(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The image of Ted Williams that has come down to modern fansthrough old newsreels and photos is of a larger-than-life athletic marvel, a lanky John Wayne look-alike with a perfect swing and surreal batting statistics. Longtime sportswriter Ed Linn does a generally good job of humanizing his intimidating subject, revealing the former Boston Red Sox slugger as, variously, a hyperactive young star, a cantankerous, press-hating veteran, and a principled private man capable of surprising warmth.

In the main, though, Linn concentrates on an almost day-to-day recounting of Williams’ playing career, a choice that should please most readers. At times, the focus on baseball seems excessively narrow, as when the author neglects to mention Williams’ three marriages until the book’s final chapter. Linn does discuss some portions of Williams’ private life at length, notably his childhood and his service as John Glenn’s combat wingman during the Korean War, but most of the book sticks close to the on-field action. Though this is generally sound strategy, the blow-by-blow rehash of Williams’ playing days occasionally makes the book seem like little more than an oversized baseball card.

Linn also includes a fifty-page series of appendices that cover Williams’ statistical record in astonishing depth (included, for example, is a day-by-day chart of Williams’ performance as a minor leaguer in 1938). This mountain of information can be fascinating, but Linn often interprets the numbers in questionable ways in support of a point few would bother to dispute: that Williams was the best hitter of his time, if not of all time. (It seems hard to believe that anyone, even the principals, could still care whether Williams or Joe DiMaggio was more deserving of the 1941 American League Most Valuable Player Award, but Linn devotes a whole chapter to the topic.)

Fans tired of tabloid-style sportswriting should find Linn’s approach refreshing, if not especially illuminating. Although HITTER is not sports biography of the highest order, it does offer an impressively detailed account of the playing days of one of baseball’s most compelling figures.