The Robert Redford (Teddy Ballgame) story

January 27, 2011

In 2000, I went to New York for the press day for Robert Redford‘s movie The Legend of Bagger Vance.

it was, as these things sometimes are, a fairly miserable experience. These interviews are never fun (and certainly not glamorous) and there were just an awful lot of people (both press — hereafter referred to as the “ilk” — and “talent”) involved in this one.

Everything ran long, there were some terrible delays and while most of the interviews went well enough, Matt Damon was his usual grounded decent self, there were a couple of weird incidents. Will Smith lost it in the hallway when his assistant apparently brought him the wrong headwrap.

Then when Redford finally came in at the end of the day (dressed in all white, with a white sweater draped over his shoulders, at least in my memory) he was immediately set upon by a certain segment of the ilk who wanted him to autograph various pieces of memorabilia they had brought with them.

Redford was obviously uncomfortable with this, though he managed to sign most of the items without looking either at the proffered items or the particular member of the ilk attached to the other end of it. Making it worse, none of the ilk seemed to want to know anything about the movie Redford was there to promote — mostly they wanted to know what it was like to work with Paul Newman.

It was excruciating. And afterwards, as I was leaving — to go upstairs to check into a press day for some other movie — Redford and his assistant got on. He nodded at me, and didn’t get off, which I understood as a sign he didn’t hold me responsible for the debacle we’d just sat through.

As luck would have it, we got off at the same floor — Redford was apparently scheduled to do some sort of closed circuit TV stuff. But they were running behind, so he, rather inexplicably I thought, followed me into the hospitality suite and picked up a bottle of water and maybe a muffin from the spread laid out for us ilk. He then sat down on the couch, while I signed in.

I turned around found, saw him sitting there, and for maybe the one time in my life I thought to myself “I just can’t walk out of here without saying something.” So I looked as Redford and told him that the one thing that struck me about the film we’d just seen was how good Will Smith’s golf swing seemed. (I think Smith’s character takes one swing in the entire film and it’s so much better than any of the other characters — and the guy who played Bobby Jones in the film had played college golf.)

He smiled, and said it was very hard to find actors who could make convincing athletes, that it was much easier to find athletes who could act, and that led us to The Natural, and his portrayal of Roy Hobbs — which Redford has always acknowledged was based on Ted Williams.

And that led us to baseball, and I told Redford — who played college ball — that I was just barely old enough to have been in Yankee Stadium when Ted Williams hit a home run. I couldn’t remember it, of course, Williams retired before I was two years old, but my father had taken me to a game, where Mickey Mantle had played and Williams had hit a pinch-hit home run.

Redford then told me this story, pretty much the way he tells it in this clip from the 2009 documentary on Ted Williams. I haven’t checked out the date (and I didn’t know this clip existed until after I teased you guys with this story) but Redford and I decided we must have been at the same game.

And this, from an introduction to a book of essays about Williams that Redford wrote a few years ago:

Any heroes I had when I was a kid were pretty much born out of reading Greek mythology. In real life, in real time, there was only one. It was Ted Williams.

In those days, I had no access to television or Major League ball (Los Angeles was then in the Pacific Coast League). The sport magazines and the radio were my only connection to the grander ballparks, which meant I had to create my own images of each inning. Communication was by pictures. It was these pictures of Williams – relaxed, waiting effortlessly, wrists compensating for the delay in motion and, at the last second, exploding, in graceful rhythm, bat to ball – that were my inspiration.

I imagined being there. I imagined hitting the same ball from the same side in the same way. I admired his reticence to joining the Big Parade of publicity, hype and show, which has become so tiresomely prevalent in today’s sporting world. He had only disdain for that. He just hit – and did it better than possibly any left-handed batter before or since. I feel much the same way now as I did then, and I still look on with admiration. Uncompromising behavior both in and out of the park. Years later, when I made The Natural, I dedicated my number to him. It was the least I could do.”


  • Comment by DLindsay — Jan 27,2011 at 6:02 pm

    Aw, cool story, PM. I like this. Sounds like Redford’s a nice guy.

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Jan 27,2011 at 6:14 pm

    Cool. I still don’t like his hat at Sundance.

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Jan 28,2011 at 9:02 am

    I don’t like his hat either. Though I have one. It’s warm. Karen calls it my “Yoi hat. Because it make me look like a “Yoi{ I guess.

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