By: Aviva Kempner
Just when we need a good story about an American hero, Nick Davis’ The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, a compelling PBS documentary about baseball’s great Ted Williams, airs tonight on PBS stations at 9 pm. This moving show about Williams has all the elements of a great drama. His biography includes hidden family secrets, feuds with the press as well as his stellar hitting form, outstanding military bravery and taking a courageous stand for including Negro League veterans into Cooperstown.
Ted Williams is justifiably called baseball’s greatest hitter, yet his own parents never saw him play the game. As amazing as his hitting stats were when he played, Williams sacrificed having an even more spectacular career by serving in the military in both WWII and the Korean War. The film depicts how each time Williams returned from service he was hesitant about whether or not he could conquer his mental demons and physical wear and tear to get back into the game.
Unlike today’s injured players, we are not talking about healing a sprained ankle, but recovering from experiencing combat. What a feat when Williams came back from WWII to win his first AL MVP award. During the Korean War, Williams flew as a Marine combat aviator and again regained his MLB status.
The show also deals with the family background and psychology of this baseball slugger. Williams, whose mother was both Mexican and an active soldier in the Salvation Army, kept a distance from his Latin heritage. It is shocking to hear that such a super star never had either of his parents witness his talent at the stadium. That distance from family was also experienced by catcher Moe Berg, who later joined the OSS. As I am presently making a documentary about Berg, I am shocked to know his father never saw Berg play a baseball game either as a teenager or as a major-league player.
Although his parents were not involved in Williams’ playing career, the slugger was close to his own children. The film is enhanced by his daughter Claudia offering insights into her father’s life and Williams’ support to his son John Henry, who died of leukemia.
Narrated by Jon Hamm, a baseball fan himself, the documentary includes interviews with sportscaster Bob Costas, players Wade Boggs and Joey Votto, Williams’ biographer Ben Bradlee Jr, erudite MLB historian John Thorn and others. The show is produced by THIRTEEN’s American Masters for WNET, Nick Davis Productions, Big Papi Productions, Albert M Tapper Productions and Major League Baseball.
As the Red Sox maintain the best record in baseball this summer we are going to be reminded tonight of the legacy of such a great Boston baseball slugger and patriot that it will possibly move one to tears. I certainly cried for his courage both on and off the field.
Other sluggers who were contemporaries of Williams– like Joe DiMaggio, who was in active competition with him, and Hank Greenberg, who was friends with him, also lost many years serving in the military during WWII. I have always thought their stats in the baseball records deserve an asterisk explaining how they jeopardized even greater records defending America.
They just don’t make them like they used to.