Sports

Once Upon a Time, an American Athletic Star Bombed the Chi-Coms

Ted Williams throwing out the first pitch before a Red Sox game against the New York Mets in 1999. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Ted Williams did his duty to his nation.

The NBA season begins this week, in the wake of the league’s disgraceful kowtowing to the regime in Beijing, in pursuit of an extra increment of revenue.

LeBron James was the latest NBA figure to buckle last week, calling Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose quickly deleted pro–Hong Kong tweet started the controversy, “misinformed” and “not educated.”

Our athletes once weren’t so transnational in their orientation, or so willing to toss aside American values, or so deferential to Chinese Communists. In fact, once upon a time, one of the greatest American sports stars of all time risked his career — and his life — to fly dozens of missions against the North Korea forces and their Chinese allies in the Korean War.

The Red Sox slugger was perhaps the greatest hitter to ever live and, in the years of playing time he lost serving his country during two wars, a sterling example of patriotic commitment and a standing rebuke to contemporary sports stars who can’t bear the thought of offending the government and people of a hostile power.

One can only imagine what the famously gruff, profane Splendid Splinter would say about highly paid celebrities bending a knee to the power that, in league with its North Korean partner, tried to shoot him from the sky.

Ted Williams was a stubborn, independent personality who wasn’t thrilled about interrupting his career for either war. When World War II broke out, his mother was financially dependent on him, so he was initially classified as 3A.

When his classification was changed to 1A, he thought it was only because he was a famous ballplayer and fought it. He prevailed and began playing the 1942 season amid controversy in the press, before deciding in May that it was time to relent and enlist.

He signed up to be a Naval aviator, and excelled. His teammate Johnny Pesky, also in the aviation program for a time, attested, “He mastered intricate problems in fifteen minutes which took the average cadet an hour, and half of the other cadets there were college grads.” According to Pesky, Williams also displayed remarkable talent in his training in the air: “I heard Ted literally tore the sleeve target to shreds with his angle dives. He’d shoot from wingovers, zooms, and barrel rolls, and after a few passes the sleeve was ribbons. At any rate, I know he broke the all-time record for hits.”

Williams had a close call or two in training but served as a flight instructor and was awaiting assignment in the Pacific when the war ended.

He returned to baseball and then was recalled by the Marines during the Korean War. Williams resented that he was being tapped again after already giving up three years of his career. He suspected — as did others — that the Marines wanted him primarily for publicity. At age 33, another turn in the service could mean the end of his career.

But there was no alternative. The Red Sox held a Ted Williams Day on his last game before he was to report for duty, and he hit a home run in what could have been the last at-bat of his career.

He learned to fly a much more powerful plane than he’d flown in World War II, the Grumman F9F Panther. On his very first mission, he took part in a 35-plane attack against a training facility south of Pyongyang, flew in too low, got hit, and had to limp back to an airfield, crash-landing with his plane in flames.

Williams could have tried to eject, but only at risk of serious injury, as Ben Bradlee Jr. notes in his biography of Williams, The Kid. At almost 6 feet, 4 inches, he had to be shoehorned into the cockpit — literally. Crew chiefs stood on his shoulders to pound him all the way in before he took off.

Then, there was the possibility of capture. In his inimitable style (and obviously prior to the advent of cancel culture), Williams said later, “If I was floating down on a parachute, if any of those slanty-eyed little fuckers came up to me, I’d have said, ‘I’m Ted Williams. I’m a big-deal baseball player. . . . How may I help you?’”

He also recounted later that, unable to lower his landing gear as he approached the runway, he said what passed for a prayer for Ted Williams: “If that son of a bitch up there believes in me, he better save my ass now!”

He suffered only a sprained ankle from jamming the brakes as hard as he could.

He flew another bombing mission less than 24 hours later, Bradlee notes. His commander didn’t want him to get cold feet.

A color guard of United States Marines parade a U.S. flag past a poster of Hall of Famer and former Marine pilot Ted Williams during a tribute for the Red Sox baseball legend at Fenway Park in 2002. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Altogether, he flew 39 missions, many of them as the wingman of the future astronaut John Glenn. His plane got shot up more than once. (It’s impossible to determine whether he was bombing or getting shot at by North Korean or Chinese forces on any given mission, but given how intertwined the two were, it stands to reason that it was both.) He was discharged after he got pneumonia and flying became difficult.

Of course, we aren’t at war with China now, but much less is being asked of NBA players than risking life and limb for their country. A little self-respect would go a long way. The example of Teddy Ballgame is a reminder that professional athletes once had a deep connection to their nation, which could take pride in their sacrifices.

When he first returned to Fenway, according to Bradlee, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey asked if he wanted to take a turn in the batting cage very early before the game. Williams demurred because he hadn’t hit for so long, and then let himself get talked into it. As the small number of people at the park at that hour gawked, he hit some line drives and then, his tender hands growing bloody, hit home run after home run.

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