John Glenn, who died Thursday, lived a remarkable life: the first American to orbit Earth, a four-term Senator, a presidential candidate, an astronaut who twice went into space, the second time at age 77, the subject of a tickertape parade, a student whose high school was named for him and a husband of 73 years.
Somewhere in his 95 years Glenn found time to be a comrade of the greatest hitter who ever lived. It would be interesting to know where that ranked.
John Glenn and Ted Williams came together in the Korean War; on the same base, in the same squad, flying the same missions, as if whoever assigned them 60-some years ago had a foretelling of the history to be made. John Glenn, a hero of the Space Age yet to be, and Ted Williams, already a hero of the ballfield.
Glenn had won awards for his service in World War II; Williams had won two MVPs and learned to fly during his service in World War II, but it was in the Korean War a few year later that they met.
Williams left the Red Sox in May 1952; within a year he had a brush worse than any brushback pitch, successfully landing a damaged plane — it had been on fire — that earned him, combined with his baseball status, a fraction of the adulation Glenn would enjoy a decade later.
Glenn arrived after Williams and according to Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams: the two bonded. Glenn, a baseball fan, chose Williams to fly with him.
From Bob Greene’s 2002 Chicago Tribune column, Glenn said: “(Williams) was just great. The same skills that made him the best baseball hitter ever — the eye, the coordination, the discipline — are what he used to make himself an excellent combat pilot.”
The feeling was reciprocated by Williams, who always fancied that he could judge talent. “John Glenn?” Williams said, according to Greene’s column. “Oh … could he fly an airplane. Absolutely fearless. The best I ever saw. It was an honor to fly with him.”
Glenn and Williams flew together, Williams as Glenn’s wingman, for, Glenn told mlb.com, about half of Williams’ flights in Korea.
Glenn in his own memoirs, from Greene’s column: “We leapfrogged, with one of us flying at treetop level and the other at 1,000 or 1,500 feet above and behind in order to see farther down the road and relay advice to the ‘shooter’ on targets ahead. We would switch positions every 10 minutes. …”
Williams might have had a volatile relationship with press and fans in Boston, but not so with Glenn. Bradlee quoting Glenn on Williams: “… he never mentioned baseball unless someone else brought it up. He was there to do a job. We all were. He was just one of the guys.”
Two guys in Korea, who just happened to be John Glenn and Ted Williams, whose personalities could hardly be more opposite.
From Bradlee’s book, Glenn described a mission with Williams: “I unloaded all my HVARs (high velocity aircraft rockets) — squirted them off. Ted’s coming along behind me. I turned around to see where he was. He went around again and fired all six of his HVARs. At the time, there had been some HVAR drops that had accidentally hit American troops. I looked on my charts and I thought Ted’s shots were on our line. I was so mad at him. I thought I was going to be court-martialed. We looked at a more accurate map back at the base. I plotted where I thought Ted’s rockets had hit. It turned out the lines had changed and had been redrawn back to the south, and Ted’s rockets hit in what was still enemy territory.”
Bradlee: “Williams claimed he knew all along.”
Who knows if he did, or if it was Williams being Williams. “Ted only batted .406 for the Red Sox,” said Glenn, according to Bradlee’s book at a 1988 testimonial for Williams. “He batted a thousand for the Marine Corps and for the United States.”
(The Yankees’ Jerry Coleman was also in Korea with Williams, and according to Richard Sisk’s article on military.com, once chided Williams after a difficult landing. Sisk: “Williams dropped down to the runway, skidded into a belly landing, leaped from the cockpit and ran as the plane caught fire again. Coleman was among other pilots who had gathered at the runway, praying for Williams to make it. Now he was (OK) and they feigned nonchalance. Coleman called out: ‘Hey Ted, that’s a lot faster than you ever ran around the bases.’ … (Williams) shot back at Coleman: ‘What the hell do you know? You never got on base.’ Williams allowed that he didn’t quite say that, but he declined to repeat the words he actually used.” One of the guys indeed.)
After the war, Williams completed his career as Glenn’s was just, uh, taking off. Williams hit .300 or better six more times, including five straight from ages 35-39. In 1957, Williams had his best season in 16 years, five of them lost to wars: he batted .388 with a 1.257 OPS, his best numbers since that .406 in 1941. Presumably, at 38 years old, there weren’t many infield hits; with just five more hits of any kind, he would have achieved .400 for a second time.
Glenn got into the space program and took three orbits around the Earth in 1962. Williams said he said a prayer for his friend, even though, according to Bradlee’s book, Williams was hardly devout (Bradlee: “‘cocksucker in the sky’ was another of his favorite terms of endearment for God or Jesus”).
Glenn was elected to the Senate from his native Ohio, which Bradlee said, made him Williams’ “favorite Democrat.” Given Ted’s politics, there probably wasn’t a lot of competition for his allegiance.
It was right after Glenn’s venture into space that Williams penned a rare column on his friend for The Boston Globe. From Boston.com, “This was a man destined for something great; it was an intuitive feeling I had” wrote Williams.
As Williams’ intuition so often was at bat, he was right.