I read an essay today by Richard Ben Cramer called “What do you think of Ted Williams now?” It’s a similar essay to Gay Tallese’s piece on Joe DiMaggio, showing us how different professional athletes are from how they sometimes appear to be in their public personas. And in that regard, the title of the piece works on two levels. The phrase is an expression Ted Williams repeats over and over again throughout his conversations with Richard Ben Cramer. But it’s also a question posed to us as readers as soon as we finish the piece. How have our opinions of Ted Williams changed in light of his article, which doesn’t exactly cast Ted Williams in a positive light. He comes off as cocky, irritable, desperate to be the best at everything he does and unable to live with himself when he fails even the slightest bit. I found myself wondering just how much of his arrogance was an act to cover up a pretty big deficiency in his self-esteem. And that’s the central theme I think of Cramer’s essay: how do we reconcile our own opinions of professional athletes and our worship of them as sports heroes with the reality that many of them were not what we would consider nice people. Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, even modern day players like Randy Johnson, despite their talent, just don’t turn out to be what we want them to be. They perform for us, but they are not the people we would wish them to be. Cramer’s article asks us to look at one of the most iconic of professional athletes and answer the question of how we feel about a player who had unbelievable baseball skills but was otherwise just kind of a douchebag.
I found myself not all that moved, one way or the other. I already knew that Ted Williams was a jerk, so this article wasn’t all that shocking. And his drive to succeed was something that spoke to me, not turned me away. But what surprised me was his constant need for approval from everybody. You’d think a player of his caliber would already be confident enough in his own ability that he wouldn’t need outside approval. Take a modern-day superstar and you see quite the opposite. Josh Beckett is one of the best pitchers in the American League this year. Listen to him talk and it’s undeniable how much confidence he has in himself and his ability to pitch. Meanwhile, Ted Williams had the same cockiness in real life, but his baseball persona was quite the opposite. Not humble exactly, but definitely not arrogant either. Cramer talks about how he’d be able to hear the three people booing at 10,000 fan game, and how those three would stick in his craw forever. He was unable to let things go, and it drove him to rage more often than not.
Cramer’s article teaches us that even the greatest of athletes have deficiencies, and more often than not they turn out to be different from what we expect, and not in a good way. But it’s up to us as fans to determine to what degree we let that difference change our opinions of these athletes that we come to idolize. That’s why his article is posed as a question, not a statement on the way we should feel about Ted Williams.