An unusually large crowd of some 50 people jammed the basement of the Old Meetinghouse (Unitarian Church) on Feb. 4 to hear noted sportswriter, biographer, and Medfield resident Leigh Montville.
Montville is best-known locally as a sports reporter and columnist for the Boston Globe from 1968 to 1989, when he went to Sports Illustrated. He has also written biographies of Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Dale Earnhardt, Evel Kneivel, and numerous other sports figures.
Before Montville even got started, two other Medfield residents chipped in with their stories about personal encounters with Williams.
(Ted Williams was the star left fielder for the Red Sox from 1938 through 1960. He claimed, and many baseball experts agreed, that he was the greatest hitter that ever lived. A child from a broken home in San Diego, he became a complex, sometimes petulant, and perhaps bipolar adult, almost as famous for his feuds with sports writers as for his prowess with a bat.)
Frank Iafolla, who still lives on Frairy Street, told of seeing Williams often in the 1950s, especially when Williams would have dinner at the old Frances Café, now Basil, after a day of fishing, the sport which Williams loved almost as much as baseball.
When Frank was about to be discharged from the U.S. Marines in 1968, he stood in a formation line. Williams, who had been a Marine fighter pilot in World War II and in the Korean War, was reviewing the troops.
Williams: “Where are you from, son?”
Iafolla: “Medfield, Massachusetts, sir, home of the Frances Café.”
Williams: “A great little restaurant! Good luck.”
Fred Snow of North Street worked, in his youth, as a concierge at the Hotel Somerset, where Williams lived. Fred’s memories of Williams: “I got along well with him. There were always a lot of women waiting at the hotel who wanted to see him. He’d tell me who he wanted me to bring up and who to send away. And did he ever have a foul mouth! But he absolutely loved the Jimmy Fund – he would always make time to talk to kids with cancer and their parents.”
Once he took the floor, Leigh Montville gave a wide-ranging talk and took a lot of questions from the audience.
He started by talking about biographies. “I keep away from people who’ve been the subject of other biographies written within the last 20 years. The world doesn’t need another biography yet. If you want to write a biography of someone like Thomas Jefferson you have a lot of their writings at your disposal. But athletes are generally not men of letters. There’s a lot of information available from newspapers and other publications. And we do a lot of interviews when we can.”
In writing his biography after Ted Williams’ death in 2002, Leigh said he conducted many interviews with two teammates who were close friends of Williams, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio, shown left to right in the accompanying photo from the 1940s.
Williams missed about five of his prime baseball career years when he served in the Marine Corps as a pilot in the World War II and the Korean War. In Korea, Leigh said, Ted had a narrow escape – his plane was hit by enemy fire, and he decided not to eject and ditch the plane but to limp back to his base and hope for the best with a crash landing.
As Williams was extricating himself from the wreckage, a squad car raced up, and a colonel jumped out, holding a clip board. “Sign this form here,” he said to Williams. Williams later complained that the colonel didn’t ask if he was okay – “he only wanted my damn autograph!”
Interesting and perceptive comment from the floor: “If Ted was alive today, he’d probably have had the benefit of antidepressants, and he’d have had a happier life…but then he wouldn’t have been the Ted Williams we still talk about today.”
Leigh also had some Tom Brady stories. About 20 years ago, writing for Sports Illustrated, Leigh was sent to the University of Michigan to do a story on a highly-touted quarterback named Drew Henson. Henson had won numerous national “player of the year” awards in high school for both baseball and football, and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called him the best quarterback prospect he’d ever seen.
(After college, Henson went on to play in eight games for the Yankees, getting one hit in eleven at bats. In the NFL he played for the Lions, Vikings, and Cowboys. He appeared in a total of nine NFL games, passed for 98 yards, and had one touchdown and one interception.)
At the time, in Michigan, Henson competed for and split playing time with the other young quarterback, Tom Brady, who had also been drafted as a baseball catcher in 1995 by the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals). Brady drew inspiration from the competition with Henson.
Leigh and another local sports writer also interviewed Tom Brady when he joined the Patriots. Brady asked far more questions than the scribes did, since they knew their way around Boston far better than he did.
One question was about where Brady might live. One of the writers said his young, single nephew was at the Quincy Marina and really liked it as a place to live and play – which is how Brady came to live there, getting to chat with neighbors on the street and in the supermarket!
Leigh graciously ended the evening by giving out and signing books.
The society is deeply appreciative to Leigh for the talk…and for the $300 in donations the audience contributed to help the society recover some of the cost of its new heating system.