Most biographies on Ted Williams (a.k.a. the “Splendid Splinter”) focus relatively little space — a chapter or two — to the man’s life outside of baseball. The prolific author Bill Nowlin’s terrific book Ted Williams At War however, at well over 360 pages, devotes plenty of space to Williams’ time in the armed forces, including the political and military circumstances and controversies surrounding his multiple calls to duty, among other matters.
Nowlin, who has written quite a few Red Sox-related books, has covered much of Ted Williams’ life in ways few other authors have, from the first twenty years of his life — including high school and semi-pro ball in The Kid: Ted In San Diego — to his pro baseball days and now, military career. This book contains a nearly overwhelming series of memorable baseball stories and trivia, as they relate to the late legendary ballplayer’s military service. It chronologically recounts facts and veterans’ stories of life during wartime, many of whom also have their own recollections of serving with Williams, whether they be good, bad or indifferent to who they saw as just one of the guys. Often times the book is so military-focused you swear you’re reading a Thomas Ricks book, but it all comes back to baseball somehow.
Bill Nowlin says at the outset that “Teddy Ballgame” is the only MLB Hall of Famer to have served in two wars: World War II and the Korean War. Both took away nearly five full seasons’ worth of playing time for the legendary Boston Red Sox slugger, and at the prime of his career, too.
In chapter two, “In The Navy Now,” you learn that during WWII, access to rubber was limited, so baseballs were made without rubber centers. Thus, the wartime ball was called the “balata ball,” according to Nowlin. It made hitting home runs harder and rare, but on one special day, July 12, 1943 at Fenway Park, Ted Williams met Babe Ruth for the first time. (An iconic picture of the two stars appears on p. 44.) He was in awe of being in the presence of the Babe, who was in his late 40s at the time, but was there to play the Mayor of Boston’s Field Day benefit game between the Service All-Stars (including himself and Dom DiMaggio) and the Boston Braves. The Babe was his manager (and later pinch-hitter), and his team beat the Braves 9-8 that memorable day, with a 3-run HR by Williams being the difference.
The two baseball greats also competed against each other in another benefit later that month in Yankee Stadium, with Williams’s team beating the Babe’s squad 11-5. Another cool fact: In June 1942, future president George Herbert Walker Bush became a Naval Cadet at the same Boston, MA facility Williams did just three weeks earlier. With tours of duty overlapping (at Chapel Hill, NC), he saw Ted Williams play baseball games with fellow service members that summer, though didn’t actually meet him in person until later in life. It is jaw-dropping facts and stories like these that make this book such a treasure and captivating read.
The author reveals that there was controversy over one of his Williams’ deferments from military service, specifically in February 1942, which was two months after Pearl Harbor. Bill Nowlin writes that originally, in early 1941, the draft board informed Ted Williams he would have to serve his country by the summer of 1941 unless he was deferred. He was granted this deferment without any trouble, seeing as he was the sole (financial provider) to his San Diego-based mother, May Williams. Amazingly, he went on to play the whole 1941 baseball season, when he batted over .400 for the year (.406 to be exact), a feat that hasn’t occurred since. Imagine how different baseball history would be if he was called up to active duty during the 1941 season!
But in early 1942, with the USA now officially in WWII, Nowlin writes that Williams found out the draft board reversed his classification from III-A to I-A, meaning he was draft-eligible. He was eventually granted deferment again for the same reasons as before, but the media wrongly thought he was getting special treatment because of his fame, even though other pro players like Stan Musial were deferred due to similar circumstances.
His deferments were legit, but after the Red Sox promised to help take care of his mother’s finances, Williams decided to enlist in the Navy on his own terms. By the summer of 1942, Williams, while still playing baseball, had officially become a US Navy Reserve Aviation Cadet. He became a flight instructor for the Marine Corps during the war itself, sacrificing the next three years of what was a blossoming baseball career (1943-1945). He would miss nearly five seasons worth of baseball due to his WWII and Korean War services. Talk about sacrifice. This was no doubt a difficult period in his life.
Williams would gripe in private to fellow soldiers about the reasons the Marines recalled him for the latter war and hated “gutless” politicians in Washington for their decisions during war time. His bluntness didn’t bother most Marines, but did rub some others the wrong way. According to Nowlin’s sources, though, Williams never turned down a mission or flight, no matter how dangerous. Nowlin even went to extraordinary lengths to knock down allegations that at least one commanding officer wanted Williams court-martialed (for allegedly “undermining morale” in 1953) and was brought home from the war to save face and not further embarrass the Marines because of this. It was a false charge as it turned out, according to the author’s interviews with all the colonels and other living veterans he could get a hold of.
A bum elbow (due to combat duty), sickness, and other medical problems, particularly hearing problems he developed early in Korea and which got worse in the Korean War’s late stages, along with the fact that his services were no longer needed, led to his honorable discharge in the summer of 1953. Ted Williams would be awarded 12 medals for his service in the two wars.
Other book highlights: The highly accomplished American hero John Glenn, who was a US Senator, one of America’s first astronauts, and notable war veteran, served alongside Williams as a Marine in the Korean War for much of his time there, in the VMF-311 squadron in particular. A short but insightful chapter is dedicated to the two iconic men’s relationship near the end of the book. They became good friends and had the utmost respect for each other, up until William’s passing in 2002. Nowlin writes that Glenn believed Williams “gave flying the same perfectionist’s attention he gave to his hitting.” Glenn, unlike some other fellow Marines who personally considered him to be an a-hole, had the utmost praise of “Teddy Ballgame’s” efforts in the Korean War: “Ted only batted .406 for the Red Sox. He batted a thousand for the Marine Corps and the United States.”
In all, Bill Nowlin, after tracking down and interviewing over 120 people familiar with Ted Williams’ war services, including dozens of pilots, has written the most thoroughly documented account of the man’s time in war one could possibly ask for. The tireless search and research for truth to rumors concerning his entry and exit from both wars is impressive, as is the comprehensive chronology of all noteworthy military-related events in his life, including details on all 39 missions in Korea, at least one of which early on nearly took his life.
Ted Williams At War may be a long and exhaustive read, but it’s no doubt worth your time, especially in light of the time he took to serve this country. I recommend this book to any and all baseball fans, to those who want to learn about one man’s struggles and successes in his multiple calls to dangerous but crucial duty, and to everyone who can appreciate the sacrifices that come with such actions. Ted Williams was by no means a saint, but as Bill Nowlin’s account proves, he was a hero. A true American hero.