Frank Sinatra had a cold. Superman went to the supermarket. Fear and loathing plagued the campaign trails in 1972 and 1976. And in 1986, Richard Ben Cramer asked what America thought of baseball great Ted Williams.
Feature writing. Features tell true stories with a literary flair, drawing on emotion and the human condition to reveal truths about people, places and events.
Cramer explored Williams’ tumultuous life and successful career for Esquire magazine in what is now considered an essential piece of sports journalism.
Cramer meets 68-year-old Williams, living in the Florida Keys, 26 years after his retirement from major league baseball. Williams spent two decades in Boston as an all-time great hitter and notorious figure fueled by rage. But Cramer aims to expose the real Ted Williams, beyond the rage and words of Williams’ enemy: the sporting press.
Through narrative style interrupted by flash forward to 1986, Cramer recounts Williams’ rise as a baseball star, military service resulting in hearing loss, injuries and quick recoveries and the reclusiveness of an old man thrice divorced who loves fly fishing.
Cramer uses literary techniques like allusion, flashback and flash forward, dialect in dialogue and other figurative devices to evoke empathy for Williams, human despite his legendary status.
For example, Cramer says Williams is a “hard man to meet,” but that was not “to paint him as a hermit or a shrinking flower, Garbo with a baseball bat.” The comparison with and allusion to Garbo presents a more powerful way to describe Williams’ retirement.
Greta Garbo, one of the most prolific actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age, became a recluse after 1940 when Ted Williams’ career and fame launched him to national prominence, evoking a primary juxtaposition. Later disillusioned with public life himself, Williams disappeared from public life. But unlike Garbo who feared scrutiny through fame, Williams chose to ignore the outside world. Cramer’s comparison creates a double juxtaposition appealing to those familiar with both figures.
Such literary elements and dialect not only tell the reader about Williams, they show Williams’ surroundings, reveal his emotions and allow the reader to hear his voice – his booming voice.
The details in Cramer’s story appeal to the drama surrounding Williams’ life, making the story powerful as it extends beyond baseball.
Many knew Williams as a man who “spat toward the right-field stands and spat toward the left” when the crowd stood against him, but few knew the Williams who cooed to a dalmatian puppy saying, “yes, yes I love you…Yes, I do.”
Cramer’s story paints a portrait of Williams off the field, one of an old man who loves a challenging woman and a small puppy. A portrait greater than all-time great.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons