Throwback Thursday: When Ted Williams At Last Enlisted

The Kid wasn’t eager to go to war just after Pearl Harbor.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

On May 22, 1942, Ted Williams ended months of what had become an all-consuming story in the sports world: he announced that he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

“I just want to be in this thing,” he told a reporter. This was, to put it lightly, an oversimplification of Williams’s feelings about joining up. Williams did eventually train as a naval aviator and was awaiting orders in Pearl Harbor when the war ended. He would later see combat in Korea. But there is a well-known narrative about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor that depicts men in the United States rushing to enlist. This was not how things played out for Williams.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Williams had a 3A draft status as he was his mother’s only source of financial support. Just after the attack, his draft status was changed to 1A. This irked Williams both because he was, in fact, supporting his mother, and because he wanted to play for the Red Sox that season. He enlisted a lawyer who successfully appealed his draft status, which was changed back to 3A. In an atmosphere of intense patriotism, the press was scandalized. In his biography of Williams, Ben Bradlee, Jr. writes:

The Williams deferment quickly became topic A in Boston and beyond and would remain a major story in the papers for months. It had all the elements: a whiff of favoritism and the shirking of duty at a time of overwhelming national unity and surging patriotism; self-interest versus the national interest.

Williams got defensive, as Bradlee recounts, denying he had any role in seeking his change in draft status.

“I only hope folks won’t think I brought about this change in my draft status. Gee, I had nothing to do with it. I want folks to like me.” He put his foot in his mouth by saying that, “the quickest route to a solution of this whole matter is to earn some big dough this year, then just as soon as I lay down my bat in September or October, I’m in the Navy. And quick, too.”

Still, pressure for him to enlist grew. Quaker Oats dropped him as a sponsor. By May, he decided to join a training program to become Navy pilot. On May 22, he passed his physical, and the debate over whether and when Ted Williams should join up came to an end. Williams was even able to finish playing that season, putting up big numbers with a .356 batting average, 36 home runs and 37 RBIs.  It was, though, an early chapter in what would become a long history of storminess relations between Williams, the press, and the fans.

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