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Ted Williams: A Perfectionist Ballplayer With Many Demons

The hitter had a swing so pure and flawless that Mickey Mantle would watch him take batting practice. But he was also a tormented soul who hurt a lot of people, including himself. Ben Bradlee Jr. delivers a deeply personal account of Williams' life in The Kid.




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Other segments from the episode on December 3, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 3, 2013: Interview with Matthew Hart; Interview with Ben Bradlee Jr.


December 3, 2013

Guest: Matthew Hart - Ben Bradlee Jr.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Gold - it's assumed to have eternal, inherent value, but what makes it valuable, and what determines its value now that it's no longer the basis of our currency? In the new book "Gold: The Race For the World's Most Seductive Metal," my guest, journalist Matthew Hart, examines the new gold rush driven by investors. He travels to gold mines, including one in South Africa, where he descended into the deepest manmade hole on Earth.

He describes how China became the world's top producer of gold, and he investigates why gold and crime sometimes go hand in hand. Hart is also the author of "Diamond: A Journey Into the Heart of an Obsession." Matthew Hart, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book describes this mine in Johannesburg that just sounds like hell. You say it's the deepest manmade hole on Earth. How deep is this mine?

MATTHEW HART: Well, it's about two and a half miles deep, and it is in fact a hellish place to work. But I'll give you a couple of facts about it, first of all. The depth, two and a half miles, it's hard for people to visualize. If you were standing at the bottom of that mine and looking towards the top, you would have, towering above you, a swath of ground and tunnels and chutes and ore haulages about the size of Manhattan, taken from Midtown to the top of Central Park.

So you'd be looking at this enormous swath of underground city, and that's what it is, an underground city, and every morning 4,000 men pile into it and go down to the - many of them - to the very deepest levels to work.

GROSS: What is the importance of this gold mine in the world's supply of gold?

HART: Well, it produces about a billion dollars worth of gold a year. So it's a big and prosperous mine. It's not the - it's not one of the biggest mines in the world, but it's an important mine. And one of the things that says a lot about the price of gold today is that this huge structure, this whole underground city, exists to mine a seam of ore 30 inches wide. I mean that's the width of the seam.

And to get that, they have - this huge structure is there to attack that kind of resource. And when I arrive there early in the morning, and they sit you down in a room and start to give you some of the data of the mine - for example, when you descend into the earth, the temperature rises according to an effect called the geothermal gradient.

And at the deepest levels of the mine, it's 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the rock face. That's the temperature of the rock. So you can imagine what it's like to crawl into a cavity there. It's like crawling into a pizza oven - so very, very hot. In order to make it bearable, they have this ice-making plant on the surface that makes 6,000 tons of ice a day.

They mix it with salt, and it becomes this kind of slushy slurry, and they pump it down into these pipes, into a deep reservoir that sits there. They pass - like these giant fans blow air over it, and the cold air descends down these registers into the deepest mining levels and reduces the temperature to a bearable probably about 85 - it was closer to 90 when I was there. But - and even getting down there is - well, I guess for miners it's what they do every day.

But it certainly had my full attention.

GROSS: Yeah, describe what you saw and what it felt like.

HART: Well, you go down an elevator, in mines they call them cages. In South Africa they call it a manwinder. So as distinct from the elevator that moves rock, which is called the rockwinder, this is the manwinder. And it's a three-deck cage. So you get in on the first deck with 40 men. Then it drops down about 10 feet. Another deck fills with another 40. It drops down again, another 40.

When it's full, they let it go. You go - start to go down this chute fairly slowly at first, and then they just basically take the brake off. And this three-deck stack of men just goes plummeting down this chute at 46 feet a second. So it's a relatively smooth ride, but it rattles a little bit, and you make this descent in about six minutes, the first mile and a half.

You get out, walk along a tunnel, get into another cage, down you go another mile, and by the time you're at the bottom, you step out into a sauna.

GROSS: So among the people who are down in the mine, in addition to the miners are these kind of freelancers who aren't on the payroll. They're not working for the mine. They've snuck in past security and are just trying to, like, prospect for gold themselves. These people are very poor, and they live down there for months at a time. How come?

