On Wednesday, fans marked the birthday of the late baseball bravo Ted Williams. The Kid, who died in 2002 at the age of 83, made his debut in San Diego, California, on August 30, 1918. Today’s the day Jean Béliveau was born, in 1931, in Trois-Rivières; Le Gros Bill, as they’d come to call him, later, was also 83 when he died in 2014. No better time, in other words, to commemorate the coming together, above, of these two greats of their respective games (and Terry Sawchuk, too).
The question of when and where this might have taken place is a good one. As a boy, Béliveau was as keen on summertime bats and balls as he was in the winter with skates and sticks. He was, by no special surprise, good, too. In his 1994 autobiography, he recalls his mentor on the diamond, a Victoriaville electrician by the name of John Nault who was known as Mr. Baseball for his coaching enthusiasm. When Béliveau was 15, a scout thought highly enough of his fastball and homerun potential to offer him a minor-league contract with a team “somewhere in Alabama.” As willing as Béliveau may have been, “maman responded with an unequivocal non.”
A year earlier, Nault led a trip south. As Béliveau recalls it,
he packed four or five of us into his car for a Sunday excursion to Boston’s Fenway Park. We couldn’t understand a word of what was going on around us, but we needed o translation when Ted Williams hammered the ball more than four hundred feet, deep over the right centerfield fence.
It was a gruelling twenty-hour round trip, but I’ve never forgotten it. All the way back to Victoriaville, through Massachusetts and Vermont, a carload of wide-eyed young French Canadiens dreamed of playing for the Boston Red Sox, digging in against Allie Reynolds and other New York Yankee aces.
This must have been in the summer of 1946, when Williams was 27, back in Boston after a three-year stint as a U.S. Navy aviator. The Red Sox played in the World Series that year, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. The homerun Béliveau saw was one of 38 Williams soared that season.
It was 1953 before Béliveau joined the Montreal Canadiens full-time. Three years later, he led the NHL in goalscoring and won the Art Ross Trophy for accumulating the most points, along with a Hart Trophy, as MVP, as well as the first of ten Stanley Cups.
“For some reason,” he writes in My Life in Hockey, “the Canadiens always had an affinity for Boston’s teams.” Given a chance, Béliveau and his teammates would catch a Celtics basketball games on a Sunday afternoon at the Boston Garden before they took on the hometown Bruins. If they happened to find themselves in Boston during the baseball season, off they’d head to Fenway Park to watch the bats swing. He recalls (what must be) the moment we’re seeing here:
Once, Ted Williams invited me into the clubhouse, and we spoke privately for twenty minutes or so. When I came out, the local reporters clustered round, wanting to know what we’d discussed. Apparently I’d been more favoured than I knew; Ted never gave them anything more than a couple of sentences. In fact, he and I started off talking about baseball and hockey, then graduated to the Splendid Splinter’s great passion, fishing. Williams often travelled into the wilds of Quebec on fly-fishing expeditions. My friend Jacques Côté had a wonderful trout stream, and I knew it was his dream to have Williams join one of our fishing parties.
Doesn’t seem like that ever happened. Looking back, the mutual admiration isn’t hard to understand. These were two men, after all, whose talents lifted them to the very top of their respective sports; each in his own way has a claim on having been among the greatest ever to have played his own particular game. Is it worth pausing, for just a beat, on how different these two men were in public persona? Time has yet to diminish the legend of Béliveau’s quiet grace and regal good nature. “He treated everyone with such respect,” Ken Dryden wrote in 2014. “He said the right things, and in the right way — in French and in English — because that is what he believed, and that’s how he was. He made every occasion better. He made everyone who attended feel that their town, their organization, their province, their country, their event mattered. That they mattered. Appealing to their best selves, he reminded them of the best that was in them.”
And Williams? For the full (and brilliant) bible on his bellicosity, see Richard Ben Cramer’s 1986 Esquire profile. For our purposes here, John Updike will have to do. “Boston wanted to love the Kid,” he wrote in Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, “but he was prickly in its embrace. He was hot-tempered and rabbit-eared and became contemptuous of sportswriters and too proud to tip his hat after hitting a home run.” In ’46, the year a young Béliveau first set eyes on him, “he sulked, spat, threw bats, and threatened retirement.” And yet: “No sports hero — not Bobby Orr or Larry Bird or Rocky Marciano — had a greater hold over the fans of New England than Ted Williams.”
As for the timing of this clubhouse conclave, I was initially going to guess at 1957. Mostly this was pegged to Terry Sawchuk’s having spent just a pair of seasons with the Bruins, 1955 through to ’57. In ’56, Canadiens didn’t visit Boston during baseball season. A year later, turns out, is a case of closer but not quite: while Canadiens and the Bruins played two games of the Stanley Cup finals the Garden in early April, it was still several days before the Red Sox started into their season’s home schedule, by which time Canadiens were back in Montreal winning another championship. Also: ’57 is the year Sawchuk walked out on the Bruins in mid-January. He departed Boston for his home in Milford, Michigan — left hockey behind, too, he was saying at the time. Which means he probably wouldn’t have been on hand in the spring to visit with Williams and Béliveau on a spring day at Fenway.
Maybe it isn’t Sawchuk at all? Who’s to say a Sawchuk doppelgänger wasn’t in the house? Because while the actual Sawchuk had returned to the game for the 1957-58 season, he’d taken his talents back to Detroit by then. I guess it’s possible that he took a trip to Boston in April of ’58 to catch a bit of ball after Canadiens eliminated the Red Wings to reach the finals again. Again Montreal met the Bruins there, and again they beat them. The series went to six games this time, which means that the decisive tilt was at the Garden, on April 20. Before that the teams played there April 13 and 15 — coinciding (as it happens) with an early-season Red Sox series against the New York Yankees.