The late Ted Williams is the best hitter (career .344) of my lifetime. By the time he was 80-years-old, though, he was compelled to enter Fenway Park on a July 1999 night as passenger on a golf cart. It had been nearly four decades since he had played his final game there, an episode eloquently described a month later by John Updike in the Oct. 22, 1960 edition of The New Yorker.
Not only did Williams hit his last home run in that last game, it came on his last at-bat. As usual, the temperamental slugger did not tip his cap.
“The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now,” wrote Updike. “Gods do not answer letters.”
It may have taken him 39 years to refute that famous phrase, but on that summer evening in Boston, Williams did just that. He tipped and waved his hat repeatedly before throwing out the first pitch of that year’s All-Star Game.
When the golf cart stopped in the middle of the infield, Williams was mobbed by those about to play the game.
Ultimately, however, the game had to start and the All-Stars dispersed, all except one. Williams, legs and eyes failing, had asked fellow San Diego native Tony Gwynn to stay and steady him for making his toss to Carlton Fisk.
Gwynn, if you are age 50 or younger, is the greatest hitter (career .338) of your lifetime. As his star rose while playing for his hometown Padres, he attracted the attention of Williams – ever the student of hitting – and they became friends.
I saw Williams hit in person only once when, just days shy of turning 54, he competed in a home run hitting contest at Fenway for his beloved Jimmy Fund –- a Boston cancer charity.
Last week, at age 54, Tony Gwynn passed away, the victim of salivary gland cancer. And while there has been no direct link made yet between chewing tobacco and salivary gland cancer, Gwynn had no doubt that it was the cause.
“It makes sense,” said Schererville oral surgeon Jay Platt, DDS, of Gwynn’s belief. “Tobacco is a carcinogen and you will get some back flow from the mouth to the gland when you chew.”
Covered last in this space seven years ago, chewing tobacco and snuff definitely cause many other oral cancers. Worse, treatment and results haven’t changed since last discussed here. “The survival rate hasn’t improved any,” Platt said. “It’s only about 50 percent.”
For survivors, the outcome is often unsatisfactory. “That’s the biggest thing in my mind,” said Platt. “You often lose (facial) muscle, parts of lips, and part of the tongue.”
For those reasons, chewing tobacco has long been banned at every level of baseball, except Major League Baseball. The Players’ Association has refused to go along.
In the wake of Gwynn’s death, union members should come to their senses. They have lost, in Gwynn, the wise resource he had in Williams. Instead of continuing as the head baseball coach at San Diego State and as elder statesman of the game, Gwynn becomes just a memory. Questions asked will now go unanswered because the departed do not answer letters.