Musings: Ted Williams' Dress Rehearsal

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

TED WILLIAMS’ DRESS REHEARSAL

Were you there the day of Ted’s last blast?
Were you part of his supporting cast?
Were you fully grown or just a tyke?
Were you sitting next to John Updike?
A million people say they were,
But the numbers don’t concur.
There were just ten thousand in the stands,
Whooping, cheering, clapping hands.
Are you sure you’re right to make such claims,
Or is your mem’ry playing games?
Some on their mother’s grave have sworn
Even though they weren’t yet born.
A million fans, plus you were there?
That’s more than showed up all that year.
Perhaps you’re fudging just a bit,
In fact, I think you’re full of sheer admiration for Ted Williams.

Everyone who follows baseball even a little bit is aware that Ted Williams hit a home run
in his final at bat in the major leagues, but how many know that he did it twice?

He famously accomplished the feat on September 28, 1960 against Jack Fisher of the
Baltimore Orioles, but he’d already done it once before.

April 30, 1952 was Ted Wiliams Day at Fenway Park, Teddy Ballgame’s last game
before reporting for duty, having been recalled to serve in the Korean War by the
Marines, who were desperately short of pilots. He was thirty three years old at the time
and in all probability would be thirty five by the time he returned, an age at which
contemporaries like Joe DiMaggio and Jimmie Foxx were already finished playing. He
wasn’t at all sure that he’d want to put himself through the come-back process at such an
advanced age. In addition, the dangers of being a fighter pilot back then were such that
his return might not even be an option.

In the pre-game ceremonies that day he was presented with, among other gifts, a powder
blue Cadillac. At the end of his brief remarks Ted, who was hatless, pulled his cap from
his back pocket and waved it at the crowd of twenty-five thousand, later claiming that he
hadn’t broken his promise never to tip his cap, since he hadn’t been wearing it in the first
place. People were so sure that this was his swan song that the ceremony concluded with
the players from both teams, the Red Sox and the visiting Detroit Tigers, all holding
hands and serenading him with a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Then came the game. In the seventh inning, with the score tied at three to three and Dizzy
Trout on the mound for the Tigers, Ted came up with a man on first for the final time,
and, sure enough, he blasted a game-winning home run over the visitors’ bullpen. As
easy as that – at least that’s how he made it look.

The next morning he set off to report for duty at the Naval Air Station in Willow Grove,
Pennsylvania. He was off on a new adventure, one that came very close to being his last.

On the following February 16 th , just about the same time that pitchers and catchers were
reporting for spring training prior to the 1953 season, Captain Ted Williams’ plane, on a
bombing run in North Korea, was hit by small arms fire. His radio and navigation
systems were knocked out. One of his squadron mates saw that he was headed north,
further into enemy territory. The other pilot took off after him, got him turned around and
escorted him toward friendlier skies. Ted’s damaged plane was leaking fuel and in danger
of being engulfed with flames and the other pilot was signaling him to eject and
parachute to safety. But Ted, whose long legs were crammed underneath the instrument
panel, knew that ejecting would shatter his kneecaps, ending any chance that he’d ever
play baseball again. He decided to take his chances on getting back to a landing strip (so
his mind was made up; he did want to play again, after all). He was directed toward a
base that was closer than his home base and had longer runways. His hydraulic system
was out and the landing wheels could not be lowered; further, he couldn’t slow his speed
much because doing so would cause the fuel to pool in the bottom of its tank, resulting in

its catching fire and blowing up the plane. Ted hit the tarmac and began to skid – and
skid. He skidded for well over a mile with sparks and flames trailing behind him. When
the plane finally stopped he popped open the canopy, scrambled out, and ran for his life.

The plane never did catch fire. As it turned out, it was totally out of fuel by the time he
landed, so he couldn’t have gone on much farther in any case. The next morning, shortly
after eight o’clock, Captain Williams took off for North Korea on another bombing
misssion.

The news of his bravery and determination under tremendous pressure made headlines all
across America and by the time he returned to the states that summer his larger-than- life
personna had reached almost god-like proportions. He was still possessed by, the same
old demons, the uncontrollable fits of rage would still overtake him from time to time,
but he would never be treated like a mere mortal again.

One casualty of all the fuss being made over him was the fading from pubic
consciousness of his baseball heroics of April 30, 1952, but that’s okay; what he did that
day was just a dress rehearsal for September 28, 1960.