By Alex Belth
The Classical, February 2014
They came to Ted Williams the way those eight ill-fated adventurers came to Everest, thinking they could scale it, conquer it, reduce it to something mortals could comprehend. John Updike almost made it to the top when he wrote that gods don’t answer letters, but Ed Linn got off just as good a line in Sport magazine summing up Williams’s last game: “And now Boston knows how England felt when it lost India.” Leigh Montville weighed in with an almost poetically profane biography, and now Ben Bradlee Jr. has delivered a massive biography of his own at nearly 1,000 pages. But none of them—and I’m talking about a great novelist, two splendid sportswriters, and a deeply committed researcher here—made it to the top of the mountain where dwelled Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, the Kid.
Richard Ben Cramer did.
He had only fifteen thousand words to work with, and he had to scheme and skulk and send flowers to get those, but he climbed inside Williams’s life and mind and special madness the way nobody before him did and nobody after him has. His story—“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?”—reached out from the pages of Esquire’s July 1986 issue and grabbed you by the collar. Once you read his first sentence—“Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those”—you didn’t need to be forced to go the rest of the way.
It began at an editors meeting in Esquire’s Manhattan offices. The magazine’s American Male special was up next and they needed a monster piece on which they could hang the issue. Why not Ted Williams? His hatred of the press was legendary but he had the necessary stature. Still, he’d be hard to get—impossible, maybe.
There was one guy that wouldn’t be scared off, though. If anything, Richard Ben Cramer would relish the challenge.
“They know if they really get me going on an idea, well, I just can’t come home without it,” Cramer later explained in Robert Boynton’s incisive interview collection, The New New Journalism. “It might take years, but I’ll eventually get it.”
Seven years earlier, Cramer had won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Middle East for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was an enviable talent, a terrific reporter who could also really write. He got to the story, got people to talk to him and was a natural storyteller. Sure, his prose blushed a shade of purple at times, but that’s not the worst sin, and Cramer could be forgiven because his excesses were the product of his enthusiasm. He had a reputation in some quarters for being loose with facts, but nobody doubted his talent, or his desire to tell a good story, or, at least in the big picture, to get that story right.
Cramer turned to writing for national magazines when he’d exhausted everything he could do at a newspaper. By this time he had a clear voice and his first three features—two for Esquire, the other for Rolling Stone—announced the arrival of a major talent who was gunning for Halberstam, Talese, and Wolfe. He was a star, and he carried himself like one, and nobody much held it against him because he was self-deprecating and generous, a real charmer. Cramer wasn’t movie-star handsome, yet women loved him. He was a man of big appetites—thick, rare steaks, full-bodied red wines, unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and five cups of black coffee the next morning. He wore linen suits and Panama hats and had the most disarming accent, dese-and-dose guttural, the flat A’s from his native Rochester mixed with a Southern drawl picked up during years of reporting in Baltimore.
But underneath all that wooly shit Cramer was an Apollonian kind of dude.
“I didn’t want to read all the received wisdom of the last fifty years, because then I’d be spouting the same crap as everyone else—which was exactly what pissed Ted off about journalists in the first place.”
He jumped at the chance to write about Williams. Aside from a few stray newspaper columns, Cramer had never written about his favorite sport. His editor at Esquire, Dave Hirshey, called the Boston Red Sox and inquired about access. They laughed at him. Williams was such a pain in the ass that the Red Sox had long stopped trying to facilitate any publicity.
“I went back to Cramer and told him the news,” Hirshey told me, “and he was more adrenalized than ever, because he lived for outsized challenges like this. He knew he could get to anyone on the face of the planet, and since the Red Sox weren’t assisting in any way he wasn’t indebted to them.”
Impossible, my ass.
“After I got the assignment from Esquire,” Cramer told Boynton, “I just went down to the town he lived in in Florida. I didn’t want to know anything, I didn’t want to read all the received wisdom of the last fifty years, because then I’d be spouting the same crap as everyone else—which was exactly what pissed Ted off about journalists in the first place.”
Williams wasn’t around Islamorada, a small town on the road to Key West, when Cramer arrived, which was fine by Cramer. He wasn’t on a newspaper deadline and was in no great rush. In the tradition of Gay Talese, he practiced the art of hanging out. His approach to a celebrity profile wasn’t any different from how he reported events Beirut or Pakistan, really: You see the flash and you go towards it when everyone else is getting out of there. You know it’s risky, but you want to see it—you want the truth.
