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December 28, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: An afternoon with the legend Teddy Ballgame

MORGANTOWN — Among the gifts that this Christmas season brought was a special one from my friend Michael Spevock of First Greene Service Corp. in Morgantown.

Being something of a literary sort himself, he came across a book entitled “Everything They Had,” authored by David Halberstam, who counted a Pulitzer Prize among his honors for his reporting from Vietnam and who authored a number of sports books considered to be among the best ever written in that genre.

Upon presenting me with this gift, Mr. Spevock immediately directed me to a short but wonderful piece taken from Ted Williams: A Portrait in Words and Pictures entitled “My Dinner With Theodore,” which Mr. Halberstam had penned in 1990 about his introduction to Ted Williams by no less a go-between than Bobby Knight and the wonderful evening he had spent with the person many believe to be the greatest hitter who ever lived.

This particular article carried more meaning to me than perhaps almost anyone else who read it, for the meeting David Halberstam had with Ted Williams was quite similar to my own, which was something I thought you might enjoy if I shared it with you at this time of year when the world outside West Virginia is caught up in something we have boycotted this year — football bowl games.

Having been a baseball writer in another life, many opportunities came my way over the years that others don’t enjoy and, to be honest, they were underappreciated by me, as they were always looked upon as part of the job.

Yet I had walked a practice round at Augusta National Golf Club with Jack Nicklaus, along with his caddy, when Nicklaus was at the height of his career; I had shaken hands with a president of the United States named Nixon and come away with all five fingers intact; I’d had Larry Csonka in the back seat of my Volkswagen bug, dined with Ted Turner, bet on horses with Pete Rose, even carried a major league pitcher to his New York City hotel room on my shoulder after a night on the town at 3:30 in the morning only to cover him throw a three-hit shutout the next evening.

All of this was part of the life, but then there came the meeting with Ted Williams.

First, an admission. This wasn’t really my first meeting with Ted Williams. That had come four years earlier in spring training, 1969, when he had taken over as manager of the then-Washington Senators.

A group of us writers had met Williams outside the Senators’ clubhouse far down the left field line in Pompano Beach, Fla., for an interview session, which was going along as well as it could, considering Williams’ highly publicized disdain for sports writers during his playing career.

After a few minutes, while in midsentence of an answer, Williams suddenly went quiet as he glared toward home plate, some 320 or so feet away, with those eyes that were said to be sharp enough to see the stitching on the baseball as it spun plateward.

“Who is that?” he asked, pointing toward the batting cage.

Taking his cuts was a Cincinnati Reds rookie, a right-handed hitter named Hal McRae.

“He is going to be some hitter,” Williams said, his eyes now wide with excitement, animation in his voice.

“Look at his balance,” he continued, taking a batting stance to illustrate what he meant.

The interview was over, as he now was more into talking about hitting and Hal McRae, about whom he was correct as McRae compiled a .290 batting average over a 19-year career that included two seasons in which he led the American League in doubles, one in which he led in RBIs with 133 and one in which he led in on-base percentage.

As someone who had worshipped Ted Williams as a child, this stood as a watershed moment until a rainy spring day four years later. The game that day had already been called off and I was hanging around the Reds’ facility in Tampa, Fla., when radio broadcaster Joe Nuxhall mentioned he was heading to tape a pregame show with Ted Williams and asked if I would like to come along.

If he said he was meeting Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb themselves, I would have answered no more enthusiastically as I did, for this was sure to be a day to remember.

Indeed it was. We gathered back in an equipment area of the clubhouse, the greatest hitter — and maybe fisherman — whoever lived, the youngest player ever to appear in a major league game in Nuxhall, who was 15 when he made his big league debut during World War II, and this ink-stained wretch.

It started with Nuxhall holding a microphone as we sat on these large equipment trunks, trunks old enough, it seemed, to have carried Walter Johnson’s uniform, swapping tales, Williams seemingly enjoying himself as few writers had ever seen as the talk was of Dimaggio and Feller and Fenway Park.

Then, in the midst of it all, Nuxhall asked a batting question and Williams’ mood changed immediately. He stood, grabbed a bat, squeezed it as if the handle would turn to sawdust yet as gently as it were an infant in his hands.

He talked hitting theory, one word rapidly following the next, Nuxhall smart enough not to interject and me fascinated enough that I couldn’t have interrupted if I wanted to.

It was a wonderful day, maybe my best as a baseball writer, and it was, I thought, unique until I was reading David Halberstam on his interview with Ted Williams.

The interview with Mr. Williams, who is enthusiastic about whatever he undertakes, was exceptional. Not only did he answer my questions with great candor, but he also managed to give me several demonstrations of correct batting procedures. This, if nothing else, served to corroborate my memory, for it is almost certain that almost two decades later Halberstam had been treated to the same soliloquy as had Nuxhall and I.

I probably should have written Ted Williams a letter following that rainy spring day, but what was the use? As John Updike noted in his famous New Yorker piece on Ted Williams, “Gods do not answer letters.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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