HART: Well, you're absolutely right, they do. In South Africa they call them ghost miners because they spend such a long time underground they're deprived of sunlight, naturally, being underground, that their skin turns gray. They get this ghostly pallor. And the reason they stay down for a long time is that it's very difficult to get in and out.

Even though they are infiltrated past the mine security, it's still not a cakewalk. The reason that they get past the mine security is because these people are employed by criminal syndicates, very, very powerful criminal syndicates that control an absolute circus of gold mine theft in South Africa. So they manage to get these people, infiltrate them into the mine, because you can imagine how big a structure it is.

It's like a city, 300 miles of tunnels. So it's not hard to find a tunnel that they're not working in, and that's where they set up. They steal ore from there. They refine it inside the tunnel, usually using very, very toxic methods like mercury, which no doubt poison them. But life is cheap in South Africa.

Now, the mines know they're there. If they don't know exactly where they are, they certainly know that they're in there. But security isn't very keen to go looking for these people because in a mine you can hear someone coming a long way off, and these people are armed, and they wouldn't hesitate to shoot security and get into gunfights, and there have been exchanges of fire in those mines and in the deep mines.

And also the ghost miners, the illegal miners who are also sapping away at the mine, they're a source of revenue for the legitimate - or workforce of the mine, because it's those miners, the miners who are allowed to be there, who go down to work, who supply them. And I'll just give you an example. A loaf of bread that costs less than a dollar on the surface costs $12 underground. So you know, by making a couple of extra sandwiches and putting them in your lunch bucket, you can make some serious extra money.

So there's this huge amount of theft going on. At least 10 percent and probably more like 20 percent of the available ore at gold mines in South Africa is stolen. That is about $2 billion worth a year, certainly with a lot of collaboration, including the police.

GROSS: Well, you've just given us this hellish description of a mine in South Africa. Are all gold mines as hellish as this one?

HART: Oh no, they're certainly not. Now, think of the gold mines on the - for example, on the Carlin Trend in north-central Nevada. They're very modern mines, mostly open pit but some underground. People who work on it would be very well-paid, you know, good miners wages. The same would be said of Australia and even in countries like China, which have, in the part of the Chinese gold mining structure that's industrial - no, people are very well-paid.

I think generally, as long as you don't mind working in a mine, certainly they're not all like that. That's a very particular kind of example.

GROSS: If you were buying, say, a wedding band today, what would you want to know about the gold in that ring?

HART: Well, it would be nice to know where it came from, but you never will ever find that out.

GROSS: Why won't you find it out, and why would it be nice for you to know?

HART: Well, I guess I'd rather have a gold ring that came from a mine where I knew the miners were earning a fair wage and - rather than some blood-soaked misbegotten gold field in a corner of Congo where the gold was wrenched out of somebody's hand at gunpoint or virtually - mined by people who are de facto slaves, brutalized.

And the reason I'll never find that out is because nobody's going to keep track of it because they probably know I wouldn't want to buy that gold, I'd rather have this other gold, and gold is just one price. No one's ever going to distinguish between this gold and that gold.

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Hart, author of the new book "Gold: The Race For the World's Most Seductive Metal." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Hart. He's the author of the new book "Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal." So, all of this gold that's being mined in the United States, in China, in Africa, Australia, other parts of the world, how much of that gold is being used for jewelry and gold fillings and other things that, you know, like, require gold or traditionally use gold? And how much of it is purely for, like, investment, speculation, for central banks?

HART: Well, what has driven the current gold market is definitely investment. It used to be that jewelry was the big use. Now it's investment. In fact, we're in the midst of an absolutely unprecedented gold binge. It's really the greatest gold rush in history. You know, when you think of a great gold rush, you think of California. In the California gold rush, they produced 850 tons of gold in 10 years.

Today, we produce 850 tons of gold in four months. And most of the appetite for that is investment. It's trading. Gold is in great demand now, and what's driven that, this huge, this big, sucking vacuum that wants so much bullion, that's so greedy for it, is - well, the great mainspring of it was, in fact, the banking crisis.

Lehmans collapsed in 2008, and since then, gold rose hugely till it hit the - its top at $1,900. Now it's settled back again, but it's still historically a very, very high gold price.

