I’m not sure if HBO planned it this way (it’d have been very smart if it did), but in the past three weeks the channel premiered two brand-new and extremely good documentaries on men called “Ted” who both are inextricably linked with New England.
Ted Williams, the greatest baseball hitter who ever lived, and Ted Kennedy, who’s been serving in the U.S. Senate for 46 years (I admit, that number astounded me, even though I knew he’d been there forever. Let me use a sports metaphor to put that into perspective: Ted Kennedy has been running for, or been in the Senate for the entire history of the New York Mets franchise. Amazing.)
I watched both movies this weekend, and thought both were terrific. You wouldn’t think there would be that much in common between them other than Massachusetts: Teddy Ballgame was a San Diego kid who grew up and could do something better than anyone else in the world: hit a baseball between two fielders.
And Teddy Kennedy, well, he’s an indestructible force of nature, for good and bad, who’s been a part of the American political scene longer than anyone else.
A couple of things I think connect the two men, which came into focus after watching the two movies:
**Both of them gave people plenty of reason to dislike them, yet have ended up being mostly beloved. Williams was a jerk to a lot of people: teammates, the media, his own family, sometimes.
**They both had difficult childhoods, though for very different reasons. Williams was neglected by his parents and forced to grow up fast, while Kennedy suffered tragedy after tragedy. Two siblings died before he was even 15 years old, which I don’t think most people remember about him.
** You want your flawed heroes, here are two very flawed men. Williams was a jerk a lot of the time, an absent father to his kids, and he seemed to resent how much Joe Dimaggio won, and yet “The Splendid Splinter” could get to only one World Series.
(Still think that might be the best baseball nickname ever. Although it’s hard to argue against “The Human Rain Delay,” which was what they called ex-Indians slugger Mike Hargrove. He got the name because he took so damn long between pitches, stepping out of the box and what not. See, the things you learn on this blog!)
And as for Kennedy, well, where do you start with his flaws? He was a heavy drinker for most of his adult life, an accidental murderer of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne on the island of Chappaquiddick 40 years ago, and an egotist who commanded the spotlight everywhere he went.
But both men were so human, with their foibles so out in the open, that I think perhaps they became larger than life when they succeeded.
A few other thoughts on each movie, both of which are showing on HBO all month and on HBO On Demand:
** I knew Williams had a love-hate relationship with Red Sox fans, but I was honestly shocked to learn that as early as 1940, after his amazing rookie season, he was getting booed at Fenway. The guy had just hit .327, drove in 145 runs, and finished fourth in the MVP voting, and he’s getting yelled at by his home fans? Crazy.
**His temper was legendary, but I thought the best example in the movie was the anecdote told by one of his former wives, who said he once ripped the phone out of the wall in their house, then demanded she call the phone company to have them come fix it. Funny if it wasn’t so scary.
**Robert Redford chose No. 9 for the Roy Hobbs character in “The Natural” because he idolized Ted Williams. Didn’t know that.
** I know the “Ted Kennedy has endured so much tragedy” angle is as cliched as it gets, but when you see it all put together at once, it’s still breathtaking in its sadness. Brother Joe and sister Kathleen die early in his life. Brother John murdered while President. Then Teddy nearly dies in a plane crash. Four years later, other brother Robert shot while running for President. Then Ted’s son gets bone cancer and has to have leg amputated. It’s just staggering.
The man is truly indestructible, like the knight in the famous Monty Python sketch who gets his legs and arms cut off in a fight then screams, “Come back, it’s only a flesh wound!”
** I find it sad that Chappaquiddick has almost become an afterthought in the Kennedy legacy. A woman died. Kennedy drove off a bridge, escaped, tried to save her, then went back to his room and never reported that she was down there. Truly horrible, despicable behavior. I like so much of what Kennedy has done as a senator, but it’s really hard to respect him as a man after what happened in July of 1969.
**Also found it interesting that during the 1970s busing crisis in Boston, Kennedy was a pariah. He was booed and pelted with debris because he actually supported interracial school busing.
I came away with more admiration and respect for both 20th century giants after seeing this. Check them out if you have the chance.
P.S. The link on the Ted Williams reference above is to an Esquire story by Richard Ben Cramer, and it’s one of the single greatest pieces of sportswriting ever. If you have 20 minutes, it’s definitely worth your time.