By In Stuff

A Bleeping American Hero


There’s a story I heard once… don’t know if it’s true. I want it to be true.

The basics of the story seem true. You know that John Glenn and Ted Williams were lifelong friends. They flew together as Marines in Korea; Williams was often John Glenn’s wingman. It was years before Glenn joined the Mercury Seven, years before he became the first American to orbit the earth, years before he became a friend of the Kennedys, years before he was elected a four-time Senator. But John Glenn was still John Glenn. He was filled with what Tom Wolfe would call The Righteous Stuff. In Korea, they called him “Magnet Ass” for the way he would draw enemy fire. Ted Williams was in awe. And it took a lot to draw awe from Teddy Ballgame.

Anyway, the story I heard … you know Ted Williams was the biggest man in every room he ever entered. He was big in stature — 6-foot-3 at his height — and he had a big voice, but more than any of that, he was just big. He stomped around life being the greatest at everything, the greatest baseball hitter who ever lived, the greatest fisherman who ever lived, the greatest hunter who ever lived, the greatest patriot who ever lived, the greatest curser who ever lived and whatever else that mattered. He liked talking to people who knew their business because he liked learning stuff, but sooner or later he was going to tell any and all of them that they were full of bleep because, well, they were full of bleep.

And as the story goes, the one guy who Ted Williams never called “full of bleep” was John Glenn.

Supposedly they were once at an event of some sort, and Williams was off after a while ranting about something or other. When Ted got ranting about whatever the topic — whether it was baseball, fishing or the decline of the United States of America — there was no stopping him, no slowing him down. He was a runaway freight train, and whatever or whoever got in his way just got run over. That’s because Ted Williams was the biggest man in every room he ever entered …

“Ted,” John Glenn said at some point as the conversation grew a bit too loud and profane and fierce.

“Listen here I’m trying to finish this,” Williams said. “When I …”

“Ted,” John Glenn said again, this time with a little bit of bite in his voice.

And Ted Williams looked at his old friend. John Glenn was a few inches shorter than Williams, and his voice was considerably softer, and if he ever swore it sure as heck wasn’t in public. He was a square guy from Ohio who married his high school sweetheart, who once told the Mercury Astronauts to stop messing around on their wives, who once said after flying “To look out at this creation and not believe in God is, to me, impossible.”

Ted Williams looked at ol’ Magnet Ass, and he just stopped. He understood. For once, he was looking at the biggest man in the room.

“Awright,” he said quietly as he settled down. “I can’t compete with a bleeping American hero.”

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36 Responses to A Bleeping American Hero

  1. invitro says:

    That is one great picture.

  2. david benbow says:

    Great story. I hope it is true. They both are American heroes in my book.

    • invitro says:

      They’re part of the reason why it’s called The Greatest Generation.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        Without diminishing Glenn at all (I think he is a great man who lived a great life), in some ways I think Williams is a bigger hero. Glenn was a professional military pilot who was essentially paid to risk his life. Williams was a baseball player who lost many of his best years to two wars and nearly got killed. And he didn’t complain about it. Plus, at his HOF induction ceremony, Williams referenced Negro League players. He didn’t need to do that in 1966. I always felt that the biggest heroes are the guys that don’t want to be there but do it because they have to; the draftees at the Battle of the Bulge rather than Patton, who loved war (and wasn’t getting shot at). I admire the astronauts no end, but they were doing what they loved.

  3. Brad says:

    Sometimes, when I’m in a contemplative mood, I wonder why we don’t have men like John Glenn and Ted Williams anymore? Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Most of the time, all I see are self inflated gasbags like Kanye West, Cam Newton or Alec Baldwin.

    • Glenn Williams says:

      I guess we need another world war????

      • mike says:

        It’s both sad and disturbing that you presume that a world war is needed to produce men with the character, values, and accomplishments of Glenn and Williams. If you had said so to John Glenn, I’m sure he would have sadly shaken his head before removing himself from your presence without comment. Ted, however, would have told you to go bleep yourself.

        • Richard says:

          It is probably more that today, there are fewer opportunities for men and women to display the qualities that we call “heroic” on a regular, and widely visible, basis.

          Who can tell what you or I are capable of, if we don’t have the chance to show it?

          • Marc Schneider says:

            We often conflate heroism with courage but there are other ways to be heroes than being in a war. But people often don’t care about those. People working in soup kitchens or for Doctors Without Borders could be considered heroes by some.

