When John Glenn Saved Ted Williams’s Life

The baseball great and the legendary astronaut were co-pilots during the Korean War—and Glenn’s cool head saved the Hall of Famer during a tense run-in with the enemy.

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That great American hero, John Glenn, died just days after the 75th anniversary of that great American disaster, Pearl Harbor. The Japanese surprise attack shaped Glenn’s life. It helped make him a hero of what we now call the Greatest Generation and the Mad Men era. Pearl Harbor mobilized a generation, resulting in the novelistic coincidence of Glenn flying during the Korean War with another Mad Men-era hero—and a truly Mad Man—the legendary but peppery baseball legend Ted Williams.

It’s tempting to reduce the friendship to a wartime Odd Couple fling. Glenn was a contained Midwesterner who wore his heroism lightly. Williams was a temperamental kid from a more turbulent background in San Diego, who, early on, admitted he wanted to be considered the “greatest hitter who ever lived.” Glenn, the gentleman, was always courtly and courteous while courting the press—and the people. Williams couldn’t care less. In 1956, when he spit yet again at hometown Red Sox fans—twice—and was fined $5,000, Williams said: “I’m not a bit sorry for what I did. I was right and I’d spit again at the same fans who booed me today.”

However, if we learn from the civil-rights activist Bryan Stevenson that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” we will learn about Ted Williams as hitter, philanthropist, civil rights champion, and war hero. And what novelist would have dared imagine that this godlike baseball player who retired in 1960, would have flown half his combat missions in Korea with a young John Glenn, who became a modern deity in 1962 when he became the first American to reach the heavens, orbiting the earth three times in 4 hours and 56 minutes.

This time gap means that when the two met, the 34-year-old Williams was already a baseball legend and Glenn just another decorated fighter pilot. Beyond flying together—which can bond the most clashing of comrades with shared patriotism, fear, expertise, and experience—Williams’s warm, quiet, generous side made him more palatable to Glenn, and Glenn’s disciplined, zealous, and ambitious side made him familiar to Williams.

Indeed, John Glenn broadcast a Middle American, nay All-American normalcy and stoicism his entire life. Born to a comfortable, stable family in Cambridge, Ohio, in 1921 and raised in nearby New Concord, population 889, Glenn would recall that the town “had a lot of patriotic feeling.” Williams would remember being embarrassed by his Salvation Army evangelist mother. He also understood that had he carried her Mexican-American last name, Venzor, he would have faced discrimination.

One can only imagine John Glenn’s feelings when meeting Ted Williams on base—meaning the Air Force base—for the first time. Williams returned as a reservist from 1952 to 1953, having served as an aviator from 1943 to 1946. Williams had hit .406 in 1941, and won the Triple Crown in 1942 and 1947. Known as a disciplined, elegant hitter, his nickname “The Splendid Splinter” evoked the grace he always exhibited on the ballfield—including with players and umpires—although not with reporters or fans. But, as Glenn would write in Life in 1959, as a combat pilot who enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor and flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific, he often faced “clutch situations” and “dangerous unknowns.” During the Korean War, “Old Magnet Ass” displayed impressive fortitude during 90 combat missions, once returning with over 250 holes in his aircraft from enemy fire. In a world where you were defined by split-second life-and-death decisions while floating through the clouds, a ballplayer’s fame counted little.

Ultimately, Glenn walked away impressed with Williams’s professionalism and patriotism, hailing him as “a gung-ho Marine.” Williams walked away grateful for his life. Williams would write in The Boston Globe in 1962: “This was a man destined for something great… John always had exceptional self-control and was one of the calmest men I have ever met, no matter how perilous the situation.” Once when enemy anti-aircraft fire ignited flames on Williams’s F9F Panther Jet, Glenn flew by his window and pointed skyward. Ascending into thinner air, Williams extinguished the flames—and survived.

After those years fighting together, both made history. Williams retired in 1960 with six batting championships, 521 homers, and 2 MVP awards. He also helped the Jimmy Fund of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute raise over $750 million—and often paid for the hospital bills of the young cancer patients he visited.

When baseball’s Hall of Fame inducted Ted Williams in 1966, he made peace with the reporters he had always fought but who had now elected him. He then lobbied to include the Negro League’s greats into the Hall, adding: “Baseball gives every boy a chance to excel, and I hope someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players that are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.”

Meanwhile, Glenn became an astronaut, one of the Mercury Seven, what Life called “the shock troops of an explosive revolutionary era in which … hardly any facet of life is exempt from change.” Glenn—who was competitive enough to regret not being the first American in space, and lucky enough to earn the bigger distinction for orbiting the earth—would speak in phrases straight out of the hero’s handbook. Representing the confidence Americans had in their government, their institutions, in those times, he would speak of his excitement, pride, curiosity, and “duty,” knowing “we can count on the fact that the machine will be in excellent shape.” The patriotism, which Ted Williams also shared, made that Generation Great. And that sense of confidence was part of the charm of Mad Men, even if only Ted Williams evokes the complex Don Draper character.

A NASA official in 1959 would call John Glenn and his fellow astronauts “premium individuals picked for an unconventional task.” Ted Williams was a premium individual who mastered a conventional game. Still Ted Williams and John Glenn had the discipline, grit, determination, and skill necessary to stand out. As Glenn went on to serve four terms in the United States Senate, return to space in 1998 at the age of 77 and live until his 95th year, he continued embodying the All-American virtues we once relied on to make America great—back when most Americans believed America was great.