Ted Williams

March 1, 2008


(continued from Carl Morton)

Chapter Six

My eyes are shut tight and my hands are pressed against my ears, but Richie Hebner’s singing continues to seep in.

Shut up, shut up, shut up, I try to say.

He stops. I keep my eyes shut. I don’t want to know. Richie Hebner starts thumping a slow rhythm on the ground with what must be the butt of his shovel. He resumes singing, now in a laryngitis rasp that drags behind the slow shovel-thump.

What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies
We’re all gonna be in the same place when we die
Your spirit don’t leave knowing your face or your name
And the wind through your bones is all that remains

The Tom Waits impression makes him cough. The cough turns into a gravelly chuckle.

I can’t take it anymore, I try to shout. Like all the other words, these stay trapped inside me. All that comes out is a cornered animal whine, like a trapped cat. Richie Hebner starts rasping the chorus.

And we’re all gonna be
Yeah, yeah
I said we’re all gonna be– 

I open my eyes and lung toward the sound of the singing. I tackle dirt, Richie Hebner gone, his song a crumbling echo in my ears. I gasp from drilling my body into the ground and the ground is wobbling. More than wobbling. Things are always more fragile than you think. The ground is pitching and yawing like a swatted frisbee.

I grab at the ground but just slide back and forth with dirt clumps in my fists. Finally I grab something that doesn’t give. The handle of Richie Hebner’s shovel. It’s buried in the dirt. I hold on with both arms and look around. The circular track is gone. I’m at the bottom of a shallow, contoured, circular pit that seems to be plunging and darting through space. Except for the circle of dirt immediately encompassing me the wobbling, yawing disc is the color of lemonade, faintly glowing. It teeters and reels, a glow-in-the dark frisbee, the cheap kind, upside-down and plummeting.

The only sound is that of an animal whine, the same sound I made just before lunging at Richie Hebner, but the sound isn’t coming from me. Out along the rim of the disc, where Carl Morton was circling, there’s a small white and orange cat, hunched up and clinging to the edge. She’s making the sound. I realize who the cat is at the same time that I understand I’m the one that caused her current suffering. Things were fine, were peaceful, before I started blundering around the underworld.

It’s OK, Wortel, I try to say, but I just add my own whine to the cat’s. She’s looking around, trying to find something to hide under, but there’s nothing, so she huddles up against the lip of the upturned spastic disc. 

For the first few years of her life she was not a pet. She was born in Holland, and for a long time she lived in a warehouse, a working cat, kept around not for affection and companionship but to catch mice. When her services were no longer needed an American family that had just relocated to Holland adopted her, but it seemed at first that she had lived away from human touch too long. She didn’t want anyone to touch her and spent all her time hiding under a bed in the family’s guest room. But the teenage daughter in the family wasn’t willing to accept this. Every day when she got home from school she climbed under the bed and dragged Wortel out. Wortel didn’t like it. She made that whining sound, and as soon as the girl let her go she darted back under the bed. But the teenage girl was stubborn about things like this. Every day the same thing. Drag the cat out, talk to her, pet her, show her love. It went on and on, the animal whine, scratches all over the arms. The girl held on. She was stubborn with love. And one day she came home from school and Wortel crawled out from under the bed to meet her.

The frisbee is cutting jagged spirals through bottomless static-gray sky. It’s already hard to hold on to the handle of the buried shovel and now the shovel is beginning to sink farther into the ground, as if someone is yanking on the other end. Then the frisbee flips. I’m still hanging into the shovel, my legs dangling down, nothing but static below. I can’t hear Wortel whining anymore. The shovel is still sinking up into the circle of earth above me. I hold on. I don’t want to fall into nothing. I hold on. The shovel pulls me up and into the earth.

The earth I’m pulled up through is dark and thick, not just with soil and rocks. I can hear Richie Hebner rasping.

Hell’s boiling over 
Heaven is full
We’re chained to the world
And we all gotta pull

The earth I’m being pulled up through is clogged with bodies. I’m being dragged up through bodies. It’s too dark to see them and I have to keep shutting my eyes to keep the dirt from flooding my sockets. I can’t breathe. The shovel pierces the surface above me and gray light comes in, illuminating the body closest to the top, a corpse in the uniform of my favorite team. The corpse has no head. I’m so close as I pass that my body and the corpse touch, the corpse flipping from the side that says Red Sox to the side that has the number 9. The last words of Richie Hebner’s song rattle in my ears.

. . . just dirt in the ground

And I’m standing in the gray light, in the backyard of a house in Racine, Wisconsin. I hold a shovel in my hands, the blade of it touching the freshly dug dirt at my feet. It’s 2003, the year my girlfriend and I left New York City. The year before, contemplating a move, we took a long road trip, traveling from baseball stadium to baseball stadium. We were at the stadium in Pittsburgh when a pregame announcement was made that Ted Williams had died. Some time later the news surfaced that Ted Williams’ head had been removed from his body and was being frozen in hopes that someday a cure for death could be found, at which point he would be thawed out, revived, and reunited with his loved ones.

It’s 2003, and I’m back above ground, and a cure for death has still not been found, and so I’m in the backyard of a house in Racine, Wisconsin. I’m standing beside my girlfriend, Abby, who was the one who brought Wortel into the world of human love by dragging her out from under the guest bed every day. Her mother and sister are here too. Earlier that day a neighbor had found Wortel on the side of the street. We went and gathered her in a black garbage bag. Abby’s father is away on business, so I did the digging and the filling in after we laid her down. The shovel’s in my hands. We form a circle around the grave. 

It’s 2008. No shovel. No Richie Hebner. Ted Williams still a dead frozen head somewhere in Arizona. I was born on this day exactly forty years ago. Can’t fucking believe it.

