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Throwback Thursday: Ted Williams Goes to War

In 1942, Ted Williams began a military career as a fighter pilot that ulitmately would take five years from his career as a ballplayer. History is uncompromising like that.
June 2, 2016, 5:11pm
Photo via PD-USGOV-MILITARY-MARINES/Wikimedia Commons

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

In 1942, Ted Williams was 23 years old and in the process of winning the American League Triple Crown. He had reached the majors in 1939 on a mission to prove himself the greatest hitter of all time, and had already gone a shockingly long way toward doing so after four years in the bigs. By the end of the 1942 season, he had earned two batting titles, two home run titles, and two RBI titles; led the American League in runs scored three times; hit .406 in a season; and owned a career average of .356.

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It's not the numbers alone that matter; they bear out the important parts, the determination and the joy. There just had never been anyone quite like him, and that has stayed true to this day. Watch this:

That's Williams, then all of 22, batting in the 1941 All-Star Game. It's the bottom of the ninth, the AL trailing 5-4. Joe DiMaggio is on first base, Joe Gordon on third, and the Cubs' Claude Passeau is pitching. It's just an exhibition game, sure, but if you watch the video, you can get past the gruff-unto-antisocial veneer Williams cultivated over his lifetime and see what the game of baseball meant to him. They called him The Kid then, but it's the definite article that matters more than the nickname. There have been plenty of kids. Ted Williams got the "The."

Read More: TBT: When Jimmy Claxton (Briefly) Broke Baseball's Color Barrier

And yet soon The Kid would be gone—at least from baseball, at least for a while. Seventy-four years ago, on May 22, 1942, Williams enlisted in the United States Navy, volunteering to serve his country in a time of war. He played out the season while taking night classes to prepare himself for work as a Navy flyer. When September came, he left the majors. He didn't play another big league game until 1946.

In the week prior to enlisting, covering 11 games (doubleheaders upped the total), Williams had gone 15-for-36 with five homers and 12 walks, for an unholy .417/.563/.833 slash line. It would be the height of myopia to say that the main thing wrong with World War II was it cost us more of that. And yet, we did lose some beautiful and irreplaceable baseball things along the way to losing so much else. The hole in Williams' baseball card for 1943, 1944, and 1945 is just one small piece of aesthetic collateral damage that also included Coventry Cathedral, Monte Cassino, and the many works by Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Raphael, and other masters that are still missing and presumed destroyed. It's a rupture within a rupture, and things did not—could not—just pick up where they left off.

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That Williams wound up in this position came as a surprise to him. In his autobiography, My Turn at Bat, he wrote,

Frankly, none of this war talk had meant a damn to me up to [the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941]. I had read where some admiral had said if the Japanese got too frisky we could take them in six months, so I'd pretty much dismissed them as a threat. Hitler had been giving Europe fits, and things were looking bad all over, but it hadn't sunk in on me yet. All I was interested in was playing ball, hitting the baseball, being able to hunt, making some money… I was so wrapped up in my own problems I just couldn't get too concerned.

From our vantage point, about half a year away from the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, these words might seem incredible. Was Williams so obtuse, so self-involved, as to be unaware that, as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's 1938 "September Song" had it, the days had dwindled down to a precious few for something like 90 or 100 million souls worldwide, including over 400,000 Americans?

The answer is that of course he was, but not because there was anything especially selfish about Ted Williams. For a man with so many extraordinary qualities, this was the least unusual thing about him. It's very difficult to see the world changing around you, even if you're deeply engaged with current events—and most people are not. Williams might have had 20-10 vision, but in this sense he was as blind as everyone else. It's hard to see history coming, because it just looks like the news when it's happening.

This (intermittently) charming man. Image via Heritage Auctions/Wikimedia Commons

Consider, among many aggravating factors, Adolf Hitler. In Germany, the military and the right boosted him because they thought they could control him. The parties on the left couldn't put aside their differences enough to unite in effective opposition. My own family, assimilated Berlin Jews, told each other that Hitler's rhetoric was merely campaign sloganeering and that the Nazi party would turn to reasonably responsible governance once in power. One disagreed and emigrated, which is why I am here to write these words. The rest went to the gas chambers.

When Hitler occupied the Rhineland, the French tried to ignore him. When he annexed Austria and threatened Czechoslovakia, the British tried to appease him. In the United States, the president tried to warn people of the danger while the America First crowd either celebrated Hitler as a man of action, said Europe was none of our business, or told the public we couldn't possibly defeat him. Mostly, though, in America and in every other country, everyone just went on with his or her business. This was as true of Ted Williams as it was of most everybody else.

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He had to. Williams was the sole support of his mother, a fact that would cause him no end of grief in the months leading up to his enlistment, and his finances were in large part dedicated to keeping her in her home and paying for her medical care. This was still the age of the Great Depression, and many were in the same position as Williams, worried more about subsistence, if not for mom then for themselves, than the foreign affairs pages of the New York Times.

And so when the war came, something like a third of the people said, "I saw it coming"; another third looked up, as Williams did, and said, "Gosh, they really meant it!" Another third, even as they were receiving their induction notices from Uncle Sam or finding out that their brother on the Arizona was no more, said, "Wait, what? Who's doing all that shooting?" (This condition has repeated itself right down the years—it was, historians estimate, true during the Revolutionary War, when the colonies were split one-third for, one-third against, and one-third IDK, which is to say that two-thirds of Americans greeted the Declaration of Independence with something between antipathy and a shrug.)

Maybe not every American was in favor of the war in 1941, but a vast majority was in favor of Ted Williams going to war and vociferously shamed him when he wasn't quick to enlist. Because his mother was divorced, ill, and destitute, Williams was classified as 3-A, indefinitely deferred. After Pearl Harbor, he was reclassified by his Minnesota draft board and passed his physical that January, but he quite reasonably asked why his status was changed when his situation vis-à-vis his mother had not. Williams had set up three annuities for his mother and he needed to make payments throughout 1942 to avoid losing them. Would any other American, his lawyer asked his draft board, be reclassified under the same circumstances?

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Nope, the draft man said, but this case was an exception. Why it was an exception wasn't said, but a reasonable inference was that Williams was singled out for his celebrity. As Williams said later in 1942, "Baseball is awfully important to me. This war, of course, is more important, but I just feel I'm as much entitled to this season of baseball as anyone on the country with a legitimate classification for dependency… I'm Ted Williams. That's why I've been getting all this. I'll bet you there are 100 cases the same as mine in the big leagues. But do you hear any popping off about them? No sir. Just on Ted Williams."

Some of my heroes do appear on some stamps. Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Williams successfully appealed his reclassification to Washington, but the fans and the newspapers never let up. In a telephone press conference arranged by the Red Sox, Williams said, "The quickest route to a solution of this whole matter is to earn some big dough this year, then just as soon as I lay down my bat in September or October, I'm in the Navy. And quick too."

He meant to say, "Earn some big dough for my mother to live on while I'm in the service," but he didn't, and so it was easy for the press to portray him as more venal than patriotic. After that, even the Red Sox were pressuring him to go. Quaker Oats cancelled an endorsement deal worth $4,000, which was big money in those days. "I haven't eaten a Quaker Oat since," Williams reported in his autobiography.

Williams, being who he was, got angry, dug in his heels, and resolved to endure the booing, the hate mail, the scabrous columns. He figured he had done so before and would for years afterward, so nothing had changed. The controversy dragged on until he finally signed up to be a Navy aviator. "I've tried to do the right thing from the start," he said. "I didn't want to be pushed into anything by anybody." Williams passed his flight training, had a meeting-of-the-gods home run competition against Babe Ruth for a children's charity, became a flight instructor, and was headed for combat in the Pacific when peace broke out. He would finally see action in Korea years later, flying 39 missions and winning an Air Medal.

One infinitesimal penalty we've been assessed for failing to pay attention, ranking somewhere below disruption, destruction, disease, and mass death, is watching baseball with all the stars subtracted out (or, as was the case with the First World War late in the 1918 season, no baseball at all). During World War II, baseball had no Williams, DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, or Bob Feller. It happened again during the Korean War. Williams' baseball card is also missing most of 1952 and 1953. Ditto Willie Mays, ditto Whitey Ford.

Among the nonessential things in life, nothing is better than Ted Williams. The right to play and watch baseball is a luxury conferred by freedom, and freedom must be guarded. It is no stretch, then, to say that The Kid taught us, through his service, that the price of baseball is eternal vigilance, and that the cost of apathy is high.

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