Monday, March 28, 2005

Riding Ted Williams by Frank D'Urso

I grew up thinking that baseball players with single digit numbers were the best, probably because they were. We had Yaz #8, Rico Petrocelli and Johnny Pesky #6, Rick “The Rooster” Burelson #7 and Mickey Mantle of the famed (infamous?) Yankees, whose alliterative name I was enamored of, was #7, of course.

On the Boston Bruins we had Bobby Orr #4 which rhymed (I thought very much on purpose because hockey was like that). Years later I was surprised to learn about Bobby Doerr from the mid century era Red Sox (#1), because his name was so similar to Bobby Orr. I found, and still find it odd that two great players could have such similar names...and be in different sports. (An aside: I happened to get the Red Sox Encyclopedia on my last trip up to Cooperstown. It came chock full of autographs and I checked Bobby Doerr’s own handwriting to ensure I spelled his name correctly.)

The players that got famous during my youth had numbers a little bit higher up (because they came later): Jim Rice #14, Carlton Fisk #27 (and later in Chicago as White Sox #72). Joe Namath made #12 a hot number and for a year or two during elementary school football jerseys or anything with a number on it had to be 12.

The most revered number I assumed would be Babe Ruth (because we in Boston could never forget that he was a Red Sox) but they didn’t wear uniform numbers in his day.

That left the legendary Ted Williams #9 as the number that could never be worn again. Ever. At least for the Boston Red Sox. It was odd for me seeing Ted Williams with that 9 on his back in those same clips they'd bring out every spring training, the “Splendid Splinter” hitting a homerun in his last at bat, “Fucking Ted” showing off his swing three times fast for the cameramen, Ted at spring training with young Jim Rice. They never showed Ted in a Washington Senators uniform. He was only a few years removed from being an active major league manager, and Boston had reclaimed #9 as their own. Then again, these Senators had moved to Texas and become Rangers, relieving any sense of historical links and so very far away that Ted had to come home.

After college I lived on Huntington Avenue, across from Northeastern University’s main quadrangle, literally 50 feet away from what had been centerfield for the first World Series (in 1903). Huntington started, if a street can flow like a river, from downtown Boston, and heads out towards the western side of the state of Massachusetts and maybe even continues through New York and ends up in the Yukon as far as I know. At some point someone, whom I imagine would be an eager politician, realized the simpatico between a highway numbered nine and New England's greatest baseball player numbered nine. And so it was done, Route 9 became “Ted Williams Highway” (at least through the Berkshires). If I had any sort of free time I'd look up who, what, where and when, but for now suffice to say that it is there and it is good.

As an undergrad I would take the “Ted” out to my co-op job, avoiding the dreaded tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Route 9 was a long thin road that threaded over the hills away from Boston, under the TV towers and continued out beyond the highway belts. Many red lights, sometimes two lanes and sometimes three or even four. Sometimes with many stores, sometimes just woods. Sometimes it is like a real highway and sometimes it is like any other busy road in a busy town. The complexities of a San Diego boy and the Boston man with some wartime experiences thrown in. Route 9 was different enough and meant to be replaced by the Turnpike, Interstate 90 (that’s nine times 10 if you are counting). The bond funded “modern” toll road runs through Massachusetts west to east, passing right under and behind the Green Monster, but stopped at the edge of Boston...waiting. Jim Rice had hit a few baseballs out onto this road, with maybe Mark McGwire coming in a close second on the Fenway distance meter.

The “Pike” (not named after old time baseballer Pike Lippman) was eventually extended out and through Boston Harbor and Logan Airport. Local government decided to ignore the cheaper and wiser plan to simply build a new bridge to convey traffic away from downtown Boston and towards the airport. Instead, with enough federal tax dollars to choke the Budweiser stables they decided to mastermind a series of tunnels and tubes and tear down the ribbon of tar and steel that served as a highway choking point in the heart of the city. Sure people were mad that this 12-year project was a waste of taxpayers’ money, many thought (like I still do) that the thing will be outdated by the time it is finished.

But, and there is always a but, the under-the-harbor-to-the-airport tunnel was named in honor of good ol’ #9 Ted Williams. The Ted Williams Tunnel. That seemed to grab people’s attention and soothe them. Soothed us. Made us feel “included” as if we ever had a choice. As if Ted used all his hitting strategies and acute military wisdom and special vision powers to blow out a hole beneath the water (yet not “under water”). I wonder how Ted's Salvation Army mother (gawd bless her unfrozen soul) would feel that she spent her life collecting funds for the poor, pennies and nickels at a time, and here in Boston they’ve constructed a billion dollar engineering masterpiece that bears her son’s name and people pay to drive through it, three and four dollars a pop. Now that is the old time religion around here.

That Federal money for the boondoggle was provided by Ted’s wartime buddy, former President—and Bay of Pigs planner—George Herbert Walker Bush. I got to see the old man two years ago in Cooperstown. He really does like baseball and you can’t fault him for that. As far as having seen or met Ted, I cannot be certain that he was in Cooperstown on any of the trips that I made there. I think he might have been in attendance for Carlton Fisk's induction in 2000, but I’d have to review the tapes for that memory. The closest other than that would be the 1999 All Star game when my sister Lisa and I tried to work our contacts to gain entrance to Fenway Park. We found ourselves out on Landsdowne Street, shocked by the low flying jets commemorating the occasion but also mere feet away from Ted who entered the diamond from the field bleachers. We heard the crowd go wild, and we could see up on the diamond vision display that Ted was in a golf cart and as literally as close a an easy toss if we were playing catch.

So, I’ll never get to play catch with Ted Williams (or even John Henry Williams despite his bunk science), but I can ride Ted Williams. I can get to know his highway. I can really delve right into the Ted Williams, underneath the sand and the silt and the tons of water held back by engineering marvels, through and past the Green Monster and then the tiles and slick lighting, with my Fast Lane pass I merely slow down and don’t stop until I get home.

Frank D'Urso is a member of SABR and travels to Cooperstown every summer.

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