            This is a little off the point, but one reason we talk about the “Greatest Generation” is that they won World War II and things worked out so well. No one talks about Vietnam veterans that way because it’s such a painful episode. And people sure as hell don’t want to talk about Iraq or Afghanistan.

    • Karyn says:

      We do have people who are good at their jobs, famous for it, and are not complete jerks. We’ve always had them. Tom Hanks, Russell Wilson, Tammy Duckworth.
      And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the men of that generation were somehow better than those of any other generation. John Glenn was both a great and a good man, but Ted Williams was a jerk.

      • invitro says:

        Have you read a Ted Williams biography? He didn’t seem like a jerk at all to me, except to certain sportswriters who were being worse than jerks, and so Williams was a good man for it. I really have a hard time remembering anything actually negative about Williams. He was universally beloved by the people around him: teammates and neighbors. If someone wants to correct my memory, I’d be obliged.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          I think Williams was probably a difficult person at times. He had a huge personality and was probably a bit self-centered, especially when he was young. But I don’t think of him as a jerk. Joe DiMaggio, on the other hand . . . At the very least, Williams never insisted on always being called “The Greatest Living Ballplayer.”

      • Grover Jones says:

        Russ Wilson walked out on his wife. Don’t get me started on him.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, not all of that generation was like that. There were plenty of assholes back then too.

    • Bob says:

      Tom Brady approaches that level. No one will be John Glenn and especially Ted Williams, the definition of a Great Man.

  4. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Bill James has mentioned this before, but it’s funny how Ted Williams has evolved over time (even before his death) into a revered American hero. Because in his prime, he was almost universally reviled. As I understand it, his behavior toward the press and toward fans made Barry Bonds look like Dale Murphy. Even Red Sox fans weren’t wild about him.

    Brad, I suspect that there are plenty of men (and women) like John Glenn and Ted Williams living today. But circumstances are different. And the 40s and 50s had plenty of gasbags. If we’re talking about living American heroes, I guess my list would start with John Lewis.

    • invitro says:

      I think Bill James himself might be an American hero.

      • Larry Schmitt says:

        Let’s not go overboard with the use of the word “hero.”

        • invitro says:

          Alrighty then, what’s your defintion of a hero?

          • Karyn says:

            I think there’s a couple of definitions of ‘hero’ that can be useful. One is someone with a lot of admirable qualities, a personal hero. Someone’s personal hero could be a parent, teacher, mentor, an everyday kind of person. Not famous, but hard working, honest, dedicated.

            Another definition could be someone who risks or sacrifices a high personal cost to the benefit of others. The firefighter who runs into a burning building. The soldier who jumps on the grenade to save his fellow troops. Possibly the person who risks prison or the loss of a career to stand up for what they believe in.

            Somewhere in between there is the ‘sports hero’, who doesn’t risk their life but may exemplify some ideals that the personal hero does–dedication, hard work, sacrifice for the team. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these definitions, but it might be useful to clarify which one we mean when discussing ‘hero’.

            And all of these heroes, with vanishingly small exceptions, will have feet of clay.

          • invitro says:

            Karyn, I think I agree with every word you said. (I don’t think “feet of clay” are a big deal, and don’t prevent one from being a hero, even if it’s true that all humans have them.) You say “Possibly the person who risks prison or the loss of a career to stand up for what they believe in” — I think this describes Bill James, the loss of career part, anyway. Maybe. He probably could’ve had a very profitable career as a mainstream sports journalist and author, with his literary skills and unsurpassed knowledge of baseball. I don’t suppose he’s a poor man now of course. Anyway… he stated and proved fairly unpopular truths, and got pretty hammered for it, and that’s a hero to me. (I suppose the all-time hero of this type is Galileo Galilei.)

    • From all that I have read and heard, Mr. Ballgame had a love-hate relationship with Red Sox fans. He thought they were the best in the world, but he couldn’t stand “phonies,” and to him a phony was someone who booed him for not coming through when he had tried. Red Sox fans booed him but also applauded and revered him, because they knew he was great and were mad when he wasn’t perfect. And the Boston sportswriters in his time included some of the worst of their profession, and that didn’t help.

      • invitro says:

        All these are my impressions as well. FWIW, the Williams bio I’ve read is “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams”, by Ben Bradlee Jr. (2013).

