This August 2002 essay appeared in the Portland Press-Herald, to which I contributed op-ed columns from 2000-2003. It should have made me famous, frankly: The next season, my theory having been realized, Boston took the Yankees to 7 games before falling in the American League Championship Series; in 2004, they came back from a 3-0 deficit to slay those same Yankees and defeat their other cosmic nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals, to win the 2004 World Series… While it’s plenty clear the Sox were not destined to win a World Series while The Kid still walked the earth, it’s not clear that Sox fortunes depended entirely on him being properly laid to rest, as is posited here. Indeed, it’s not clear that Ted Williams has ever been afforded the opportunity to rest in peace. That said, his son, John Henry, whose fault that limbo is, certainly got his. He died in March 2004, from leukemia.
By Hal Phillips
I never saw Ted Williams play; late thirtysomethings (like me) never had the chance. All we got were gilt-edged glimpses: the triumphant but out-of-context film clip, the seemingly staged black-and-white photo, the hyper-reverent musings of our elders.
Yet the shadow Teddy cast over New England was so large that it hardly mattered. Heroic figures like The Kid transcend generation gaps.
Indeed, for as long as I can remember, I’ve coveted a Red Sox away jersey — not the ‘70s-era pajama tops of my youth, but the genuine flannel article from well before my time. From Ted’s time. When my darling wife delivered on this wish last Christmas, the number choice was a no-brainer: 9.
He touched all of us, regardless of age.
Yet perhaps my lack of first-hand exposure allows me to examine his recent passing with a more clear, spiritually acute eye. As his children fight over the fate of his remains, and the corporal Kid remains in limbo, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves this question: Are the Sox better off now that Ted Williams is gone?
You may find my premise obsequious in its optimism, or perversely macabre, perhaps a tad heretical. But hear me out.
The numbers don’t lie. The seminal digits which should be flashing across the beleaguered eyes of Red Sox Nation this summer are “1918-2002”. Those are the years The Kid bestrode the Earth, of course. However, these same dates also measure with excruciating accuracy the span of Boston’s World Series drought… Coincidence? If so, it’s a real doozie — even by the wacky standards of numerology.
Is it possible that Harry Frazee’s selling of The Babe has been a mere front, a convenient explanation of Boston’s sad championship void thereafter? Shouldn’t we at least consider possible corollaries — namely, that until Ted Williams and his outsized, symbolically fraught persona joined the hereafter, his beloved Sox were cosmically doomed to underachieve?
In this, The Age of Irony, it’s worth exploring. If on some agnostic level we accept as valid The Curse of the Bambino — wherein The Sox cosmically endure pain on account of Babe Ruth’s salary dump — we should also ponder the possibility that those same Sox will prosper now that the Splinter has been removed from our collective foot (or soon will be, if his offspring will get with the program).
If nothing else has been established during our brief period of mourning, it’s now clear that Ted was right: He probably was the greatest hitter who ever lived. But look at the type of player we know Ted Williams to have been: all hit/marginal field… station-to-station… statistically obsessed… stubborn… probably took his own cab home on occasion… and lest we forget, he couldn’t pitch.
It’s not just that Ted was The Greatest Player in Red Sox History. He was the proto-Sox, our heroic archetype (Joseph Campbell would have had a field day with this one). He was Jim Rice and Walt Dropo and Wade Boggs combined and writ large. The quintessential Fenway slugger, the Uber-Sox, the superannuated embodiment of all the fine Boston players (read: hitters) who, from 1918 up to now, have piled up batting achievements but never brought home that ultimate rash of bacon, a World Series title.
Honestly, I’m not trying to be morbidly clever or in any way disrespectful. I never wished Ted gone.
But now that he is gone, I can’t help but feel an enormous cosmic weight has been lifted from our shoulders.
The Curse of the Bambino is a fine theory; it may even contain a shred of supernatural relevance. But this is bigger than the Bambino. After all, Christianity was nothing until He was taken up; the Greeks didn’t take Troy until Achilles ritually bought the farm.
Ted’s passing, for Red Sox followers, is the same sort of watershed event. Witness the extraordinary outpouring of communal grief. Clearly, the breadth of this emotional expression speaks to the near-divine place Teddy long occupied in the New England psyche.
Now that Ted Williams has left us, I submit that his actual divinity can be realized. I submit that he’s destined to occupy a far more cosmically positive place in the years to come. Ted’s earthly passing, while sad, trumps The Curse. It has freed us — once we’ve had a good, long cry — to get on with our baseball lives.
Campbell himself, author of “A Hero with a Thousand Faces”, would urge us not merely to consider the fable but to interpret it: The Lion (us) winced when the thorn (Ted) was removed from its paw. It was an agonizing, emotionally wrenching process. But now that The Splinter has been dislodged and the pain has ubsided, we are spendidly released.
We’re talking the cathartic removal of spiritual baggage here, people.
You want corroborative evidence? Enos Slaughter joined the choir invisible on Monday, officially burying THAT ghost.
Which brings us back to the matter of Ted’s delayed departure from this earthly realm, for indeed he does not yet occupy that cosmically harmonic place. As you know, certain factions within the Williams family wish to put Ted to rest in traditional fashion. Others, led by his son John Henry, want his body and brain cryogenically frozen.
Good god. A pox on his son for handling this process so shoddily — so damned slowly! My gray Sox jersey (which I have vowed to wear, and not wash, until such time that Ted’s passage to the spiritual plane has been successfully executed) grows more rank by the day. What’s more, Ted’s place in limbo has dragged our boys down into second place, behind the Yankees and other Wild Card hopefuls.
So let me here express my hope (and the fervent olfactory desires of all those who come into close contact with me) that Ted’s son do the right thing and drop this scandalous business of suspending (animatedly) his dad’s remains for DNA transactions to be named later.
Please, John Henry, respectfully commit The Kid to the soil, or at least set him upon the modern equivalent of a funeral pyre. Put your heroic father in harmony with the cosmos, so the stars might finally, at long last, begin their alignment.