Cramer had a gift for putting people at ease. “You could sit down with Richard,” his friend and Baltimore Sun colleague Tony Barberi told me, “whether it was you or me or somebody he’s interviewing for the first time, and he would sit there and smile and nod and laugh in the right places and tell you at the end this is the greatest story he’d ever heard. He was just a wonderful listener.”
“I’m gonna go one step further,” said Hank Klibanoff, who worked with Cramer in Philadelphia. “What made Richard special was that he didn’t seem to always have an end game in mind, which was writing a story. My impression is that Richard separated the two things so that people didn’t feel like they were just pawns in his writing game. They came away thinking he really liked them. And I think he really did.”
So he made himself a part of Williams’s world while Williams wasn’t there. “I met all his fishing buddies,” he said, “and I really got to know them. Once in a while I’d ask a little about Ted, but I didn’t push it. So by the time Ted comes back everybody’s saying, ‘Hey, Ted, have you heard about this odd guy who’s been hanging around for weeks?’ And pretty soon, Ted had to check me out for himself.”
Once Cramer got his hooks into Williams, he didn’t let go for three months. It didn’t matter if Esquire was paying him enough to justify that kind of investment of his time. (Cramer later claimed to have lost money on every magazine article he ever wrote.) What mattered was to get something that no one else could get, that no one else could write.
“In his hometown of Islamorada, on the Florida Keys, Ted is not hard to see,” wrote Cramer:
He’s out every day, out early and out loud. You might spot him at a coffee bar where the guides breakfast, quizzing them on their catches and telling them what he thinks of fishing here lately, which is “IT’S HORSESHIT.” Or you might notice him in a crowded but quiet tackle shop, poking at a reel that he’s seen before, opining that it’s not been sold because “THE PRICE IS TOO DAMN HIGH,” after which Ted advises his friend, the proprietor, across the room: “YOU MIGHT AS WELL QUIT USING THAT HAIR DYE. YOU’RE GOING BALD ANYWAY.”
He’s always first, 8:00 A.M., at the tennis club. He’s been up for hours, he’s ready. He fidgets, awaiting appearance by some other, any other, man with a racket, where upon Ted bellows, before the newcomer can say hello: “WELL, YOU WANNA PLAY?” Ted’s voice normally emanates with gale and force, even at close range. Apologists attribute this to the ear injury that sent him home from Korea and ended his combat flying career. But Ted can speak softly and hear himself fine, if it’s only one friend around. The roar with which he speaks in a public place, or to anyone else, has nothing to do with his hearing. It’s your hearing he’s worried about.
Cramer often didn’t even take notes when talking to a subject, but he once told former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun that to capture an extended riff by Williams during a long car ride, he had Williams stop the car while he went in a convenience store and bought a small tape recorder. He returned and stuck the recorder in full view on the dashboard, making it clear that this ride was on the record and that there would be no confusion as to the accuracy of the reporting.
“Believe me,” says Klibanoff, “if he made anything up Ted Williams would have let the world know.”
Cramer stayed in Florida until he exhausted Williams’s patience. In Dan Okrent’s telling of the story, Williams drove Cramer to the Miami Airport. As they stood at the curb, Cramer thanked him for his time, explained that he might call to clarify some things that might arise in the writing, and that magazines had these people called fact checkers who would be in touch as the piece was ready to go to press. Williams looked at him and said, “Cramer, I’ve got two things to say to you. First, get a haircut. Second, I never want to see you or speak to you again.”
The Williams that Cramer encountered was coarse, gregarious, and sympathetic. Cramer’s choice to capitalize some of Williams bellowing was reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s expressionistic prose style but in this case it didn’t serve to distract the reader only to punctuate character. Cramer himself appeared in the piece but only as a foil for Williams; unlike other new journalists the writer didn’t become the story.
“What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” upset people’s expectations after decades of having read about Williams as remote and forbidding. Cramer humanized Williams to such an extent that you could actually imagine sitting down and having a beer with Teddy Ballgame. And Cramer plied his considerable charm to make sure he got every one of the fifteen thousand words he wrote into print. Hirshey says that Cramer wouldn’t accept the fifteen hundred words that Esquire’s managing editor demanded be cut. As the final touches were being put on the issue, Hirshey was at a black-tie affair and couldn’t be reached when Cramer struck.
