The one hundredth birthday of Ted Williams and the funeral of John McCain took place just two days apart, Williams' centennial was on Aug. 30 and McCain's farewell service on Sept. 1. The juxtaposition of the two events was a coincidence, to be sure, but the two men's lives were closely intertwined with one another.
They were born a generation apart, but both were combat pilots, Williams a Marine and McCain in the Navy. Both were in planes that were hit by enemy fire. McCain's plane had a wing sheared off, crashed, and he was captured by the North Vietnamese, held prisoner, beaten, and tortured for five and a half years. Ted managed to somehow steer his badly-damaged plane out of enemy skies (the enemy in his case being North Korea) and miraculously land it, barely escaping with his life.
But the connection between the two went much further than that.
In his memoir, ''Worth the Fighting For,'' John McCain devoted an entire chapter to Ted Williams, who was his boyhood hero. In his youth, when he was living in suburban Washington, D.C., his uncle, who was the Washington bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune, used to take him to Griffith Stadium when the Red Sox were in town to play the old Washington Senators. It was in those years that he developed his affinity for the great slugger. Conversely, he developed a distinct distaste for the New York Yankees (something which even those citizens of Red Sox Nation who are partisan Democrats can admire about him). He felt no particular connection to the baseball Senators; as the scion of a military family (his father and grandfather were both famous admirals) he moved often, sometimes to the other side of the world, depending on where his father was posted, so he never really had a hometown. As an aside, when he first ran for Congress in Arizona, he was constantly accused of being a carpetbagger, and he was queried about it again in a debate. Exasperated, he snapped, "Listen pal ... when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." So much for the carpetbagger issue. He won that campaign easily.
John McCain didn't have a favorite baseball team but in Ted Williams he had a favorite player and a hero.
In the late 1990s Esquire Magazine did a feature story on the heroes of celebrities. McCain, then finishing his second term in the U.S. Senate, immediately named Williams as his hero. As a result he traveled to Ted's home in Citrus Hills, Florida, where the two would be jointly interviewed by the magazine. They spent the better part of a day together, and a bond of friendship developed between them. McCain for years retold the story of Ted's reaction when he asked why he didn't eject from his plane after it had been hit. Ted had been genuinely ambivalent about whether or not he'd play again after his hitch in Korea was over. But when faced with the option of ejecting from the plane, Ted had looked at his lanky frame jammed into the cockpit, decided that ejecting would break his kneecaps and that he'd never play again. It was at that moment that he decided that, yes, he wanted to play baseball again. Despite the long odds and with his very life hanging in the balance, he took the wounded plane back to friendly territory and safely landed it. Then he played for the Red Sox for seven more seasons.
McCain and Williams discovered that day that they shared a similar conservative philosophy with a large dollop of independence thrown in. For his part, Williams greatly admired the senator's heroism and integrity and he made no secret of it.
Fast forward to January, 2000. McCain was making his first run for the presidency. The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary was just around the corner. In what would be one of the final public appearances of his life, Ted Williams traveled to the Granite State to endorse the candidacy of -- wait for it -- George W. Bush, McCain's opponent in what would be a bitterly contested campaign.
Had Teddy Ballgame, always known as a standup guy, stabbed the war hero in the back?
Ted had another relationship with another Navy war hero, a pilot whose plane had also been shot down by enemy fire, and that relationship stretched back far longer than the one with McCain.
In September 1944, George H.W. Bush, the father of McCain's opponent, then 20 years of age and one of the youngest pilots in the Navy, had participated in a bombing raid off the coast of mainland Japan. His plane was hit by enemy fire, and he was one of nine pilots who had to ditch their planes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Somehow his tiny life raft was spotted by an American ship before the Japanese could find him -- as they did find all the others. He was the only one of the nine who survived. He went on, of course, to have a distinguished career in the service of his country, including becoming the 41st President of the United States.
During the years that Williams was managing the Washington Senators the elder Bush was a congressman from Texas. They got to know each other and found out that they had more than their wartime experiences in common; they also had baseball. Bush had been the captain and the first baseman, though admittedly a light hitting one, at Yale University. Ted had campaigned for him in 1988 and 1992, and he wasn't about to leave the reservation in 2000, not because of who the candidate was that year but because of who the candidate's father was.
McCain, though disappointed not to have his hero's support was neither surprised nor angry. George W. Bush eventually won the nomination and the presidency, but McCain, despite the non-endorsement of the great Ted Williams, was the clear winner in New Hampshire.
All of that happened not so many years ago, but it seems quaint nowadays to think there was a time when actual American heroes walked among us and even ran for president of the United States.
Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
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