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Ted Williams at War

By Bill Nowlin. 368 pp. Rounder Books, 2007. $24.95.

Bill Nowlin may have stepped to the plate once too often. As the author or editor of more than a dozen books on Ted Williams, Nowlin has faced the task of finding the real person in the middle of the anger, confusion, and controversy that seemed to follow the Hall of Famer throughout his life. This time out, Nowlin has produced a densely factual, poorly organized, painfully repetitive, and ultimately frustrating piece of work.

While he goes deeper than anyone else into the military experiences of Williams— drafted, deferred, and finally enlisted during World War II, then serving as a pilot instructor in Florida; grabbed out of active reserve during the Korean War to fly thirty-nine combat missions— Nowlin seems unable to distinguish between a relevant detail and a factoid that has no business being in this book. Case in point: a comment by “Banshee” Bob Johnson, a pilot stationed on the same Korean base as Williams, that “one of the highpoints (sic) of my military career was meeting Jack Benny at a casino in Las Vegas.” This fragment, quoted in its entirety, is one of twenty-nine bits of oral history in chapter 14, “Celebrity, Grumbling, and Griping.” It’s a triple mystery: one, why is it in a chapter largely about the ways in which Williams and the people around him struggled to deal with his fame? Two, why was meeting Jack Benny a high point of Johnson’s military career? And three, how did Johnson’s military career encompass a casino in Las Vegas?

The ballpark full of extraneous factual details has a simple explanation: Nowlin is a sabrmetrician. (Sorry, but his use of jargon and acronyms, often unexplained until after they have been used many times, if at all, is easily lampooned.) The author was a vice president of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)— note to Nowlin: this is a handy way to handle acronyms—an organization of passionate baseball fans who often unearth and exult in factual details and minutiae of the sport. Therefore, it isn’t a surprise when he goes through Williams’s combat record, mission by mission, and details each of the pilots involved, the amount of munitions expended, and the extent of damage that was observed. Not all of this stuff is beside the point—and many buffs will want to wade through the clutter for stuff they can’t get elsewhere—but it doesn’t really have much of an impact because Nowlin doesn’t provide a context for it. What kind of war was being waged in Korea? How did the marine fighter-bombers fit into this campaign? Was the marine effort, in general, successful? These questions are not answered. It’s like covering a baseball team’s very successful season by listing box scores.

To be fair, Nowlin has done a wealth of primary research here, but he doesn’t do much to synthesize it. When the question about Williams’s competence as a pilot is raised, for example, the answers come from all sorts of people, including several who would have had no direct experience with Williams in the air, but only a sense of what the scuttlebutt on Williams was many decades ago. Nowlin should be commended for tracking down so many of the men who served with Williams, but the book does not make much distinction between history and gossip.

Then there’s the endless repetition. Too many details and quotes pop up more than once in the book. The charge that a Boston paper hired a private detective to investigate the financial status of Williams’s mother, May—at a point where that was the nominal reason for his deferment—shows up on page 22, using a 1993 biography as the source; on page 26, using a 2002 autobiography to quote Williams; and on page 34, using a Boston newspaper columnist’s charge against a “supposedly reputable Boston newspaper.”

The organization of the book may have contributed to its redundancy. Chapter 13 (“Life on the Base—K-3, Pohang”) and chapter 14 present nearly one hundred pages of oral history, much of it by people who reflect on the moody, distant, fishing-obsessed, famous-yet-almost-anonymous guy in Hut 1-C. Chapters 18 (“Williams and His Fellow Marines”), 19 (“How Good a Pilot Was Ted Williams?”), and 20 (“A Court-Martial for Ted Williams?”) repeat many of the same thoughts and scenarios.

These later chapters attempt to sift through the welter of conflicting information and attitudes, but Nowlin doesn’t seem up to the task. (Leigh Montville’s Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero has better analysis, but his treatment of the outfielder’s marine record is only a splendid splinter of that book.) How good a pilot was Ted Williams? Some sources say very good, some say very bad, some don’t have much of an opinion. Are any of these sources definitive? It’s hard to say. His most significant mission seems to be the one that ended with him landing wheels-up and jumping out of the plane with barely any injury—a feat that might have been more a matter of luck than skill, following damage during the flight that might have been caused by Williams’s pilot error.

As the editor of publications for the Ted Williams Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, Nowlin has been gathering information about the athlete-pilot for a long time. Perhaps, sitting at his word processor, Nowlin found it easier to cut and paste chunks of information from interviews and stories and chapters he had on his hard drive. Perhaps, as a lover of raw data, he was not inclined to digest this into a cleaner narrative. And perhaps, as a cofounder of Rounder Records (one of whose arms, Rounder Books, published this tome), he faced a minimum of editorial interference. My analyses, inferences, and implications may be off base (pun intended), but I owe it to the reader to make them. And I’ll finish with a prediction— that Nowlin will write about this subject again—and a wish—that he hits it on the sweet spot.


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here