The sporting death

While the country has been wrestling with the legacy of Michael Jackson, trying to balance the extraordinary talent against the bizarre life, it has been further stunned by the separate murders of two renowned athletes, former NFL great Steve McNair and former boxing champion Arturo Gatti.

McNair, 36, who was married with four children, was shot and killed while sleeping by his suicidal, 20-year-old girlfriend. Gatti, 37, was vacationing at a posh Brazilian resort when, reportedly, he was strangled by his wife while he was in a drunk stupor. Once again we are forced to try and weigh two men’s lifetimes and their achievements — both McNair and Gatti were revered for their toughness on the field and in the ring — against the intrusion of their sordid deaths.

It has never been easy to get a true grasp on our athletic "heroes." Not way back in the day when off-the-field foibles were ignored by the press and Babe Ruth was just portrayed as a lovable lug. And not even now when every foible is fair game — if not for the press then in the less constrained blogosphere. Too often we confuse talent for character. Or we are reluctant to accept that a man can show character in some aspects of his life and be terribly flawed in others.

All of which makes for perfect timing for a new HBO documentary — “Ted Williams: There Goes the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived."

Williams, who played for the Boston Red Sox for four decades, was one of the most complex athletic superstars of the 20th century. He was an angry and wounded man who, despite his prodigious baseball accomplishments and thanks to his tempestuous behavior, managed to turn even his hometown fans against him. He was rude, crude and incredibly thin-skinned — he hated the press and made a sport out of taunting and insulting reporters — and went from the youngster who doffed his cap to adoring fans to a man who contemptuously spit at them.

But “The Kid” could hit a baseball, and was unrivalled in his day for his combination of power and average. He hit .406 in 1941, the last man to top .400 and almost certainly the last man who ever will. His lustrous talent, however, was somewhat dimmed in the public eye by the inevitable comparisons to the other great star of the era, the New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio. Williams was always viewed as the better hitter, but DiMaggio as the more complete talent, a ballplayer who could run and field as well as hit.

Moreover, Williams couldn’t begin to measure up in the most important stat of all: championships. DiMaggio boasted nine rings, while Williams never won one — and flopped in his only World Series. DiMaggio would also capture more individual honors, as the press, which voted on awards like MVP, exacted their revenge on Williams.

On top of all that, DiMaggio had perfect pitch — never a hair, a word or a step out of place. If there was a metaphor for these rivals’ standing with the public, it might be this: DiMaggio married the cinema’s reigning sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe, while Williams married Delores Wettach, a former model who had once been Miss Vermont. (Neither marriage, though, lasted the full nine innings).

And that’s how it might have been permanently etched, had not both men been the subjects of modern biographies that aimed higher than reciting the stats and perpetuating the myths. Revisionist history on the two men starts, of course, with the fact that Williams was a genuine hero in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He lost five seasons in the prime of his baseball career to military service, first in World War II and then again as a fighter pilot in Korea, where he flew 39 combat missions and survived a fiery crash landing. DiMaggio missed three seasons, during which he played baseball for an air force team, first in California and later in Honolulu.

But it was also the fans’ fundamental perceptions of the two men that were out of whack. Williams, while undeniably tormented and ill tempered, was beloved by his teammates, including Joe’s brother Dominic who played alongside him in the Red Sox outfield, as well as by everyday Bostonians whom he encountered. He was warm, gregarious, big-hearted and exceedingly generous — he always had time for hospital visits or phone calls to sick children. (Unfortunately, those qualities didn’t extend to being a parent and he largely abdicated that responsibility when his three children were young.)

DiMaggio was respected, but never loved by his teammates (or even his brothers). He may have been a great baseball hero, but he was apparently a small man — notoriously cheap and emotionally constrained. He had few friends, only factotum, and devoted much of his post-baseball life, while Williams was out fishing and enjoying himself, to nurturing his legend. He would only return to Yankee stadium for old-timers celebrations under certain conditions, always insisting that he had to be the last man introduced, confirming his stature as the greatest living Yankee.

By late in life, Williams had made his peace with Boston and the fans there, even doffing his cap to them in one ceremony, something he had famously failed to do when he hit a home run in the final at bat of his career. (John Updike brilliantly chronicled that last game in the New Yorker, with “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

The biggest tribute to Williams came at the 1999 All-Star Game at Boston’s Fenway Park when Williams was wheeled out as the centerpiece of a celebration of the greatest, living ballplayers of the 20th century. The modern stars surrounded him and were so taken with the ebullient Williams — he asked Mark McGwire if he could smell the smoke off the bat when he hit a long one — that they ignored loudspeaker pleas to leave the field so that the game could begin. “Teddy Ballgame” had finally found his rightful place, center stage in the baseball pantheon.

It would have been nice, at least for those of us who looked on from outside, had Williams left this mortal coil soon after that moment. But he lived another four years in ever deteriorating health and, in death, became the punch line of a joke after his son decided to have him cryogenically frozen for perpetuity.

Lives, certainly as evidenced by Williams, are seldom so simple or neat that they lend themselves to concise epitaphs. That was obviously true too for both McNair and Gatti, who died so tragically and so young. We can still honor these men for their considerable achievements. But sports should consign the word “hero” to the ash heap, where it should have been buried long ago.

More by Mark Starr:

Lance Armstrong is not God

The well-rounded Williams sisters

Can the US pull off another upset?