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Happy Birthday, Ted Williams

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There is never a time when the name of Ted Williams is very far from the thoughts of any baseball fan, but the attention has become even more intense than usual with the approach of the one hundredth anniversary of his birth on August 30th. It brings to mind a story that Dom DiMaggio shared with me about him.

When he and Ted were both in their 60s they attended a small cookout and Ted, feeling a little wistful, said to Dom, "I really admire what you've been able to accomplish in your life. You've been a great success in business after your baseball career; you have a beautiful wife who loves you, your children adore you, and you're surrounded by grandchildren who worship you." Then Ted added, perhaps with his own three failed marriages in mind, "I've made a mess of my own life."

Dom's reaction to his old friend surprised even him. He looked Ted in the eye and said with some vehemence. "Don't you ever let me hear you talk that way again. You're a great American hero and millions of people admire you for all that you've accomplished. You're one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived. You served your country in two wars and you did so with tremendous bravery and grace under pressure. You've made yourself into one of the world's best fishermen. There isn't a CEO or anyone else in America who doesn't wish that he had accomplished half the things that you have. Don't you ever talk that way again."

Then Dom stopped. He had just scolded the volatile Ted Williams and nobody talked to him in that tone of voice. Ever. Dom braced himself for the explosion he was sure to come. Then, after a pause, Ted said softly, "Okay."

It marked a change in their relationship. They had been friends for years, ever since they were young men, blessed with talent and brimming with ambition; but now Ted began treating Dom with great deference. He leaned on Dom for advice, and when his own health began to fail and he needed a quick pick-me-up, he'd pick up the phone and call Dom. For his part, Dom would call Ted daily during baseball season with a report on how the Red Sox had done the night before.

Growing up, Dom had been close to his big brother Joe; after all they were the two youngest siblings in the sprawling DiMaggio family. But now he became even closer to Ted, and he remained so right up until Ted's death 16 years ago.

They really did love one another.

In 1990 Dom wrote a wonderful book about the 1941 baseball season, "Real Grass, Real Heroes," and the unique perspective he had on two records that were set that year and that have stood the test of time for more than three quarters of a century; his close friend and outfield mate at Fenway Park, Ted Williams, became the last man to hit .400 that year and his brother Joe hit in 56 consecutive games.

Those accomplishments have forever linked the names of Ted and Joe, but they were very different men. Ted was volatile, fun loving one minute and angry the next, always at war with the press. Joe was much more taciturn and was coddled by the New York media. If someone had asked me when I was a kid which of the two would be unhappy and maladjusted as an senior citizen, I'd have guessed Ted because he seemed to have such a hard time adjusting to the random ups and downs of daily life when he was playing. But as he grew older he mellowed and began to appreciate the affection fans had for him, and he returned it in kind. Joe, on the other hand, became more eccentric and more suspicious of people as the years went by. For example when "Real Grass, Real Heroes" came out its dust cover featured likenesses of both Ted and Joe. Joe complained that he hadn't been paid for the use of his picture even though it was for his own brother's book. Ted not only didn't complain, but also he wrote the book's introduction and then showed up unannounced at its publishing party held at Tavern on the Green in New York City's Central Park.

This year, in addition to being the centennial year of Ted's birth, is Bobby Doerr's, too (April 7th); and on July 29th one hundred years ago another Red Sox legend was born, Sherm Feller. The longtime Fenway Park public address announcer (1967-1993) was one of the great characters in the team's history. His introduction, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Fenway Park," and his distinct delivery, will never be forgotten by anyone who ever heard him. Maybe it was because he reportedly took out his dentures beforehand. He was a well-known radio personality and a prolific song writer long before assuming his duties at Fenway Park. In addition, he seemed to know just about every celebrity in America and had stories about all of them. The job of the announcer is different now than it was in Sherm's day. Now pre-game ceremonies are carefully scripted and synced to the activities on the field; everything, by necessity, is carefully choreographed. Henry Mahegan, who handles most games on the PA these days, is a real pro and he never makes a mistake. Sherm made his share of mistakes, but his personality showed through. He and the late Bob Sheppard of Yankee Stadium are the only two who come to mind who achieved lasting fame as baseball public address announcers. Almost 25 years after Sherm's death people still remember and talk about him.

Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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