GROSS: But what is the point of having gold? What good does it do you if it's not tied to the currency anymore? We're not - we haven't been on a gold standard in some time.

HART: Well, it's a hedge, I guess. You buy gold, because you hope that it will go up in value. It doesn't have any other use. It has a few minor uses. It has - for instance, nanoparticles of gold are used to improve the efficiency of solar panels. Gold makes certain kinds of medical thermometers that are very, very sensitive. And they coat the visors of astronauts with a thin, thin film of gold, because it's very reflective and protects their eyes from the sunlight.

But there are very few practical uses. Mostly, gold is just an investment. You buy it because you believe that it's going to hold the value of the money that you're putting into it, because it's essentially dead. It doesn't produce anything. You're not going to get a return from it unless it becomes more valuable.

GROSS: Well, the dollar and, you know, currency, like, around the world was tied to gold for a long time. And a lot of people think, well, that was - those were the days when currency made sense, because currency actually had a direct correlation with gold. So you knew what the value of something was, where now paper money and coins seem like they're just an abstraction, that the Fed says they're worth a certain amount, therefore they're worth a certain amount. We can print more, we can print less. But looking back, were times more stable when there was a gold currency and you knew that, you know, bills were backed up by gold?

HART: Well, of course a lot of people would like to think so, but the truth is no. They were just as unstable. What you knew was what you could get for the currency. So, under the gold standard, you had a certain amount of currency, and it had to match, according to a defined rate of exchange, the amount of gold you had in your reserves.

So, if you - if the balance of payments of a country was poor, they had to ship that gold out of the - their own reserves, and give it to the other country that was doing better in trade, thereby reducing the amount of currency they had, because you had to reduce the amount of currency you had. So you have less currency in circulation.

Why the gold standard is a topic even today is that it - critics of current monetary policy don't like the idea of the Fed being able to simply print money in order to stimulate the economy, because they think that's reckless and that it will depreciate the money. Clearly, it does depreciate it a little bit, but at any rate, that's what people don't like. And they think that the gold standard would be a sort of a whip to discipline the monetary policy of the country.

And certainly it would do that, because it absolutely disciplines it. It takes the freedom to create new money totally out of your hands. You have to get more gold to have more money. But there have been plenty of ups and downs on the gold standard, as well as off it.

GROSS: But the end of World War II, the United States had most of the world's gold, about 75 percent, I think you say in the book. And it's at the end of World War II that, you know, most countries basically go off the gold currency. Was it in part because of the U.S. having most of the gold in the world?

HART: Well, yes. That's exactly the reason. They couldn't possibly have their currencies backed by gold, because the United States had all of it, or almost all of it. I mean, there wasn't enough to support other currencies being backed by gold. But what happened was this. The - as prosperity increased around the world, Americans started to buy more foreign products. Think of German cars and Japanese electronics.

So you have United States dollars leaving the United States and going into foreign banks, because we're paying them for their goods. However, the reverse wasn't happening. Foreigners weren't finding American products that they wanted to buy. So that meant that surplus dollars were building up in foreign banks, and finally, they cashed them in for gold.

They'd say I don't need to have these billions of U.S. dollars. I'm going to take half of them back to Washington and get the gold and take the gold back. So much so that by the time Richard Nixon came to power, the United States gold reserve, which had been 20,000 tons, was down to about 8,000 tons. It was a headline story.

The United States was hemorrhaging gold. Balance of payments, that gold was going out. They had to do something, and they did: Nixon killed the gold standard, and that was the end of it. From that moment on, when you had a dollar bill, that's what you had: one U.S. dollar.

GROSS: So we started our interview with your description of a mine that you visited in Johannesburg, which is several miles deep. And it sounds - it sounds like it's a pretty scary place to be. Tell us about another mine you visited that really opened your eyes to, like, some of the extremes of gold mining.

HART: Well, I'll answer that question by talking about an area that - a kind of gold mining that I found most - that moved me most, that I found genuinely, deeply moving. It was in the Eastern Forests of Senegal, the bamboo forests. They'd been mining since the days of the Emperor Mansa Musa, who ruled the Mali Empire at its greatest height, when it was a great gold power.

