Like many freelance writers, I plant my extremities in a wide variety of passions; if we play this financially perilous game of Twister properly, we will never have to write another TPS report.  I’ve long had my left foot on baseball and my right foot in the history of NASA, so I experienced a devastating moment of intellectual insecurity when I saw this tweet:

What. What? I had no idea that John Glenn even broke grapefruit with Ted Williams, let alone that they were wingtip to wingtip at some point.

And where was one of at least 900 movies about this? (Answer: Not even in development hell, because that’s already clogged with Avatar 17, an animated remake of the live action remake of The Lion King, and an update of  Labyrinth starring Snoop Dogg.) Worse, come to think of it, there’s not even a single movie about Glenn’s astonishing life, nor the story of the extraordinary mark Williams left on the game. You will take The Right Stuff and this Smithsonian documentary and you will like it.

Accordingly, the photo of this pairing generated a bit of a stir on Twitter. It can represent an extremely former way of life, yet it illustrates America meeting America over a pot of black coffee. (One of the replies reads, “That’s about the manliest ***** breakfast in the history of breakfast.”)

It’s not just that these are two famous people; it’s that these are two legends in their respective fields, and one found himself tagging along with the expertise of the other.

At first I started to type that in 2023 there’s no earthly way people would haul butt out of the gaming chair to go see a movie about two guys in the 50’s named John and Ted, unless they were this particular John and Ted, but you know what? I would. John Smith and Ted Jones flying real live sorties in the Korean War is infinitely more interesting than an hour and a half of Alec Baldwin. These dudes had to use slide rules for all of their airplane math.

But this is more than a novelty photo. It’s reflective of the emptying of self that contributed to the greatness of these two men. Williams’ career wasn’t disrupted by one war, but two; Glenn would have strapped himself to every rocket leaving the ground in his astronaut era, but bowed instead to his Commander in Chief’s request to retire. John F. Kennedy knew, as NASA did, that a live John Glenn was an immeasurably valuable weapon in stoking support for the space program, but a dead John Glenn would likely end the whole thing.

Glenn’s tremendous accomplishments as a pilot have faded in the public’s memory. He quickly became better known as an astronaut, then a Senator, and then an astronaut again. When Glenn got up from this table, the wildly winding course his life was about to take overshadows anything the fingers of any freelance writer could reach.

Williams, though, went back to the ballpark– where he belonged. Where his work was yet undone. For one, he needed to complete the career that would inspire a little Canadian boy to put down his hockey stick and pick up a baseball bat.

Do you know what makes a good wingman? Well, yes, exceptional hand-eye coordination is a must for any pilot. But a good wingman always stays in position. He knows when to talk and when to silently watch for threats. And most of all, a proper wingman simply executes the mission.

That sounds like a fine left fielder at the plate, too.


36 Responses

  1. Jim Walker

    My great interest in all things aeronautical is no doubt eclipsed by your NASA experience; but, I too was flabbergasted to see that Glenn/ Williams pic. I knew of course of Glenn’s background and that Williams had been a pilot in WW2 and Korea but never considered that their timelines might have converged.

    And isn’t it amazing how a fine left fielder can emerge as a wingman when he is entrusted with a role beyond being a caddy to burn a couple of plate appearances until the opposition replaces their nasty left handed pitcher with a right-handed pitcher.

    • greenmtred

      I read of Williams (article in Sports Illustrated, I believe), that he was considered the finest hitter, fighter pilot and fly fisherman of his generation. Interesting grouping of disciplines, and not as different as they might appear at first glance. Great article, Mary Beth.

  2. Mark Moore

    What a picture and story behind it. Sadly lost in our current trend of history only covering the last couple of hours.

    Glenn’s character in “Hidden Figures” was a favorite of mine. And your point about him being asked to retire to preserve a national hero/treasure is a true throwback to a bygone era where heroes were actually heroes.

    Great stuff as always, MBE. This intersection of baseball and NASA is a keeper.

    • Jim Walker

      Agree about “Hidden Figures”, even more so if the depiction is accurate that Glenn wasn’t going to fly the orbital flight until he got the numbers directly from the person who crunched them regardless of the gender and DNA admixture of the number cruncher.

