By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
A COMPLICATED STORY OF AMERICAN HEROES
The one hundredth birthday of Ted Williams and the funeral of John McCain took place
just two days apart, Williams’ centennial was on August 30 th and McCain’s farewell
service on September 1 st . The juxtaposition of the two events was a coincidence, to be
sure, but the two men’s lives were closely intertwined with one another.
They were born a generation apart, but both were combat pilots, Williams a marine and
McCain in the navy. Both were in planes that were hit by enemy fire. McCain’s plane had
a wing sheared off, crashed, and he was captured by the North Vietnamese, held prisoner,
beaten, and tortured for five and a half years. Ted managed to somehow steer his badly-
damaged plane out of enemy skies (the enemy in his case being North Korea) and
miraculously land it, barely escaping with his life.
But the connection between the two went much further than that.
In his memoir, Worth the Fighting For, John McCain devoted an entire chapter to Ted
Williams, who was his boyhood hero. In his youth, when he was living in suburban
Washington, D.C., his uncle, who was the Washingon bureau chief of the New York
Herald Tribune, used to take him to Griffith Stadium when the Red Sox were in town to
play the old Washington Senators. It was in those years that he developed his affinity for
the great slugger. Converesly, he developed a distinct distaste for the New York Yankees
(something which even those citizens of Red Sox Nation who are partisan Democrats can
admire about him). He felt no particular connection to the baseball Senators; as the scion
of a military family (his father and grandfather were both famous admirals) he moved
often, sometimes to the other side of the world, depending on where his father was
posted, so he never really had a hometown. As an aside, when he first ran for Congress in
Arizona, he was constantly accused of being a carpetbagger, and he was queried about it
again in a debate. Exasperated, he snapped, “Listen pal….when I think about it now, the
place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.” So much for the carpetbagger issue. He won
that campaign easily.
John McCain didn’t have a favorite baseball team but in Ted Williams he had a favorite
player and a hero.
In the late 1990s Esquire Magazine did a feature story on the heroes of celebrities.
McCain, then finishing his second term in the U.S. Senate, immediately named Williams
as his hero. As a result he traveled to Ted’s home in Citrus Hills, Florida, where the two
would be jointly intervewed by the magazine. They spent the better part of a day
together, and a bond of friendship developed between them. McCain for years retold the
story of Ted’s reaction when he asked why he didn’t eject from his plane after it had been
hit. Ted had been genuinely ambivilent about whether or not he’d play again after his
hitch in Korea was over. But when faced with the option of ejecting from the plane, Ted
had looked at his lanky frame jammed into the cockpit, decided that ejecting would break
his kneecaps and that he’d never play again. It was at that moment that he decided that,
yes, he wanted to play baseball again. Despite the long odds and with his very life
hanging in the balance, he took the wounded plane back to friendly territory and safely
landed it. Then he played for the Red Sox for seven more seasons.
McCain and Williams discovered that day that they shared a similar conservative
philosophy with a large dollop of independence thrown in. For his part, Williams greatly
admired the senator’s heroism and integrity and he made no secret of it.
Fast forward to January, 2000. McCain was making his first run for the presidency. The
first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary was just around the corner. In what would be
one of the final public appearances of his life, Ted Williams traveled to the Granite State
to endorse the candidacy of – wait for it – George W. Bush, McCain’s opponent in what
would be a bitterly contested campaign.
Had Teddy Ballgame, always known as a standup guy, stabbed the war hero in the back?
Ted had another relationship with another navy war hero, a pilot whose plane had also
been shot down by enemy fire, and that relationship stretched back far longer than the
one with McCain.
In September, 1944, George H.W. Bush, the father of McCain’s opponent, then 20 years
of age and one of the youngest pilots in the navy, had participated in a bombing raid off
the coast of mainland Japan. His plane was hit by enemy fire, and he was one of nine
pilots who had to ditch their planes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Somehow his tiny
life raft was spotted by an American ship before the Japanese could find him – as they
did find all the others. He was the only one of the nine who survived. He went on, of
course, to have a distinguished career in the service of his country, including becoming
the forty-first President of the United States.
During the years that Williams was managing the Washington Senators the elder Bush
was a congressman from Texas. They got to know each other and found out that they had
more than their wartime experiences in common; they also had baseball. Bush had been
the captain and the first baseman, though admittedly a light hitting one, at Yale
University. Ted had campaigned for him in 1988 and 1992, and he wasn’t about to leave
the reservation in 2000, not because of who the candidate was that year but because of
who the candidate’s father was.
McCain, though disappointed not to have his hero’s support was neither surprised nor
angry. George W. Bush eventually won the nomination and the presidency, but McCain,
despite the non-endorsement of the great Ted Williams, was the clear winner in New
All of that happened not so many years ago, but it seems quaint nowadays to think there
was a time when actual American heroes walked among us and even ran for president of
the United States.