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Commentary: The crime against Ted Williams

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Discussion about Ted Williams' remains is distasteful
  • He recalls superstar player as a man who always strove to do his best
  • Williams was baseball's last .400 hitter and a veteran of two wars
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.

Bob Greene says discussion of ballplayer Ted Williams' corpse is a shameful way to remember the superstar.

(CNN) -- "I was scared," Ted Williams said.

He was talking about his lifelong fear of not being good enough -- of coming up short.

"I was always afraid I might fail," he said. "I was pictured as being so cocky -- I might have been cocky to some people, but not in my heart. All the time, I was just hoping to make whatever league I was in."

I am thinking about a long conversation I had with Williams toward the end of his life. I'm thinking about it because of the unconscionable thing that is being done to him now that he is gone, now that he is without any defenses.

You may have heard about a new book that makes some cruel and repugnant allegations about the mistreatment of his remains. What has been done to Williams' good name since his death at age 83 in 2002 is heartbreaking.

First there was the very public battle within his family about what to do with his body; when it was entrusted to a facility that specializes in cryonics -- freezing -- there were tasteless gags all over television. Now there is the nauseating voyeurism surrounding these new allegations. They are unspeakable, and I will not repeat them here.

He has been made a joke. It is as if there has been a conscious effort to rob him of his humanity. As if he is a punch line, as if he was never a person with thoughts and feelings.

No one deserves this, and certainly not Ted Williams. A magnificent 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox; twice the winner of baseball's triple crown; the last ballplayer to hit .400 in a season; two tours of duty in the military in World War II and the Korean War ...

This is the man whose right to rest in respectful peace is being stripped from him. It is a crime.

And because he can no longer speak for himself, I will share with you his voice from a time when he could.

"I can't believe how well people have treated me, how nicely," he told me.

He had suffered a series of strokes; he knew there wasn't much time left. I was writing a monthly column for Life magazine, and he had agreed to talk with me.

I told him that there was something striking about his voice: He sounded just like John Wayne.

"John Wayne sounded like me," he said, not kidding.

When he told me about his fear of failure, it was in the context of always being fixated on his own shortcomings.

"The only time I could savor an evening is if I had done something well," he said. "My most disappointing things all my life were always related to baseball. I didn't feel good because I did something successfully; I felt bad if I failed to do something that I was expected to do."

As a young ballplayer, he supposedly said, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street, people will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "

It happened. That was what people said about him.

Did it satisfy him?

"I would slide down in my seat a little bit when I heard someone say that," he told me. "Because I wanted people to believe it, but I didn't believe it myself. I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron -- they were so good. When I would be at a dinner and someone would say I was the best, I would want to hide out of sight and sink into the floor."

At the height of his talent, he stepped away from baseball to fly Panther fighter jets in Korea. He was a United States Marine pilot; often he would go out on two-plane missions flying side-by-side with a young Marine hotshot by the name of John Glenn. Talk about two Americans you can count on in a pinch....

I asked Glenn about Williams once. "He was just great," Glenn said. "The same skills that made him the best baseball hitter ever -- the eye, the coordination, the discipline -- are what he used to make himself an excellent combat pilot."

This is the man who is being degraded today. This is the man who is being treated, in death, as if he is in a carnival sideshow.

As I spoke with Williams, with his eyesight failing and his body inexorably shutting down, I asked him: If he could change one thing in his life, what would it be?

He said that this, more than anything else, is what he wished for: the ability to "run like a deer."

I thought he was talking about wishing he could have his youth back -- wishing, in his old age, that he could stand up and run again.

But that wasn't it. He said he wished that, back when he was a player, he was just a little faster.

"I would run to first," he recalled of his years with the Red Sox, "and there would be that boom-boom."

The sound of being called out at first base, the ball hitting the fielder's glove just before Williams's foot hit the bag.

"If I could have run a little faster ... how many at-bats did I have?" he asked me. "Seven thousand?"

I told him it was 7,706. With 2,654 hits.

"If I could have run just a little faster, I bet you I could have had 50 more hits," he said.

He paused. There was wistfulness in his voice.

"Maybe a hundred," he said.

A man seeing death just up the road, still dreaming of excellence.

That is the man whose dignity we have treated with such awful indifference.

Shame on us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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