    • Earmbrister

      MM – Great movie and I also loved John Glenn’s character in the movie. The actor’s smiling face was the first thing I thought of when I read this article.

      MBE, you did a great job with this, as always

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Mark– thank you 🙂 If you liked HF, try “The Right Stuff,” which also focuses a lot on Glenn (bearing in mind that MASSIVE liberties were taken with what really happened.) In “The Right Stuff,” Glenn is played to perfection by Ed Harris, who later returned as Gene Krantz in “Apollo 13.”

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Thanks Earmbrister:) As soon as I saw that photo, I was like “Well, next week’s column is taken care of.”

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      The best leaders are the ones who don’t want to lead. I wish I had stories of the astronauts playing sandlot baseball on the Cape, but they (except Glenn, of course) were all more interested in vrooming their $1.00 lease Corvettes up and down the beach.

  3. LDS

    Slide rules? When I was at Purdue back in the 70s, they wouldn’t let us use calculators. It was slide rules or paper. Imagining a modern kid using a slide rule is unfathomable. As for NASA, I envy the time you spent there. Though I always cringe at what the US and NASA could have accomplished vs. what they did. The country left so much opportunity behind.

    • Jim Walker

      It boggles my mind that the Saturn V is considered lost technology because somebody didn’t get and keep the actual production specs used by various subcontractors.

      • LDS

        @JimWalker, it is truly mindboggling especially when one considers that the US could have returned to the moon rapidly by simply updating the Saturn V/Apollo system to modern technology, like modern computers. In all honesty, as a kid that stayed up all night to catch launches back in the 60s, what the US Space Program became is even more disillusioning than decades of Reds mediocrity.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Jim, it always made me solemn to drive along the gravel launchpad road and see the break in the fence where crews were beginning to prepare for a Nova rocket bound for Mars.

    • Jim t

      @LDS spent 7 years of my life working at Cape Canaveral. Was part of 36 launch’s of the Delta II. Was on top of launch tower 17a when the Challenger was launched and malfunctioned. That began the dismantling of the space program. Like you I believe there is a lot to be gained from space exploration. Hope we get back to it someday.

      • LDS

        @JimT, I’d more say accelerated. Canceling the last three Apollo missions always signaled the decline to me. Congratulations on being part of history, although the stress and tragedy aren’t something I envy.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Jim, what a career. I cannot imagine the impressions you have carried with you since 1986. I wasn’t at work the day Columbia was lost, but I couldn’t handle the aftermath, and it was a big reason why I left.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      LDS, when I was still obvious and thought that a person with a straight-on mathematical learning disability could become an astronaut, I considered Purdue. Thank you for going for me 🙂
      During education sessions at KSC, my big finish was a slide rule. I always asked everyone to remember that we got to the moon and back using this and not a calculator (slide rule origin: eBay.)
      I am ill when I think of the momentum we voluntarily stopped. What would have happened if NASA took the program to private markets as soon as the space race was won?! Why did this take 50 years?

  4. Scott C

    Wow! What a piece of history!!! Their experiences would make an excellent movie, they could call it “John and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” It would be better than that movie that is titled similarly. I would love to see a historical dramatization of either of these two great men in their fields.

  5. Daytonnati

    I knew that they knew each other, and I knew both fought in Korea, but I did not know THIS! Just fantastic.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I am aghast this isn’t common knowledge. I feel batter that I wasn’t the only one who knew of their separate accomplishments, but never even thought to put the two together.

  6. David

    Ted Williams was in the Army Air Corps toward the end of WWII, which did become the US Air Force in 1947, if I recall correctly.

    Ted was flying US Air Force F-86 Sabre jets over North Korea, and John Glenn as a pretty hot-shot Marine pilot, was assigned to the Air Force to get combat experience in the F-86. And yes, Ted knew John Glenn, and thought he was a great guy. He explicitly said he didn’t agree with John’s politics, but he always thought of him as a friend and would fly again with him anytime.
    John Glenn went into space again, on Oct 29th, 1998, aboard the space shuttle. I think that made his flight (still a record) as the oldest person to go into space.
    John Glenn was at the Centennial of Flight Air Show in Dayton in 2003, and went up for a circle around the airport with John Travolta on his plane, a vintage (low hours) Boeing 707. I also just missed meeting Neil Armstrong, who was there that day.