And these people, they lived in villages in the forest, and they mined in the forest. Their shafts went down about 20 meters, and all underneath the forest was this network of tunnels, all interconnected. And to see these people, in amongst all of the industrial exploration and the drilling and the trucks and the roads that the people I had gone to see were building, to see this other gold mining going on as it had always gone on, it was just moving, in a way, because they seemed extremely connected.

They knew the gold price. They had cell phones. And yet they were mining in a way that they'd been mining forever, all out in the bush, mining gold and profiting by it.

GROSS: So, once we've mined all the gold on Earth, are we finished?

HART: Well, there was this very interesting story just a couple of months ago, in June. A NASA satellite picked up a massive explosion in a distant galaxy, and it was this violent collision of two dense neutron stars, so heavy, according to the story I read, that a teaspoon full of their surface weighs five billion tons.

Now, the crash of these two neutron stars released this sort of afterglow, this radioactive afterglow, and it created the equivalent - according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation, as he called it, by a NASA astrophysicist - it created 20 Earth-sized planets of solid gold.

GROSS: Whoa, really?

HART: So, there's gold out there.


HART: If we run out, we'll just have to figure out how to go get it.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

HART: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Matthew Hart is the author of "Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal." You can read the first chapter, which includes his description of the mine near Johannesburg, on our website, I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There are great ballplayers, and then there's Ted Williams. In a 22-year career with the Boston Red Sox, Williams staked a credible claim to being the greatest hitter who ever lived. But he was also a tormented soul who hurt a lot of people, including himself.

Williams is the subject of the new biography "The Kid" by our guest Ben Bradlee, Jr. Williams 16 batting titles, including one when he was 40. He is the last player to hit 400 in a season, and he retired with baseball's highest on-base percentage ever. Williams hit for power too. His 521-career home runs places him among the top 20 of all time, despite missing three seasons - serving in World War II - and most of more seasons serving as a pilot in Korea.

But Williams' personal life was a mess. Though he quietly committed countless acts of kindness and generosity, he also railed at sportswriters, cursed and spat at fans and took out his rage on those closest to him. And in a truly bizarre ending to his life story, his son had his head and body chronically frozen, generating a bitter family dispute that played out in the Boston media.

Author Ben Bradlee, Jr. spent 25 years as a reporter and editor at the Boston Globe. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well, Ben Bradlee, Jr., welcome to FRESH AIR. Now Ted Williams decided at a very early age he was going to be one of the greatest hitters of all time, right? But what was he like physically and how did he get so good?

BEN BRADLEE, JR.: Well, he was a tall string bean and weighed nothing. He always thought he was too skinny and weak. He worried about his power and whether he would have enough to make it in baseball. But he was just an incredible hitter. He had a textbook swing, low to high. He always emphasized that you had to have a slight uppercut in your swing, and it was smooth. And he ended up pioneering the notion that sluggers in baseball didn't need to use a big heavy bat, that I lighter bat was better because it created more whip and the speed of the bat hitting the ball, the speed of the swing - like a golfers' speed of the swing - is what really generates the power. And he also had fantastic eyesight, unusual eyesight and reflexes, and, of course, natural coordination. But he didn't like it when people suggested that his success was simply due to his natural talent. He said no one ever swung a bat more often than I did, no one practice harder than I did. So he always attributed a lot of his success to hard work.

DAVIES: Ted had a lot of anger. This man's childhood wasn't easy. Tell us about his mom.

JR.: Well, his mother was a Salvation Army street worker, a zealot, really. And she was dedicated. She was out until all hours of the night saving souls on the street. And this is what she believed in, that was her passion in life, more so than taking care of her two sons - Ted and his younger brother, Danny. And those kids were one of the first latchkey kids, really. They were up until about 10 o'clock at night waiting on the front step of their house for their mother to come home. The father was sort of a drunk, and a ne'er-do-well and not around. And his mother not being present caused Ted a lot of resentment and anger. I think that was the source of the anger. And he had a, luckily for him, a playground right down the street where, which had lights - was unusual in those days - so he was able to spend much of the time on the ball field. But he nursed this anger and resentment and these were festering early memories for him.