“His first stop was the copy department,” said Hirshey, “where he charmed the culottes off the head copy editor and told her that I had given him permission to restore the trimmed fifteen hundred words and that she could call me at home if she liked. She did and, of course, got no answer. Cramer, being a Pulitzer Prize winner and all, had enough journalistic cred to convince her he would take full responsibility for any changes. Next, with the new fifteen-thousand-word galleys in hand, he went to the art department and told them they would have to drop a photo of Williams in the opening layout and shrink the type on the jump. When they balked, he told them I had given him permission and they were welcome to check with me. Now came his biggest challenge. In order for us not to see his handiwork the next morning, he would have to convince the production department that the piece would have to ship that night because ‘the printing plant isn’t used to handling pieces of this length and needed the extra day.’”
The next morning Hirshey arrived at the office and noticed three bouquets of long-stem red roses at the receptionists’ desk addressed to the copy, art, and production departments. All three had the same note attached: “Thanks for your grace under pressure, Richard Cramer.”
In The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, David Halberstam picked “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” as one of four stories considered “The Best of the Best.”
“It’s hard to write a magazine piece that stands out from other magazine pieces,” Cramer’s friend, the writer Mark Jacobson, told me. “At that time a lot of the best journalists were working in the magazine business. So there was a high degree of difficulty in pulling off a piece that really stood out like that. I think it’s the best thing Cramer ever wrote.”
Cramer didn’t have anything left to prove in magazines after Ted Williams. He moved on to books, first writing about presidential hopefuls in What it Takes and then debunking the popular sentiment of another American icon in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. He wrote the occasional magazine piece to pay the bills; they were solid, professional, but not etched in memory.
Cramer loved the old guy, and when Cramer loved a subject—whether it was Williams or Bob Dole or Joe Biden—he could do them justice on the page.
The Williams profile appeared in the 1991 coffee table book, Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid. After Williams died in 2002, Cramer revisited the subject for a standalone volume that included a seventeen-hundred-word introduction and a fifty-eight-hundred-word afterword. His return to Williams enriched the original article, and showed off Cramer at something like his full power. The coda charts the reinvention of Williams’s reputation in his later years, during which he became beloved, a living incarnation of the American century, and ties this to the man Cramer knew. Evaluating what made Williams great, Cramer wrote:
It wasn’t his eyes, it was the avid mind behind them, and the great heart below. Ted was the greatest hitter because he knew more about that job than anyone else. He studied it relentlessly. If you knew something about it, he wanted to know it—and RIGHT NOW! He ripped the art into knowable shards, which he then could teach with clarity, with conviction (something he was never short on), and with surprising patience and generosity. That’s how he was about anything he loved. It was the love that drove him.
It wasn’t just a love for hitting, or his old opponents, or fishermen, but his children, and his old friends, too:
He fell in love with showing his friends that he loved them. The urge grew more poignant and pressing as he lost them to old age—he outlived so many of his generation. When he lost his old Florida Bay fishing-guide buddies, Jack Albright and Jack Brothers—and then, too, his north-woods fishing companion, the Maine newspaperman Bud Leavitt—Ted fretted that he might not have told them well enough, often enough, how much they meant to him. So he’d call up their kids—apropos of nothing in particular: ‘You know, I loved your dad—LOVED ‘IM!’
This, perhaps, is why Cramer wrote so well about Williams. He loved the old guy, and when Cramer loved a subject—whether it was Williams or Bob Dole or Joe Biden—he could do them justice on the page. (When Cramer’s charm failed to win the confidence of a subject, when the love wasn’t reciprocated, as was the case with DiMaggio, Cramer could be unforgiving, even sour.)
A small library of books are devoted to Williams, biographies that reveal more facts about the Red Sox great than Cramer’s Esquire article, even in its expanded version. And Williams is one of the few athletes who merit such lavish biographical attention.
But nothing else that’s been written in any form, at any length, has ever gotten through to Williams himself. This was no caricature. Cramer rendered the man in three dimensions. Others tried but they didn’t ingratiate themselves the way Cramer did so they couldn’t get the nuances down. They wrote from the outside in; Cramer wrote from the inside out.
“I’m out there to clean the plate,” Cramer told Boynton.
And he did.
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]