Ted Williams wanted to be known as the greatest hitter ever and the general consensus is that he was. By its very definition, being the “greatest” anything puts one on a very lonely plateau. You are separated from the common man by your uncommon skill and the common man is separated from you.
While Ted Williams wished to isolate himself from everyone else when it came to hitting a baseball, in every other sense, he was very much a part of the world we all live in. And that might be his greatest legacy. He never allowed his greatness to exclude him from responsibilities that even those who are not great must perform.
Many athletes, today and in the past, as well as singers, actors and other famous “stars” use their celebrity as a ticket to be aloof. Maybe they have that coming. Maybe everybody deserves a private life, but taken to an extreme, many stars abandon the real world for a fantasy world where only the rich and famous live.
The problem is not so much that they lose contact with the real world but that the real world is unable to connect with them. The common man cannot touch greatness.
In World War II and again in the Korean War, Williams went from being the greatest hitter ever to being a fighter pilot trainee and then a fighter pilot. The standard line applied to this action is that he was patriotic enough to do his duty, but that it prevented him from setting records that might be unapproachable even today. But there is something else that needs to be recognized.
In 1941, there were just 400 major league baseball players and Williams was arguably the best. But there were millions of soldiers and sailors, and tens of millions more people supporting the war effort. For five years, in two wars, he wasn’t one of them—the 400; he was one of us—the millions.
My mother became a part of this team of proud Americans from all walks of life who put their lives on hold to serve their country. Of course, she wasn’t coming off of a .406 season, but everyone gave up something. When she joined, she became a teammate of her future husband, her brothers and brothers-in-law, and Ted Williams.
In fact, she was trained as an airplane mechanic and like Williams, was stationed at Pensacola. Although she was just a very casual baseball fan, she did grow up just 25 miles north of Boston, and so was familiar with the Red Sox and with Ted Williams. But baseball wasn’t a big part of her life. Certainly my father and uncles were bigger fans.
Nevertheless, when I was growing up she would tell us about her Navy days in Pensacola, stories that almost always included, "Ted Williams was stationed there at the same time.
She could say this because Ted Williams chose not to stay up atop the mountain, but rather to come down in the valley with the rest of us. It was good of him to do this, no matter how many hits and home runs he lost. But it was good for everybody else to have him on their team.