I’ve got my little life, my routines, my ways of passing the time. I make a living, carve out some time to write, go on long walks, follow baseball, once in a while go out and have a few beers with my wife, occasionally lie awake thinking about the terrifying implications of a notion perhaps best expressed by the Dead song “Box of Rain”: “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” When you’re dead, there goes everything, and forever. Down you go into the pit, into Sheol.

“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love,” an old blues singer once said, “all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes, 9.9-10)

Sometimes I think back to 2003, those months when Abby and I stayed with her parents in Racine. We were in between worlds, no longer in New York City and not yet in Chicago. In reality it was a somewhat edgy time, both of us looking for a job, wondering if we could actually pull off a move to a whole new city, but in my memory those months stand as something like an extended train ride, one of those long moments when nothing is of any real consequence, and so time seems suspended, and so death seems far off.

I went on runs, circling the streets. I went on drives, making wider circles. Sometimes I went to an amusement center with some golf clubs borrowed from Abby’s dad and I bought a bucket of balls and sent them one by one out into a dry field. Once in a while I hit a ball just right, my swing by accident as close to perfection as I’ll ever get, a faint echo of the perfection in the baseball swing of The Immortal, Ted Williams, that swing that held nothing extra yet held the whole brief graceful comet flash of life, dawn to dusk, dust to dust, each life one clean motion, one blazing song.


  1. 1.  Happy birthday, Josh. I don’t know what you’re doing when you’re not on the Toaster, but the local evidence suggests the love you take is pretty damn near to the love you make with Baseball Gods.

    Thanks, for everything. Is forty more years of this experience too much to request…?

  2. 2.  happy birthday, bud.

    and can i say, that was an amazing use of the ecclisiastes quote. i was never really sure where this story was going. now that it’s over, i’m not really sure where i have been.

    for your birthday, i hope the world you find yourself is the world that doesn’t make you long for a different one…

    …and least not for today.

  3. 3.  You’re 17 days older than me, Josh. Hope your day was a good one.

  4. 4.  wow….just wow….

    happy birthday, Josh


  5. 5.  Happy Birthday, Josh. Wonderful series.

    And I’m terrified now that Richie Hebner will show up in my dreams.

  6. 6.  I thought we were headed for an anniversary of a death, not a life. Happy Birthday

  7. 7.  Good series, assuming that its over.

    I know its none of my business, but throughout these posts I’ve wondered if Abby is now Mrs. Josh.

    And happy birhtday. Roughtly seven months until my odometer rolls over to 40.

  8. 8.  7 : Right you are. She posted comments a couple of times during the Red Sox playoff game chats as “cinciwife” (mainly to voice her revulsion for Karim Garcia).

  9. 9.  I was seven years old when I got this Ted Williams card in 1976, along with the others in the series. I remember being absolutely spellbound by the long, giant numbers on the back of the Ted Williams card, and all the others, too. I can still remember all the old-timers in the series from memory, and when I think of each of those players, those cards are the image that pops into my head.

    (BTW, the lineup had: Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson. Pie Traynor?? You’ve got to be bleeping kiddin’ me!)

  10. sb1902, I’m the exact same age and ’76 was the first year I collected cards. I loved this series of cards, and didn’t those players look mythic in the black and white photos? Such a contrast to the other cards in theset. Combined with the border/heading of the cards, these were indeed Cardboard Gods to a 7 year old.

    It’s hard, looking back, to understand Traynor. But I guess two points in Topps’s defense. First, they were not the only ones to list Traynor as the all-time 3B. Bill James, in his original Historical Baseball Abstract, traces the history of the “greatest ever 3B” label, and for about 25 years Traynor was the guy. Until Schmidt came along to wrest the title.

    Second, there isn’t an obvious better answer. The guy who gets shafted is Eddie Mathews. From a modern sabermetric perspective, he’s probably the best ever before Schmidt, but the uber-focus on batting average that persisted in the 1970s unfairly left him out of the discussion. Who are the other candidates? Home Run Baker? Jimmy Collins? Ron Santo? Harlond Clift? Traynor is probably as good a candidate as any – given the state of analysis as it was then.

  11. David: You’re right about how different the All Time group looked from the regular ’76 cards and how it made them stand out. I hadn’t articulated it like that in my mind, good call.

    It’s true everything was batting average-focused back then, but I’d have to say Eddie Mathews was pretty clearly a better choice, even then. Pie Traynor? Gosh. It’s funny how the 3B position has changed over time. Before Mathews it was more like today’s 2B, at least as far as offensive expectations from what I can see.

    In any case, those Sporting News cards sparked my interest in the history of the game, and I’ll always look on them fondly for that.

  12. I don’t disagree with you sb1902…just pointing out that there were a lot of people who felt differently.

  13. Excellent points Davidwillis.

    Mathews was clearly the best all time 3b in 1976. You could also make a case that Yogi Berra should have been the catcher instead of Mickey Cochrane. Willie Mays instead of Cobb.

    It seemed like they wanted to keep it pre-1950 for less controversy, people tend to be less passionate over players that played many years they were born.

    I remember even as a kid thinking that Williams kind of looked out of place with all of these really old players. I never liked the set as a kid. I never cared for the old B&W photos and these players meant nothing to me as a 10 year old. I remember trading the Ty Cobb to a neighborhood kid, who pronounced his name as “Ty CUBB” for a ’76 Jon Matlack.

    As far as Trynor goes, he was the best pre-1950 3B by default. But like you said, by today’s measurements he doesn’t stand up. He ranks 323rd in all time WAR, roughly Carney Lansford if you want a modern-day 3b comparison.

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