Williams, last of the Greatest Generation heroes, dies at 83

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

BOSTON -- They were the heroes of the Greatest Generation: Mantle, DiMaggio, Williams. Now they're gone, and baseball fans in Boston and around the country mourn the passing of an era.

''Everyone was hanging onto yesteryear through Ted,'' said Carlton Fisk, the former Boston Red Sox catcher whose retired number hangs next to Williams' on the facade at Fenway Park. ''It's a sad day.''

The last player to hit better than .400 in a season, Williams died Friday at the age of 83 when his heart gave out at his home in Florida. Ballparks across the country honored the Hall of Famer with moments of silence and by lowering their flags to half-staff in memory of the baseball and war hero known as the Splendid Splinter.

''When you think of Boston baseball you think of Ted Williams. That's all there is,'' former teammate Johnny Pesky said. ''You can bring in Moses from heaven. He wouldn't make an impact like Ted did.''

Today's players may be larger, but Williams was larger than life. He was the fishing buddy of a president and the childhood hero of at least one Boston mayor. Then-governor Bill Weld blushed when Williams endorsed him in a political campaign, saying, ''Aw, you don't have to do that, Splinter.''

An American man of a certain age might have kicked the Nazis out of Europe, come home to do his share for the baby boom and then taken his son or daughter to a ballgame. If he was lucky, he would have seen Williams play, still in his prime despite missing three years for World War II and a couple more in Korea.

Williams was a hero to the men who fought for their country, and he was one of them, too -- the wing man for astronaut-turned-senator John Glenn. Even the ballplayers who played alongside him knew there was something special in the kid who said his goal was to walk down the street and hear people say, ''There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.''

Like Mickey Mantle (who died in 1995) and Joe DiMaggio ('99), his fierce rivals in AL pennant races and in the nation's saloons when fans argued who was the best hitter, Williams had a charisma that went beyond the ballfield.

''I was supposed to be his replacement,'' said Carl Yastrzemski, who succeeded Williams in Fenway's left field. ''But nobody could replace Ted Williams. I just followed him.''

Williams was the star attraction at the 1999 All-Star game when he rode onto the field in a golf cart as part of a celebration of the century's best players. He was mobbed by old-timers and modern all-stars alike, to the point that the public address announcer had to ask them all to clear the field so the game could begin.

''He was bigger than life -- even to the superstars of today,'' said Fred Ryer, a Red Sox fan taking in Saturday's game against Detroit in a Ted Williams T-shirt. ''It's what he represented to baseball.''

With a .344 lifetime average -- good for six batting titles -- and 521 career homers that helped him win two triple crowns, Williams earned a spot in baseball's Hall of Fame. But it was his military service and his help in fighting cancer in children that got his name on a tunnel under Boston Harbor, where signs warned on Saturday, ''Boston Mourns Sports Legend Ted Williams.''

There was a period of several years when Williams would disappear for an hour or so before games, Pesky said, and no one would know where he went. Someone got the idea to follow him, and they tailed him right over to the local hospital to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

''All the bullets and all the bombs that explode all over the world won't have the impact, when all is said and done, of a dollar bill dropped in the Jimmy Fund pot by a warm heart and a willing hand,'' the organization quotes him as saying after he returned from active duty in Korea.

Sick children would be drawn to Williams, but so would strapping ballplayers as he held forth about hitting in the clubhouse or on the long train rides between cities.

''By the time he got into it, there would be eight or 10 guys around him. Even the pitchers,'' Pesky said.

Pesky was a Red Sox rookie in 1941, the year Williams finished with a .406 average that hasn't been approached since. Williams may have been the last of a breed, but to Pesky he was the first of the old gang to go.

He drove down to see Ted last year with former teammates Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio, Joe's little brother and a baseball star in his own right. Williams was in a wheelchair and a tracheotomy had taken the edge off his booming voice, but Pesky was impressed with his memory and how his mind was still sharp.

''When we were down there with Ted, we felt like kids again,'' Pesky said of his friend for 62 years. ''I just can't imagine him going like that. I thought he'd die of old age.''

Pesky cried during the ceremony to honor Williams before Friday night's game, breaking out in tears right on the Fenway diamond. The man who for years was blamed for a slow relay that cost Boston the 1946 World Series had never cried on a ballfield before.

''No, but I did last night, I'm not ashamed to say it. I didn't have the heart to look in the stands, but I heard there were some hankies out,'' he said Saturday. ''When you feel the way I felt about Ted, it's like losing a part of the family.

''It was one of the saddest days of my life.''

On Saturday, Pesky was sitting in the clubhouse getting into the Red Sox uniform he has worn for most of 61 years. There was a knock at the door: A woman would like to speak with him. He met her in the hallway, and she handed him a flower. She was crying.

''She said, 'This is for you. You're a good friend of Ted's. I know how much this hurts you,''' Pesky recalled. ''I said, 'You're right.'

''She kissed me on the cheek, she turned and she left.''



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