DAVIES: So the family was poor. And there's another aspect of his childhood that Ted never was very comfortable with, and that was his ethnic heritage, his mom's. Tell us about that.

JR.: Well, I think this is one of the most interesting parts of the Williams story, and it's something that didn't come out until a month before Ted died in 2002, the fact that he was a Mexican-American. His mother was Mexican - she was born in Mexico. Her parents were born and raised there as well. And he was embarrassed about this and afraid that the prejudice of the day would hurt his baseball career. Even though Mexicans didn't figure as prominently as black ballplayers, nevertheless he feared, he was aware of the certainly, the black prejudice and feared that it could hurt him. And so he was advised to keep this under wraps and he did. He always spoke rather contemptuously of his extended family on his mother's side and referred to them as the Mexicans in not a nice way.

And there was a very telling moment in 1939, after Williams had completed his rookie year with the Red Sox and had made an absolutely smashing debut, hit well over 300 and led the league in runs batted in. And he returned to San Diego but conquering hero and was met at the train station by a gaggle of 100 or so of the extended Mexican clan. And Ted took one look at them from afar and beat a hasty retreat; he didn't want to be seen them.

DAVIES: He played his entire career at Boston and had a, you know, a contentious relationship with the fans, to a degree, and to the - and certainly with sportswriters for all of those years. But there was this other side of him, visiting kids in the hospital and not telling anybody about it. Tell us about that.

JR.: Yes. Yeah. Well, this is a very important side of Ted Williams. His anger got a lot of the attention. But that anger was really leavened by fundamental kindness and decency. He had a good heart. His outlet for showing this, chiefly, was sick children with cancer. And in those days, cancer for children was almost always fatal. And he got involved with the Jimmy Fund, which was a charity that the Red Sox took over after initially started by Old Boston Braves. And their main goal was to raise money and do anything they could to help kids with cancer. And Williams would go and quietly visit these kids, and he would insist that there be no publicity or else he wouldn't come. He would leave his phone number with the nurses and the doctors, and if there was a kid they felt could benefit from a visit from Ted Williams they were call him and he would come. But the writers came to find out about it and they would ask him about it and then he would say yeah, it's true, but if you write it I'll never talk to you again. This was genuine and he didn't want any ink for it.

DAVIES: You know, we could spend an hour talking about his great moments as a hitter. But one that we probably should discuss is the incredible season he had in 1941. He hit a homerun to win the All-Star game and then he had a chance to hit 400, which no one has done since. And tell us about that approaching the last day, where his average was and the decision about whether to play a doubleheader.

JR.: Well, this was really his defining moment as a player. And one of the decisions that he made, which is heroic and gives him such luster. He entered into the final two games of the year. It was a doubleheader in Philadelphia, and he was hitting 399.6. So the average would have been rounded up on the books but he knew for his legacy that he had to play. He didn't want to back into 400.

DAVIES: So he could've sat out the day and technically done this...

JR.: He could've sat out the day and it would've gone on the books as 400, but with an asterisk, you know, and he might've been criticized for it. He knew. But his manager, Joe Cronin, was telling the writers as the day approached that he might bench The Kid to protect his average. It was late September; the shadows at the park in Philadelphia were a factor. Connie Mack was pitching two rookie pitchers that Williams wasn't familiar with. And...

DAVIES: And we should just note that this was a season that had gone, you know, had gotten such attention. He had been on the cover of "Life" magazine, right. He would get standing ovations at Yankee Stadium of all places. So this was the story of the year...

JR.: Yeah.

DAVIES: After Joe DiMaggio's...

JR.: Except for - after Joe DiMaggio...

DAVIES: ...except for Joe to Maggio's 56 game hitting streak...

JR.: Yeah.

DAVIES: Which was maybe even more amazing, but was over by the time Ted was approaching the end of the season with a shot at 400.

JR.: Exactly. Yeah.

DAVIES: So they put him in the lineup for a doubleheader. What happened?

