remember, was the one who called the Boston reporters 'The Knights of the Keyboard.' He had a great, great way with words when he wanted to use them. He just had his enemies, who he felt were out to rip him anytime they could."
Longtime "Boston Record" (now "Boston Herald") columnist Dave "The Colonel" Egan headed that list.
"That was a long, sometimes ugly running feud," Brown said. "Dave set the tone for the way many columnists criticize today. He felt that Ted was cocky and arrogant and needed to be criticized instead of being put on a pedestal.
"Certain writers like Dave didn't like Ted from the start because he would say something brash and then be right. The fact he was right and then was still confident I think caused a lot of the writers to hold a grudge a long time."
But Ted Williams could live with the fact that not every 'Knight' in Boston was in his corner. What he had much more trouble stomaching was his relationship with the fans. Williams an intensely proud man, never made it a habit to abide by one of baseball's traditions, the tip of the cap to the fans after an ovation.
That changed on May 12, 1991, when the Texas Rangers, a team he managed in the 1970s, visited Fenway Park. Mayor Ray Flynn proclaimed "Ted Williams Day" in Boston and Williams, who had been called to town by owner Jean Yawkey, had a surprise in store during a the pre-game ceremony.
"So they can never write, ever again," said Williams, "that I was hard-headed, so they can never write again that I never tipped my hat to the crowd, today I tip my hat. I tip my hat to all the people in New England, the greatest sports fans on earth."
With those words, Ted Williams not only brought a sellout crowd to its feet just like his playing days, but he won something more valuable, the hearts of a Red Sox nation. Forever.
Since that day, the view of Ted Williams the player hasn't changed at all. But the perception of Ted Williams, the man has.
Boston was the only city the "Splendid Splinter" would call home over his 19-year career.
All Red Sox fans, and most writers, are eternally grateful.
Mike Petraglia is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.