Note: This is the second part of the paper I presented at the 2012 Rhetoric Society of America conference in Philadelphia.
Looking at the obituaries for Ted Williams, in relation to other baseball players who lost parts of their careers to military service, we can see that the focus, as of 2002, rested on his military service as well as his baseball accomplishments. For example, obituaries and statements about Larry Doby, who passed away almost one year after Williams, June 18, 2003, understandably focused on the fact that he became the second African American player in Major League Baseball, and the first in the American League. The New York Times gives one small paragraph to Doby’s military service, only saying, “He often spoke of how stunned and embarrassed he was when he arrived for training upon induction into the Navy in 1944 only to be segregated from whites he had played with and even served as captain for on teams while growing up.”
Doby served two years in the Pacific theater. Bush’s statement on Doby mirrored the Times‘ obituary in its lack of reference to his military service: “Larry Doby was a good and honroable man, and a tremendous athlete and manager.” Likewise, the death of Warren Sphan, who died November 23, 2003, did not see a large amount of attention paid to his military career. He served during World War II and specifically at the Battle of the Bulge, which only received brief mentions throughout the obituaries. However, he did not get called an “American hero.” Bob Feller called Spahn a “war hero,” and Commissioner Bud Selig claimed Sphan as “one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the game” and a “great friend.”
On the other hand, the comments and rhetoric surrounding Williams’ death saw more focus on his heroism and his presentation as an “American hero” that all citizens should aspire towards. Bud Selig began his brief statement on Williams by calling him “an American legend” and drawing direct relationships between Williams’ playing career and his military service: “Besides being one of baseball’s all-time greats, he was a genuine war hero.”
Bush commented on the passing of Williams by saying the nation lost a great American who
[w]hether serving the country in the Armed Forces or excelling on the baseball diamond . . . demonstrated unique talent and love of country . . . and we will always remember his persistence on the field and his courage off e field. Ted gave baseball some of its best seasons and he gave his own best seasons to his country.
Eleven years earlier, less than a year after the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush awarded Williams the Presidential Medal of Freedom saying, Williams “is an American legend, a remarkable figure in American sports and a twice-tested war hero. At the height of his athletic career, he answered the call of patriotism, serving his country in both World War II and the Korean War–a true champion in the eyes of many Americans.”
Two interesting things appear in these quotes. For one, Doby and Spahn, who also served their country, albeit for a shorter time time than Williams, do not get remembered extensively for their service. In fact, George W. Bush only says that Doby as “good and honorable.” Williams, however, gets a higher respect for his service to America during World War II and the Korean conflict. Bush characterizes Williams as more than a good and honorable man; he presents him as an American hero, one who sacrificed his personal accomplishments for the betterment of his country. As the War on Terror continued, Williams became a metonym for the patriot citizen that the war required. In fact, he began to be used in relation to another professional athlete who sacrificed his career for his country: Pat Tillman.
During the celebrations of Williams at Fenway Park on July 5, 2002, Mickey McDermott commented that “[Williams] was the man John Wayne wanted to be,” While John Wayne presented heroic figures on the silver screen, Williams actually lived the life of an American hero. A few weeks after Williams’s death, Mark Shields, in a nationally syndicated column, pointed out that even though the nation lost Ted Williams, it gained Pat Tillman. Shield concludes that Tillman is “both a source of inspiration and an American hero.” While other athletes continued their careers and either did or did not comment on the ongoing war, Tillman left his NFL career and joined the military, sacrificing millions of dollars in the process.
The comparisons between Williams and Tillman as heroes who others should emulate continued even after Tillman’s death in 2004. Pete Young of the St. Petersburg Times wrote, “Back in the day, when Ted Williams flew fighter jets, pro athletes routinely performed military service. Those days are long gone, with the glowing exception of Tillman.” Williams and Tillman ultimately became symbols of true American patriotism, not the patriotism on the cheap that Shields mentions in his article. They became men that other should emulate and aspire to like the Athenian soldiers in Pericles’ oration. The type of rhetoric surrounding the death of Williams defines him, and his accomplishments, as the ideal American hero during a time of war. As Murphy points out, epideictic rhetoric during times of war are “needed to unite the community and create a shared understanding of the justice of conflict.”
This “uniting” can be seen in the comments about Williams after his death, but it can also be seen in the celebration of Williams’ life at Fenway Park. During the celebration, three pictures of Williams adorned the Green Monster in left field. The picture on the left shows Williams hitting. The picture on the right appears to be of Williams with reporters surrounding him. The most prominent picture though, the one in the middle, shows Williams in the cockpit of a fighter plane. The fact that this picture receives the center space on the Green Monster speaks volumes about the effect of Williams’ military service on his legacy and on his legacy as more than just a baseball player.
John Glenn, who flew with Williams during the Korean War, commented that “[t]here was no one more dedicated o this country and more proud to serve his country than Ted Williams,” Even after Williams crash landed his plane after being hit by anti-aircraft fire, Glenn recalled that Williams “went right back t flying again. He wasn’t going to chicken out on something like that.” In a time of fear and uncertainty, when the nation’s patriotic spirit continued to remain high, comments such as Glenn’s work to promote a feeling of envy and respect for Williams. As Pericles says in his funeral oration, “For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity.”
Did the rhetoric surrounding Ted Williams’ death equate to a rise in military volunteers? That question could possibly never be answered. However, five years after his death, and almost six years into the War on Terror, Tom Shanahan, writing in San Diego, pointed out that when he interviewed Dennis Pugh, a former Mission Bay High coach and Vietnam Purple Heart veteran, about the decline in athletes pursuing military service instead of college athletics because they were a step or two too slow, said, “such young high school graduates had previously viewed he all-volunteer military as a start in the real world.” However, now, the quagmire of Iraq and the War on Terror caused many of them to look at different options.
In discussing the lack of volunteers, Shanahan evokes the spirits of former athletes who served in the military by asking, “Where have you gone Ted Williams and Part Tillman?” Again, the correlation between the rhetoric of Williams’ death can never be quantified; however, the direct positioning of Williams as a true “American hero” in the wake of the September 11 attacks must be examined in the ways that it worked to reinforce a patriotic sense of identity amongst a country still feeling the effects of that tragic event.