Astronaut John Glenn and baseball legend Ted Williams were unlikely BFFs

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By Dan Sears

At 2:19 p.m. on Oct. 29, 1998, the space shuttle Discovery took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for its 25th trip into space.

On board was 77-year-old John Glenn, who had become the first man to orbit the Earth in the 1962 Friendship 7 mission.

Now the astronaut, war hero, and Democratic senator from Ohio was about to become the oldest person ever to go into space.

Looking on at NASA’s Saturn V Center was a glut of celebrities, including world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the lead singer of Aerosmith, Steven Tyler.

But there was one VIP everyone wanted to talk to — Boston Red Sox baseball legend Ted Williams. 

Now aged 80 and wheelchair-bound from a broken hip and leg and the effects of three strokes, Williams was nevertheless there — just so he could see Glenn make history yet again.

As Discovery broke free from Launchpad 39B and, as it soared into the Florida sky, Williams rose up, shouting: “That’s my friend!”

In “The Wingmen: The Unlikely, Unusual, Unbreakable Friendship between John Glenn and Ted Williams” (Kensington), author Adam Lazarus charts the remarkable bond between two American icons who built a deep friendship despite coming from wildly different backgrounds and outlooks.

“They weren’t just friends. They truly admired each other,” writes Lazarus.


Capt. Ted Williams poses atop an airplane at a Marine air base in Korea in 1953.
AP

“There’s something to be said about a titan who reveres another titan.”

Long before his space travels, John Glenn was already an experienced fighter pilot, having served in World War II. When he was called up to fly in the Korean War, he asked for the Boston Red Sox legend — and skilled pilot — Ted Williams to be his wingman. Although they had never met, Glenn was familiar with his reputation.

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It was the start of a rare friendship, although, on the face of it, it seemed as though the two men were never destined to be close.

Born in Cambridge, Ohio, Glenn was the only child of a steadfast Presbyterian couple and raised his own two children, John David and Carolyn Ann, the same way.

Williams, meanwhile, saw little of his alcoholic father, Samuel, or his mother, May, who devoted most of her time to raising money for the Salvation Army.

Their personal lives seemed at odds with each other as well.

Glenn was married to his one and only love, Annie, for 73 years until he died in 2016, while Williams’ love life was more chaotic.


Ted Williams and John Glenn (pictured) shared the same drive and determination to be the best they could in their chosen field.
Getty Images

With an eye for the ladies, Williams was married three times, His last wife, Dolores, was a former Vogue model and Miss Vermont winner.

He was still interested in women, even into his 70s. (In 1991, while on a fishing trip to Russia with his friend Bobby Knight, the septuagenarian met a Russian woman north of the Arctic Circle and instructed their guide to buy him some condoms, also warning Knight that their shared room would soon be off-limits.)

But while the friendship between Glenn and Williams was forged in the camaraderie of war, it didn’t extend to their politics.

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In fact, they were polar opposites.

After his family’s difficult experience during the Great Depression and the part President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal played in getting them back on their feet, Glenn felt a deep sense of gratitude to the Democrats.


When John Glenn was called up to fly in the Korean War, he asked for the Boston Red Sox legend — and skilled pilot — Ted Williams to be his wingman.
lyonairmuseum.org

Glenn also became close personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and carried an American flag gifted to him by the president when he went into space on Friendship 7. 

He “practically became an honorary member of the Kennedy family,” writes Lazarus.

Williams, meanwhile, was ultraconservative, citing Herbert Hoover as the man he most admired and campaigning for Richard Nixon in presidential elections.

When Nixon lost to Kennedy in 1960, Williams refused several invitations from the new president to meet him.


While the friendship between Glenn and Williams was forged in the camaraderie of war, it didn’t extend to their politics.
In that arena, they were polar opposites.
@Urena/X

“When it came to politics, no one, not even hard-headed John Glenn, was as stubborn as Ted Williams,” writes Lazarus. 

When Glenn, as a Democratic senator, ran for the presidential nomination in 1984, Williams couldn’t even bring himself to endorse his close friend. 

“My greatest regret,” he said, “is that you’re not a Republican.” 

“No one can throw a fastball past me. God could come down from Heaven, and He couldn’t throw it past me.”

Ted Williams, discussing his talents

While Williams ducked the media throughout out his baseball career, Glenn seemed to relish the opportunities his fame presented; he even went on the TV game show “Name That Tune,” winning $25,000.

“Glenn applied his share of the winnings to a college fund for [children] David and Annie, but the exposure he received from the national broadcast proved far more lucrative than the money,” writes Lazarus.

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Ted Williams gives a thumbs up during the Korean War, circa 1952.
Getty Images

What both men shared, however, was the same drive and determination to be the best they could in their chosen field.

They also shared supreme confidence in whatever they were doing, be it “talking to women, fishing, hunting,” adds Lazarus.

Certainly, Williams, who died in 2002 at 83, wasn’t shy about discussing his talents.


The Wingmen: The Unlikely, Unusual, Unbreakable Friendship Between John Glenn and Ted Williams by Adam Lazarus
“The Wingmen: The Unlikely, Unusual, Unbreakable Friendship Between John Glenn and Ted Williams” by Adam Lazarus

“No one can throw a fastball past me,” he once said. 

“God could come down from Heaven, and He couldn’t throw it past me.” 

As Lazarus concludes, it was perfectly natural for baseball’s greatest hitter to find common ground with the world’s greatest aviator and space pioneer and, for that matter, vice-versa. 

“The intersection of John Glenn and Ted Williams did not alter the course of world history. It did not even change the military, baseball, politics, space travel, or any of the avenues that either pursued,” he writes.

“But it did change two men who, in a way, changed the world.”

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