SMITH COLUMN: John Underwood

Published 10:30 am Friday, May 5, 2023

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John Underwood, a classic, keenly creative, and extraordinary writer, has entered the afterlife, but he leaves behind an enviable legacy — especially his resonating voice which was accompanied with canny insight and discerning reason. I won’t let go of the memories of the times we shared together and his ability to communicate with such eloquence and verve along with a penetrating view about the ignoble underpinning which often accompanies sports — the ugliness of greed. 

While he preferred to move into lockstep with the beauty of sports’ redeeming and uplifting narratives, he was never reluctant to speak out against the ills of the games which we hold sacred.

Underwood became a companion and confidante of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams with and about whom he wrote four books. “My Turn at Bat,” was a best seller. His book about Bear Bryant, the Alabama coach, was also a best seller.

“My Turn at Bat,” was such a great book, I read it three, maybe four times, choosing to immerse in this classic story on long flights to Europe. It was a great way to “shorten” the journey across the Atlantic. An aisle seat and a tumbler or two or more of Irish whiskey with soft music coursing through a headset while you vicariously relived the great moments of the “Splendid Splinter’s” sensational and remarkable career—what fulfillment!

If you have a paradigmatic story showcased by a skilled and adroit wordsmith, you realize you are the beneficiary of a rare experience. That book will be an inspiration for the sports world with the passing of time. Underwood’s remarkable ability to describe Williams batting skills (the greatest power hitter the game has known), getting the best out of the slugger and surviving the cantankerous bluster of Williams who had no reluctance to offend anyone when his turbulent temper was piqued.

Only Underwood could get an apology when Williams unnecessarily insulted with a biting and castigating remark. Ted’s unparalleled patience at the plate, which was key in his becoming the last player to bat .400 in a season, was never exercised if you were bone fishing with him and rocked the boat and spooked the fish. On such occasions, his salty language would embarrass a boatswain’s mate.

When that happened to Underwood, he was not reluctant to dress down the great batsman. 

They fished for tarpon and bone in the Florida Keys and Atlantic salmon on Canada’s Miramichi River. The last excursion led to a book, “Fishing the Big Three.” Williams proclaimed that the Atlantic salmon, the bone, and the tarpon were the three giants of game fishing, and he gloried in the abundant netting of all three.

Many say that Ted was the greatest fisherman who ever lived which was important to the Red Sox hero. In the last year of Williams’ life, Underwood arranged for me to interview Williams in Desoto Springs, Florida, where Ted lived out his life. 

Ted was on the phone with Joe DiMaggio before coming out of his bedroom to greet my wife and me. He then spent three hours, including lunch, talking baseball — a courtesy to a stranger because of his friendship with his buddy John Underwood. Ted loved to talk about the game he played so well.

A well-known manager, Charlie Manuel of the Philadelphia Phillies, got to know Williams and rejoiced in conversations with Williams about hitting. He bought copies of “The Science of Hitting,” by Ted and Underwood, for his key hitters.

Few, if any, could impart such wisdom about hitting a baseball, which Williams thought was the most difficult challenge in sport. But for the narrative to be understood by an unwashed reader, the story had to be told by an equally gifted writer. Williams had that in Underwood.

If Bear Bryant explained the nuances of the 50 defense in the most graphic of terms, Underwood could fluently pass it on to the reader as easy to understand as an interpreter translating Greek in English.

As mentioned earlier, John loathed the greed in sport. He thought Little League baseball would be best if the parents stayed home. He regretted that “Knot-hole-gangs” went away. When he wrote “Death of an American Game,” in 1979, he in essence predicted the coming of what we are experiencing today with college athletics. However, I don’t think even John thought free agency would ever be something we would have to worry about.

John’s books were so insightful, so much pure pleasure to read. I am proud to say that I have read them all. Perhaps, the most fun book was the one about the “Ted Williams We Hardly Knew.” It was the great writer’s last book.

The title had to do with the way Ted greeted Underwood and his wife Donna when he called the Underwood residence in Coral Gables. As soon as one of them said hello, Ted would say, “It’s only me.”

Underwood wrote with purpose and feeling. His obituary in the New York Times called him a “stylish writer,” certainly apropos. He was talented and accomplished, but for those who really knew him, you would be made aware that he also was a good man with a good heart.