      • Marc Schneider says:

        At the beginning of WW II, Williams tried to enlist but was turned down because he was the sole support of his mother. (That happened with my father as well; eventually, the government set up a program to allow soldiers to send money home or something like that, once they needed more men.) Apparently, one so-called patriot began sending Williams a piece of yellow paper every day. At least I read that in “My Turn at Bat.” I don’t know if that person was a Boston fan, but it might be enough to make someone turn against the fans, at least.

  5. Astorian says:

    We’ve all gotten used to learning that our heroes weren’t really as wonderful as we once believed.

    Now, I’m just old enough to remember when every little boy wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. When every little boy dressed as an astronaut at Halloween. When every little boy played Spaceman with his friends… and all of those little boys wanted to be John Glenn.

    So, it was heartening years later when I read Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and learned that, yeah, while many astronauts were boozers and skirt chasers, John Glenn really was pretty much the wholesome All-American hero he seemed to be.

    • invitro says:

      Well… we’ve all gotten used to the mass media having the idea that their number one mission is to destroy anyone who’s getting too close to becoming a hero. Or maybe with the idea that a man can’t be a hero unless he drinks milk and gets into bed by ten o’clock every night. As for me, being a boozer and a skirt-chaser doesn’t disqualify a man from being a hero one little bit. And don’t billions of people think guys like John Lennon are heroes?

      • Astorian says:

        I love the Beatles, I thought John was hilarious in “Hard Day’s Night” (especially playing submarine war in the bathtub), and I regard him as both a brilliant songwriter and a great rock and roll screamer (his rendition of “Bad Boy” is fifty times better than the wimpy “Imagine”).

        But a hero? Nah.

        • invitro says:

          I agree with all of that, except I haven’t seen A Hard Day’s Night, or heard “Bad Boy”. Lennon was one of the greatest songwriters ever, and one of the greatest singers ever (in all genres of music, oh yeah). But as often happens with artists of his caliber, not a very nice man.

          • Marc Schneider says:

            To me, musicians, no matter how good, aren’t heroes. They are just musicians. I’ve gotten into trouble for questioning the divinity of people like Bruce Springsteen.

          • casey bell says:

            Lennon’s efforts to help end the war and promote peace worldwide are what make him a potential hero. He could of just avoided controversey and milked his fame for all it was worth but instead he worked to advance the anti-war movement. That was kind of heroic if you ask me.

      • MartyR says:

        I think people do pretty well destroying their own reputations. Don’t blame the media for others’ fallen halos.

  6. Curt Gowdy encountered John Glenn at an event honoring Mr. Ballgame. Glenn said they had served together in Korea. Gowdy asked what kind of pilot Williams was. Glenn replied, “The best I ever saw.”

    Gowdy wanted Williams as his color man on the Game of the Week and it didn’t work out–Chrysler was the sponsor and Williams had just done an ad that involved Ford. But Williams said his two biggest concerns were whether he would have to wear a necktie and his fear that he would curse on the air. That brings to mind the story of when Williams became a manager and was asked if he had the patience for it, and Williams said something like this: “Show me a fisherman who isn’t patient and I’ll show you a lousy fisherman, and don’t you ever forget that ol’ Teddy Ballgame is the best %&*^$#@ fisherman who ever lived.” He probably was.

  7. Paul says:

    I think in previous generations the media protected “heroes,” ignored their flaws, touted their legend. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle come to mind as heroes of their time when they had plenty to hide. Their negative qualities and stories only emerged long after they were in their primes and largely out of the public spotlight (or deceased). In modern times, they might have been exposed and been regarded as Tiger Woods or Johnny Manziel on various levels. Heroes have to actually be heroes now… they can’t hide as previous generations could from scandal. As for Ted, had he simply been nicer to the media he might have been given the same free pass the other giants of his time were afforded.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      It also might have helped if the Red Sox had won more pennants. The funny think is, my impression is that Williams, while obviously not a great husband (he was divorced two or three times) was certainly less of a carouser than Mantle or DiMaggio, for example.

      The more history I read, the more I realize that people haven’t changed that much. What has changed is things like social media that allow us to know more about public figures as well as non-public figures. There were probably just as many douchebags back in the day but people just didn’t know about them or didnt’ care. I mean, you had people lynching black people-and I suspect some of those doing the lynching were members of the “Greatest Generation.”

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