A Review of “The Wingmen”- A Book About Ted Williams’ and John Glenn’s Bond

New novel looks at the friendship between two famous Americans

The Wingmen: The Unlikely, Unusual, Unbreakable Friendship Between John Glenn and Ted Williams

Adam Lazarus

Citadel Press, 306 pages


The Yankees’ recent acquisition of Juan Soto was a big deal – a four-time All-Star with the prime years of his career still ahead of him joining New York to bolster the already formidable one-two punch of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

Soto is a career .284 hitter and has already racked up 160 home runs in his six seasons. Soto also possesses an all-time elite skill for getting on base. He currently is 19th in baseball history with a career on-base percentage of .421.

But what if instead of joining the Yankees this offseason, Soto had to join a different kind of team – the United States military?

That’s exactly what happened 80 years ago, when another budding baseball superstar, the 23-year-old, three-time All-Star Ted Williams joined the United States Marine Corps as a naval aviator.

Williams is widely considered the best pure hitter who ever played and retired with a .344 lifetime batting average, racking up six batting titles in the process. He owns the highest on-base percentage of all time (.482) and famously was the last person to hit .400 in a season (.406) in 1941. In his final season, 1960, the 41-year-old Williams hit .316 and he retired with 521 home runs.

Yet those career numbers would have been even higher if Williams had not missed the 1943, 1944, and 1945 baseball seasons while he served during World War II. His unique career path took another twist in 1952 when he was recalled to active duty to serve in the Korean War. He then served most of the 1952 and 1953 baseball seasons before resuming his baseball career with the Red Sox in August 1953.

It was during this second period of military service that American hero Ted Williams met another future American hero and served alongside him, John Glenn, the astronaut who was the first American to orbit the Earth in space and who later served as a US Senator.

A new book by Adam Lazarus looks at this fascinating time in history and the relationship between the two famous men. It’s clear from the beginning that the author has extensively researched this book. It’s a detailed novel that leads the reader not just through baseball history, but touches on the general history of the United States during the wartime decades of the 1940s and 1950s. It provides vivid details on military missions from that era and personal accounts from Williams and Glenn.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Williams at the end of the 1951 season. He had finished the season hitting .318, his lowest average during a full season of play. He was 33 years old and it appeared he was starting to slow down a bit, sitting out the end of the season with an ankle injury. But then, in early 1952, the Marine Corps sent a letter to Williams that he was being recalled from reserve status and being assigned to active duty. He reported on May 2, less than a month into the season that year.

Lazarus provides a biography of sorts of Glenn, who was destined to fly planes from the time he was a young child and was five years old when Charles Lindbergh took his famous flight from New York to Paris. Lazarus tracks Glenn from his childhood up to his time joining the military, before eventually crossing paths with the famous baseball superstar. Lazarus spends time profiling the details of Glenn’s and Williams’ divergent personalities – a theme that is woven throughout the story.

By the middle of February, the reluctant, fatalistic Reservist and the eager, optimistic active-duty regular Marine had each settled into the same spot for the foreseeable future. And from the outset neither knew what to make of the other.

“When Glenn joined the squadron I didn’t know who he was,” Williams remembered. “None of us knew much about him.”

“I didn’t know what to expect from him,” Glenn said. “I didn’t know whether he would be a guy who only talked about baseball.”

Lazarus describes how the two men were very different, but despite their differences, they were able to forge a lifelong friendship. Glenn was “modest, measured, and above all loyal” while Williams was “cocky, moody, and foulmouthed.” Yet they “both were good-hearted patriots who served their country and genuinely cared about others, be they lifelong friends or perfect strangers.”

Williams and Glenn were stationed in South Korea and flew together for the first time on April 22, 1953. Their first combat mission together narrowly avoided disaster as Williams dropped a bomb on the wrong target, and the two men thought he had hit US territory. Unbeknownst to the two men, however, “the bombline had moved several hundred yards south.”

While Williams was the best of his peers on the baseball field, he deferred to Glenn while in the air, as Glenn was a Major and Williams was a Captain. Glenn always “made sure to keep an eye on Williams” including on another mission when Williams’ plane was hit and Glenn led him back to safety by flying to a higher altitude.

It then follows the men in their post-military careers and how the relationship lasted the rest of their lives. Glenn joined NASA and was chosen as one of the first astronauts for a mission in space. In 1962, he became the third American in space, and the first to orbit the Earth. After retiring from NASA, Glenn served as a US Senator from the state of Ohio for 24 years. This was an enlightening section of the book as I of course knew about Ted Williams, but did not know much about Glenn.

After retiring from baseball, Williams served as manager of the Washington Senators and spent many hours with his lifelong passion for fishing. The men were still friends in their later years, with Williams watching Glenn’s return to space at the age of 77 in 1998. Glenn participated in a nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Glenn was then there for Williams a few years later – visiting him in the hospital before Williams passed away in 2002.

My favorite parts of the book were when Lazarus peels back the public images of the men and reveals their personal accounts of those times. One particular section describes Williams’ vulnerability and the uncertainties of someone facing the prospect of going into war.

Ted Williams never lacked confidence in anything he did: talking to women, fishing, hunting, and of course playing baseball. In speaking of his skills at the plate he often told reporters and fans that “no one can throw a fastball past me. God could come down from Heaven, and He couldn’t throw it past me.”

And when it came to his military service, he used that same confident strategy publicly, but privately it was a different story.

But on this one particular night, at dinner with Rice, a few weeks before departing for the Far East, Ted Williams was not so optimistic. “Then he said – and this is what I can’t get out of my mind,” Rice told fellow New York sportswriter Frank Graham, “‘I expect to be killed, of course.'” He wasn’t being maudlin about it. He said it very calmly. He simply had accepted what he was bound to think was his destiny.”

I did get lost occasionally in the minutiae of military jargon and aviation language used in the book, but someone more familiar with the military or flying would not be offput while reading this.

In summary, “The Wingmen: The Unlikely, Unusual, Unbreakable Friendship Between John Glenn and Ted Williams”  would make a great gift for your dad or grandfather this holiday season. I would also recommend it to anyone who loves United States history, who has served in the military, or who just enjoys the game of baseball.


Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram)

Nate Kosher

Nate Kosher is based in the Twin Cities and is a staff writer for Pitcher List. He grew up watching low-budget Twins teams at the Metrodome before eventually converting to the Arizona Diamondbacks (the power of teal and purple in the 1990s). His goal is to someday visit all 30 MLB ballparks and he believes Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame. You can read more of Nate's writing in his newsletter, The Relief Pickle.

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