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OF SPLENDID SPLINTERS
Travelogues can be curious things, some gestating for years before they arrive, others spur of the moment creations - occurrences - that find themselves in print before the sun also rises. For years I've vacillated on experiences in Miami during Hurricane Andrew, and not even the ten-year anniversary of the greatest natural catastrophe in U.S. history provided a writing impetus. Longer have I pondered the significance of Luckenbach, Texas, in my beloved Hill Country, without effect. And another story, one told me by an Old Hockey Coach, about a recently departed Boston sports legend, rests just below the surface. This evening, however, I travel north out of Crossville, Tennessee, heading for a prod. It resonates and beckons; I travel toward it.
It is an off-color story, involving color. The kind of story that seldom sees print, but is mostly passed along in smiling, back-of-the-hand whispers. I almost wrote about it when the man died and his family descended into a morbid struggle, ending with the man's body cryogenically frozen. I almost wrote about it when Larry Doby died a few months ago.
Doby is a legend in his own right. While Jackie Robinson was breaking baseball's color barrier with the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Doby became, to considerably less fanfare, the first black player in the American League. To the best of my knowledge, Doby was buried, intact, by his family. I almost wrote of this when recently it was revealed that the Boston legend's head had been removed from his body before being cryogenically frozen. But it was only after I had arrived here in Crossville and opened a map that I stumbled upon the impetus to finally relate this story.
I travel north through the rolling green warmth middle-land that is Tennessee. This is the Bible Belt, every few miles revealing yet another Baptist Church. Most have signs with quaint word play; 'Slattery Baptist CH RCH - the only thing missing in CH RCH is U.' I pass a sign, 'J's Sharp All.' I pass Myrles Aytes Road and wonder, as locals wave from their porches, what sort of character Myrles Aytes must have been. The road curls through hilly pastures and occasionally the elevation allows a glimpse of low mountains to the north. Most is green; the grass, the trees, the mountains. I pass fields of horse and cow, old grey barns shading banded oaken barrels looking as though they had fallen from a Confederate commissary wagon, and broke.
Ted Williams is considered by many to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. He is called Teddy Ballgame at times, but his time-honored moniker is The Splendid Splinter. By most accounts he was a difficult man; arrogant, loud, profane. He is called The Man John Wayne Wished He Was, due in part to service rendered during World War II and Korea, when he piloted fighter jets for the Marine Corps. The bizarre and bewildering events after his death, where his son not only had his famous father's body frozen, but had the head removed from the corpse, has engendered some pretty good jokes: "Ted wanted to be cremated, but cooler heads prevailed." David Letterman: "Opening day was so cold, they had Ted Williams throw out the first pitch."
Each Saturday morning my family meets at eight A.M. in the Mug'N'Muffin restaurant in downtown Norwood, Massachusetts. When not traveling I join them, and one morning I'm sitting with my brother Ken when our Old Hockey Coach approaches, a mischievous I've-got-a-good-one grin on his face. He tells us he's been to a Red Sox luncheon in support of the Jimmy Fund, where he's spoken with Dick Flavin, a Boston area TV commentator. And Flavin had a colorful story to tell on 'ole Ted:
"We're in the parking lot afterward, and Flavin tells me he's at this affair back in the early '80's with Ted Williams and Tip O'Neil," Old Hockey Coach relates. "O'Neil had never met Ted Williams, and wanted to. So Flavin arranged for the two to meet in a back room. Once ushered into the back room, the two Boston legends shake hands, the greatest hitter and the greatest politician, and they hit it off. And Ted says to Tip, 'So Tip, you've been a pol your entire life, you've had a great career, is there anything in politics you've seen that you wanted but never got?' And Tip replies, 'No, I've achieved everything I've ever wanted. I was on the Cambridge School Committee, became the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I was involved with JFK's inauguration, everything.' While Ted Williams nodded thoughtfully, Tip O'Neil then asked, 'How about you, Ted? You're a war hero, you're the greatest hitter who ever lived, you're the last man to bat .400 - was there anything in baseball you've seen you never had?' And the Splendid Splinter's response was immediate, and emphatic.
'Hell yes,' Williams bellowed, 'Larry Doby's cock.'"
I turn east on Rt. 62. The road wriggles down from the hills and the land opens up, revealing large mountains. The signs continue: PEOPLE CAN'T CHANGE TRUTH BUT TRUTH CAN CHANGE PEOPLE. An embossing on the back of a pickup cap, a hand with a nail through the wrist, the caption, 'BODY PIERCING SAVED MY LIFE.' And a lone dissenting bumper sticker: 'THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT HAS IT WRONG.' September daylight diminishes as I pass through the struggling town of Wartburg and finally see the sign for Frozen Head State Park. I take a left and see a sign, BRUSHY MOUNTAIN CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX - MORGAN SITE. I pass two men riding a slow tractor. The thin road hugs sprawling fences and rolls of gleaming, sharp wire, air-conditioned single-story row houses and guard towers. The tar ribbon winds deep into a long valley, sharp, small green mountains rising all around. The road ends at the closed gate of the State Park. A sign states 'Park Closed At Sunset.' Though it is still light and the gate's pin easily removed, I respect the twilight. I respect the end of the road. I meander back toward the prison and see a sign, 'Ball Field Road - Visitor Team Parking' and pull over. It is quiet here. I see no one through the prison wire. It strikes me that even those here with no control of their own bodies can still play a game of baseball, can still find some refuge self respect amidst personal calamity. It is silent except for the millions of insects buzzing in the woods. I hear the roar of the crowd.