JR.: Well, at his insistence. At his insistence. Ted said to Cronin, no way am I not playing this game. And not only did he play the first game, he played the second game. So in the first game, I forget exactly how many hits he got the first game. I believe three. He got three hits, including a homerun. So by that time, he was safely over 400 - maybe 402 or three, and in between games one of the writers came down and told Cronin exactly what his average was and are you going to sit him now, Joe, for the second game? And Joe said no, The Kid insisted on playing the second game too. So theoretically, he might have, if he went 0 for four in the second game, he could've slid back under 400, perhaps. So he got another three hits in the second game, I believe, and on the day went six for eight. So it was really a courageous, defining moment for him.

DAVIES: And there were plenty of stories of his, you know, tantrums and rages, you know, ripping phones out of the wall, with his wives, and some allegations of abuse. I mean was he a wife beater?

JR.: Well...

DAVIES: There were two in the book, as I recall.

JR.: Yeah. Yeah. I mean his first wife alleged in her divorce complaint that he had hit her. And their daughter, Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell, who is now dead, told me that she was told by her grandmother that he had hit Doris, her mother, and there was a scuffle at the top of a stairs and she fell down the stairs - this is while she was pregnant with Bobby-Jo. And it's unclear; it's murky, whether he intended to push her down the stairs. I mean his - he was able to channel his anger on the baseball field effectively. You know, he would manufacture these feuds with the writers and then go off on a tear and hit 500 for two months. But in his private life does anger would bubble up at totally inappropriate times and cause him great difficulty. So the price of being in the Williams orbit was that you had to endure these storms of anger, and they would pass quickly but they were abusive.

DAVIES: Ben Bradlee, Jr.'s book is "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is writer, Ben Bradlee, Jr. His new biography of Ted Williams is called "The Kid."

Well, we have to talk about this truly bizarre chapter in Ted's life. Well, really, after the end of his life, when his, you know, his body was frozen for a potential, you know, thawing when medical technology advances. You know, the science is called cryonics. And before we talk about how that came to occur, I'd like you to just describe what actually happened to Ted's body when he died in 2002.

JR.: Well, when he died, he died in - he was living in this remote section of Florida called Hernando, which is in between Tampa and Orlando in North Central Florida, very remote. And John Henry, his son, had gotten interested in cryonics back in 1997. And he decided that this was something that he wanted to have done with his father's body.

And so when the time came, the body was taken from the local hospital in Hernando and taken to the nearest airport. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which is one of the leading practitioners of cryonics based in Arizona, that was the facility that John Henry had settled on for his father. They flew a chartered jet in and...

DAVIES: This is after throwing packs of ice on the body to freeze it, from the hospital bed in Florida, right?

JR.: Right. Well, that's - for the cryonicist ice is a key staple to try and preserve the body as much as possible until they actually performed the procedure. So his body was flown out to Scottsdale, Arizona, outside Phoenix, and then they started this three or four hour procedure which was quite gruesome.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about that. I mean, you want to describe what was actually done? I mean, you could choose to have simply...

JR.: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...your head preserved or your body or both.

JR.: Right. And in the world of cryonics, there are basically two options. One is called the whole body procedure, where essentially you have your entire body frozen. This is all in the attempt or the belief that medical science will some day advance to the point where it'll be possible to cure you of whatever disease you died of and bring you back to life.

It's widely dismissed, this theory, by most mainstream scientists, and it's essentially, you know, a hope and a prayer. So there's that. There's the whole body or there's what's called the neuro, which involves cutting your head off and saving just your head, the theory being that the brain is the most important part of the body.

Because when you come back to life you will want to know from whence you came. The brain holds the memory. And the theory also is that science, by that time, will have advanced to the point where it will be easy to generate tissue and you can grow a body underneath your head. Or so the hope goes.

DAVIES: So what happened to Ted's body?

JR.: Well, John Henry decided they would do the neuro. So his head was cut off at Alcor the night of July 5th, 2002 at about 9:15 Mountain Time. And they also decided - people who have the neuro and just the head taken off usually dispose of the rest of the body and have it cremated. But they decided to keep Williams' trunk as well. So both are out there frozen today at Alcor.

DAVIES: And they're stored in these tanks that are called - what is the term?

