After the passing of Muhammad Ali, I began thinking about another departed sports hero, Ted Williams. ‘The Louisville Lip’ and ‘The Splendid Splinter’ had more in common than a stranglehold on Sports Illustrated covers.
Both were among the greatest in their respective sports at a time when competition was keen. The heavyweight division was never stronger than it was in Ali’s era. As formidable as Sonny Liston was, Ali’s TKO and KO wins over ‘The Bear’ remain tainted by allegations of a mafia fix. With Liston’s personal troubles before and after the Ali fights, it is not hard to make a good argument in that direction. Yet Ali held the championship twice in the seventies in a time that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton and George Foreman demanded a shot at the title. Williams prowled the outfield for the Red Sox at a time when the Yankees dominated the headlines and the World Series. Win or lose, Williams clocked in everyday, took his licks and did his damnedest to win. I don’t think anyone who has ever read or seen an interview given by Williams would doubt his commitment to the game.
Neither Ali nor Williams ever pleaded injury when their efforts didn’t produce the hoped-for outcome, such was their fierce pride. You would have to be an idiot to think they didn’t occasionally, or often, ply their trade while in pain.
They shared a great pride in their abilities. When Williams began to decline as a hitter (almost imperceptibly to the layman), he would mutter to himself in batting practice, “I am Ted Fucking Williams and I am the greatest fucking hitter in the game.” Prior to his bout with Ernie Terrell, Ali's opponent was quoted as saying, “His Mama called him (Cassius) Clay, I’m going to call him Clay.” Yet in the ring, as Ali turned Terrell’s face into hamburger, Ali taunted, “What’s my name? What’s my name?”
Each gave up a piece of their athletic prime for the U.S. military. Williams, because he chose to serve, Ali because he refused. Williams could have made appearances for the U.S.O. or coached a baseball team comprised of soldiers. But he wanted to be a pilot and flew missions during the Korean conflict. Ali refused induction, knowing he also could have been an ‘attraction’ for the Army and entertainment for the troops, though he refused the easiest path as well. He chose to endure the scorn of the press and much of conservative America, insisting, “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”
Both had an up-and-down relationship with the press, Ali having a slightly better experience because his career was longer and his words, incendiary or not, made better copy. Even if Williams had had his own Howard Cosell, a journalist he could speak expansively to at times and pick on at other occasions, I don’t think Williams would’ve become the icon Ali did. Williams lacked that gift of gab.
In terms of an exit, Williams got the best of that deal. On a late September day in 1960, Ted hit a game-winning home run and walked off the field for the last time as a player. Ali stuck around for years after becoming the champion for a third time, finally leaving the boxing game as a loser in a lopsided decision to a middling heavyweight named Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas in 1982. Yet Ali had been to the mountaintop three times while Williams never won the World Series for the BoSox. Would Williams have mortgaged his batting titles and his position in the Baseball Hall of Fame for one World Series ring? I think he might have.
If there is a specific afterlife for sports heroes, a heavenly arena or stadium where the cigar smoke hangs in the air and the floors are still sticky with beer, that would be where I would like to imagine Ali and Williams meeting. Would they shake hands and congratulate the other for all that had been accomplished? I think they would. They were true to their sport and true to themselves. Float like a long fly ball, sting like a bee.