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How John Glenn and Ted Williams became an unlikely duo

A new book shows how the famous pair forged a friendship in war.

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I’ve always been a bit amazed at how high-profile people seem to end up in the same orbit. Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore were college roommates at Harvard. Chevy Chase played drums in a college band with Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, who later went on to form the band Steely Dan. Clayton Kershaw and Matt Stafford were childhood friends and teammates at Highland Park High School in Dallas.

This all came to mind this week as I read the book, “The Wingmen” about the unlikely friendship between John Glenn and baseball icon Ted Williams. The book, a recent release by author Adam Lazarus, is a 232-page tour de force that covers their time together as fighter pilots in the Korean conflict as well as other high and low lights of their respective lives and careers and their decades long friendship. At their peak, Williams and Glenn were arguably the two most famous men in America. Both men were American icons with completely different personalities. Williams was a loud, profane, thrice married atheist and very sensitive to real or perceived slights. Glenn was quiet, thoughtful, deeply religious and married to his childhood sweetheart Annie for 73 years. You could easily write an entire book just about one of these guys, but Lazarus has managed to deftly combine their two lives into one nifty, entertaining package.

If you’re a child of the ‘60s like me, you’ll enjoy reading this book.

I knew of Williams prowess as a fighter pilot (he often bragged that he was the greatest hitter, fisherman and fighter pilot who ever lived) but knew little of Glenn’s heroic service in World War II or Korea. Williams very well might have been the greatest hitter, though many others like Ty Cobb, Henry Aaron, Stan Musial and Tony Gwynn could easily claim a share of that title. I have no idea about the fishing claim. How do you even measure that? Williams was certainly a master angler, but couldn’t the same be said of people like Harold Ensley, Bill Dance or even Al Lindner? Heck, my friend Brent Baerenwald is a master angler. I remember first time we went out; I was a little skeptical and asked him, “Are we going to catch anything?” He replied with 100% certainty, “We always catch fish”. And we did and continue to in every month of the year and in all sorts of weather and conditions. That was the kind of confidence that Williams had in his abilities, whether it was hitting a slider, casting to a tarpon, hunting ducks or flying on Glenn’s wing. As for William’s fighter pilot boast, after reading about Glenn’s ability behind the stick, Williams might be relegated to being the second-best pilot.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Glenn and Williams’ service in Korea and their developing friendship. Lazarus is extremely detailed in his storytelling regarding America’s forgotten war. In fact, Korea isn’t even technically a war. It’s classified as a conflict, since the United States never formally declared war on North Korea, or its proxy, China. But to the men and women who served in Korea, it was most definitely a war, often fought under brutal conditions. Lazarus does an outstanding job bringing to life the intensity and fear of those combat flights, giving his readers a chance to relive close calls by both Glenn and Williams. It’s no easy task to split a book between two American icons, but Lazarus does a commendable job of giving each man his due.

The middle of the book delves deeply into Glenn’s space career. Before you read this book, watch the movie The Right Stuff. Several years ago, I went into our local Family Video store looking for a copy of The Right Stuff. Remember when renting a video on Friday or Saturday evening was a big thing and even constituted a date? Times change in a hurry, don’t they? Anyway, the young clerk looked at me with a blank stare when I asked for the movie.

You know, the movie about the early days of the space program?

Won several Oscars?

Starred Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, among others?

Who’s the best damn pilot you ever saw?

Nothing. I may as well have been speaking Mandarin.

Made me wonder what the hell is going on in our educational system these days.

Many of us born in the 1950s and early ‘60s has fond memories of watching early morning space launches. My mom would wake me early and I’d sit just feet in front of our little 12” black and white TV while munching on a bowl of oatmeal, eagerly awaiting the countdown and launch of first Mercury, then later Gemini capsules.

In February of 1962, Glenn, strapped into his Mercury capsule, perched atop an Atlas rocket, lifted off into space and became the first American to orbit the earth. It was a momentous achievement for the United States, as we were locked into the space race against the Soviet Union. Lazarus does an excellent job of pulling back the veil on Glenn’s space career and his later move into politics. Even though Williams and Glenn sat on opposites sides of the political aisle, they always respected each other and never let those differences affect their friendship, something the country could use a healthy dose of today.

The final third of the book is dedicated to both men’s final years. Both men shared a love and tenderness for each other that only grew with age. Lazarus also brings forth extensive details on the unfortunate demise of Williams and the shameful treatment of his body. I’d heard plenty about this episode, but Lazarus brings new information to the pages that is worth the read.

This book has something for everyone. History of the Korean War and the space program? Check. Baseball? Check. Sadness? Check. Humor? Check. One of my favorite lines in the book is this one. When asked if he ever had PTSD or trouble sleeping because of his experiences in the war, Williams replied in his booming voice, “I had a lot of nightmares and Bob Feller was in every one of them”.

Lazarus even makes note of Williams seminal book, The Science of Hitting. I read the book when I was a teenager. It’s not an easy read, but there is one passage that should be put on laminated index cards and taped to the locker of every professional baseball player, especially those who play for the Royals. It goes something like this:

“When you’re ahead in the count, be ready to hit. When the count is 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 and 3-1 be looking for your pitch (most likely a fastball) and be ready to drive it hard. The pitcher doesn’t want to walk you.” That advice is as solid today as it was when the book came out in 1970.

I spend many summer evenings shouting at my television as Kansas City hitters with their bats on their shoulders watch these juicy pitches fly by.

The Wingmen is a terrific book for baseball fans, people who enjoy the space program and for anyone interested in learning more about what America was like back in the heyday of the space race and the Korean War years, told through the eyes of two American heroes. The Wingmen can be purchased from your neighborhood bookstore, Barnes & Noble or Amazon. I think you’ll enjoy it.