JR.: Dewars. Dewars is what the Alcor people call them. It looks like, if you've ever toured a microbrewery there are these big tanks hanging from the ceiling filled with liquid nitrogen cooled to something like, you know, minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit and the bodies are kept in one tank, maybe about five or six to a tank. And the heads are put in what looked like lobster pots inside what's called a neuro column and they're kept in a separate smaller tank.

DAVIES: This story is fascinating in many ways, and one part of it is that Ted had said repeatedly throughout his life that he wanted to be cremated. But he has this close relationship with his son from his third marriage, John Henry, late in his life after not being really a very present father to any of his kids, you know, for most of his life.

And, you know, it's an interesting story as you tell in the book, that John Henry became quite adept at using his father's name for various business projects, eventually kind of took power of attorney over Ted. And we should also say that John Henry, he died in 2004 after contracting leukemia. But a lot of people felt that John Henry had taken advantage of his father and a question arises - was there a financial motive for John Henry in seeking to have Ted Williams' body cryonically preserved?

JR.: I don't think so, bottom line. He did exploit his father financially by taking over the memorabilia business, no question. But he also loved his father and he was there at the very end doing the hard work of - and real nitty gritty work of helping take care of his father at the end. So I think he did love him. And the cryonics, I think, can be seen more as an attempt to - it was more of a Peter Pan quality about it.

This was a way to stay with his father forever and John Henry, having driven his father to cryonics, to his credit, at least did it himself. After he died in 2004 he also was frozen and his remains are in Alcor in Arizona in the same tank as his father.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Ben Bradlee Jr. His new book about Ted Williams is called "The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, our guest is author Ben Bradlee Jr. He has a new book about the life of Ted Williams called "The Kid." He continued to do amazing things throughout his career, even though he was interrupted by going into the service in World War II and then again being called back and flew missions over Korea. He homered at his last at bat, his last game.

I mean, he's truly an immortal figure of the game. But he also had these amazing eccentricities. There was an account of his warm-up routine in the dugout. Do you want to describe this?

JR.: Well, yeah. He was certainly vain. And in addition to being good, Williams thought it was important to look good. And dating back to his childhood in San Diego, he would always walk into school holding a bat. And sometimes he would pass a store and admire his reflection in the glass and take a swing or two. And the store managers inside would look out, bemused at this kid admiring his reflection in the glass.

But Ted very candidly admitted that he didn't want to just be good, he wanted to look good. And it was important that he have a beautiful swing. So part of his pre-game routine would be that he would often strip down to his - just wear a towel around his waist and some sandals and he would go stand in front of a mirror and take his cuts. And he'd be psyching himself up for the game.

And he'd start, you know, he'd take a cut and then start murmuring under his breath I'm Ted Williams; take a swing. I'm Ted Williams; I'm the best f'ing hitter in baseball.

DAVIES: One more thing. I've spent most of my career covering politicians and elected officials and have observed over the years that the people who achieve at the highest level are often not exactly, I don't know, normal, for lack of a better word.

JR.: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: You know, people that do great things aren't necessarily the people I'd want to introduce my sister to. You know? And I've always wondered whether people's achievements are tied to their demons. And with Ted you see such extraordinary athletic achievements and just such a troubled man. You think they're connected?

JR.: Well, I think in order to excel sometimes you have to be single-minded in your determination to succeed and other things suffer along the way. And he was that. He ignored - he put family life aside and he was absolutely determined to become the greatest hitter that ever lived. And he was driven to excel - not just in baseball. It turned out that he was a world-class fisherman as well.

He learned photography. He became a top gun Marine fighter pilot. And John Glenn, no less, called him one of the greatest pilots he'd ever seen. Anything that he undertook, he wanted to do right. He was a perfectionist and he had no tolerance for those who did things in what he felt were a shoddy manner. And he was in a zone, really, his entire life. And when you're in a zone like that, a lot of other things - you can break a lot of china along the way.

DAVIES: Well, Ben Bradlee, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JR.: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Ben Bradlee, Jr. spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Bradlee's new biography of Ted Williams is called "The Kid." You can read an excerpt on our website We'll close with a song by the late Boston-based pianist Dave McKenna who was a devoted Red Sox fan. It's called "Splendid Splinter," referring to one of the nicknames that fans gave Ted Williams.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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