When John Glenn Saved Ted Williams’s Life
That great American hero, John Glenn, died just days after the 75th anniversary of that great American disaster, Pearl Harbor. The Japanese surprise attack shaped Glenn’s life. It helped make him a hero of what we now call the Greatest Generation and the Mad Men era. Pearl Harbor mobilized a generation, resulting in the novelistic coincidence of Glenn flying during the Korean War with another Mad Men-era hero—and a truly Mad Man—the legendary but peppery baseball legend Ted Williams.
It’s tempting to reduce the friendship to a wartime Odd Couple fling. Glenn was a contained Midwesterner who wore his heroism lightly. Williams was a temperamental kid from a more turbulent background in San Diego, who, early on, admitted he wanted to be considered the “greatest hitter who ever lived.” Glenn, the gentleman, was always courtly and courteous while courting the press—and the people. Williams couldn’t care less. In 1956, when he spit yet again at hometown Red Sox fans—twice—and was fined $5,000, Williamssaid: “I’m not a bit sorry for what I did. I was right and I’d spit again at the same fans who booed me today.”
However, if we learn from the civil-rights activist Bryan Stevenson that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” we will learn about Ted Williams as hitter, philanthropist, civil rights champion, and war hero. And what novelist would have dared imagine that this godlike baseball player who retired in 1960, would have flown half his combat missions in Korea with a young John Glenn, who became a modern deity in 1962 when he became the first American to reach the heavens, orbiting the earth three times in 4 hours and 56 minutes...
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