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When filmmaker Nick Davis was approached to make a documentary about the life of baseball legend Ted Williams for PBS’ American Masters franchise, there was one person he knew he needed: Williams’ last surviving child, youngest daughter, Claudia, now 46. (Williams’ other two children, Claudia’s brother John Henry and half sister Bobbi Jo, died in 2004 and 2010, respectively.)
But the end of Williams’ life was marked by a scandal that still reverberates among the Red Sox faithful. When Williams — still considered the best hitter the game has ever seen — died in 2002, Claudia and John Henry had his body flown to a Scottsdale, Ariz., cryonics lab, where it remains today. For the Red Sox faithful, it was nothing short of a desecration. And New England’s aggressive sports press pounced.
“She was the first call I made,” says Davis. “But she’s been really burned and didn’t want to open herself up for that again. It definitely took some doing to convince her; we come in peace. We just want to tell your dad’s story.”
Davis does not spend a lot of time on the cryonics saga in the film. “It’s fascinating,” he concedes. “But it’s its own thing. And I didn’t really have time to get into it.”
The hourlong film —which premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on PBS stations — focuses on Williams’ 19-year career with the Red Sox, interrupted twice for military service in World War II and the Korean War, as well as his upbringing in San Diego as the son of a Mexican-American mother who worked tirelessly for the Salvation Army.
(In the film, one Williams’ biographer describes him as “right of Attila the Hun” except when it came to Civil Rights. At his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966, Williams made the case for inclusion of the great Negro League players.) The premiere coincides with Williams’ centennial — he was born Aug. 30, 1918; he is the first baseball player to be featured on the 32-year-old American Masters franchise.
“Why is he worthy of our attention?” asks Davis. “Well it’s not because he was frozen and had his head chopped off and put in a tuna can.”
The documentary also includes a surreptitious artifact: never-before-seen color footage of Williams’ last game on Sept. 28, 1960, at Fenway Park. The film had languished in a drawer in the home of Bill Murphy, now 77, who shot the game as an 18-year-old art student. He made several attempts over the years to get someone interested in his footage, which he had edited down to a four-minute highlight reel that includes Williams’ final, 521st home run during his last at-bat.
A long-suffering New York Mets fan, Davis’ entree into documentary production was as an intern on Ken Burns’ iconic Baseball series. He is the son of Peter Davis, the documentarian who directed the seminal Vietnam film Heart and Minds, and Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, among the first female editors at Time magazine and novelist (she died in 1974). His maternal grandfather was Herman J. Mankiewicz the screenwriter of Pride of the Yankees who also co-wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles.
The documentary is produced with the cooperation of Major League Baseball, which meant Davis had access to archival footage. MLB brought in David Ortiz’s Big Papi Productions, with the goal of pressing Ortiz into service with fundraising and promotion; public broadcasters have little — in anything — to spend on marketing. For MLB, the association with American Masters is part of a league effort to produce premium content that could help to grow the game beyond traditional platforms. For Ortiz, whose company produces his own show for Fusion called Big Papi Needs a Job, it is an opportunity to add a blue chip title to his credits. The documentary also includes re-creations of Williams’ famous swing. And here MLB was key in suggesting players who could serve as Williams’ stand-in. “My first thought was Corey Seager,” says Davis, referring to the Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop. “I assumed he was a gorgeous left-handed swing — but when I looked side by side with Ted, I was floored by how wrong that was.”
After intense “YouTube study,” they landed on Kyle Tucker, who started the 2018 season with the Fresno Grizzlies. On July 7, Tucker was called up to the Astros.
Jon Hamm narrates the documentary. “His name jumped out because he is associated with Don Draper, who is an icon of mid-century American masculinity,” explains Davis. “And he’s also a baseball fan. But he’s a Cardinals fan. Anybody who was clearly a Yankees fan might have been a harder thing.”
Davis and his producers did not think they would get him. “But it’s like the pretty girl who doesn’t get asked to the dance. We just asked and he said yes, like almost instantly.”
The most difficult task was squeezing Williams’ life into one hour. The film explores his passion for ocean fishing (he was an accomplished fly fisherman and deep sea angler who was inducted into the Fishing Hall of Fame); his military service (he served as a Marine Fighter Pilot); and his perpetual battle with the press and the New England fans. A taciturn perfectionist, he seemed propelled by anger. And his last at bat, captured in color by Murphy and serving as a final punctuation point on Williams’ life, shows him defiantly refusing, for the last time, to tip his cap to the fans.
“There are a lot of people in New England for whom Ted Williams was just a god, a total deity,” says Davis. “It’s almost hard to imagine nowadays because we see everything. But he loomed so large in the imagination that when you would get a glimpse of him in a newsreel or once TV came in in the ’40s or ’50s, he was so magnetic. His persona was just enormous. He was so heroic; and then going off and fighting in the wars. There was just no one like him.”
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