    I last saw John Glenn tottering around Columbus Airport with his daughter, as he was flying out of the airport after a Democrat Party fundraiser/meeting the night before. I also saw Maxine Waters at a ticket counter, and Joe Biden was flying out that day on Air Force Two.
    And to top it off, Chris Spielman was on my flight.

    My slight brush with fame. 😉

    • Jim t

      @David you are correct the National security act of 1947 established the The Air Force as a separate entity.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        My daddy joined the Air Force just before the JFK administration and he said they still got issued Army gear (insert laughing emoji here)

    • Daytonnati

      I have a good friend who was in line at the Kroger in Mariemont several years ago. The guy in front of him was Neil Armstrong. My friend excused himself and told Neil that he was a UC graduate and it was an honor to meet him and could he shake his hand. (Neil had been a professor at UC for several years in the 80s – he was commencement speaker when my wife graduated.) Neil was gracious and a little embarrassed. He leaves and my friend is left standing with a very young checkout girl. “Do you know who that was?” my friend asks. She goes, “No.” He said, “Neil Armstrong.” She replies, “So … ??”

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Daytonnati– Oh Armstrong was the IDEAL man for the singular job he had. Sometimes I wonder about the celestial arrangement him being in the right place at the right time. It was like he was designed for it. I admire him a great deal. He made for the best leader– that is, he was competitive and driven, but wasn’t propelled by personal vanity. He didn’t want the honor and the glory, which meant he was the perfect man to be the first man.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      David– there’s a tremendous, highly inflammatory joke waiting in that final paragraph.

      Well, guess who’s now the oldest man in space? William Shatner. But, fittingly, Glenn is still the oldest to orbit– Shatner’s flight was a ballistic experience. (Glenn was also the first American to orbit.) What was so great about it was he’d had the world’s most thorough (and worst) physical exams during the Mercury interview process, so there was a wealth of medical data to compare.

  7. Oldtimer

    My NASA history moment. My uncle worked at Redstone Arsenal (NASA) in Huntsville, AL from 1964 to 1994. He introduced me to Dr. Werner von Braun in the 1960s.

    My Ted Williams interesting fact. He played 1939 to 1960 except for 5 years fighting wars in WW2 and Korea. From 1939 to 1960 (despite missing all or part of FIVE seasons fighting wars), he LED ALL OF MLB (cumulatively) in BA, HR, and RBI.

    So he won a career Triple Crown over 20 plus years and helped win two wars also.

    In the 1960s we drove from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh once or twice a year. Along the route, we passed by John Glenn’s boyhood game in New Concord, OH every time.

  8. Greg G

    John Glenn’s boyhood home in New Concord is a museum and is worth a stop on I-70. The first floor is a recreation of the house in the 1930’s and includes a reenactor that plays his mom “we think John is going to be a plumber like his father”. The second floor has a great collection of his space and political memorabilia. When I was researching John for my NASA class, I found out his squadron nickname was “Magnet Ass” for the amount of shrapnel his plane attracted during strafing missions. 🙂

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      See, fighter pilot nicknames are never actually anything cool like “Maverick” or “Iceman.” It’s always “Magnet Ass.”

  9. Laura

    Very interesting article! Always admired John Glenn and Ted Williams was one of my Dad’s favorite players. Took my nieces and nephew up to Wapakoneta to see the Neil Armstrong Museum and it was excellent. It’s not a large museum, but it was all Neil. I would recommend it for anyone to see actual items that Neil used up in Space.
    The Wright Pat Air Force museum in Dayton was another fun day with the kids. We spent the entire day there and still didn’t get to see everything. Sadly, there were no Area 51 guests there that day. ?
    Have you seen “Rocket Boys”? Another great movie having to do with Space.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks for reading, Laura! 🙂 My family knew we HAD to visit the Armstrong museum when we drove past the Wapakoneta exit on a college tour, and there was a guy in a full spacesuit holding a museum ad and waving. It was just a matter of honor at that point.

      As Cincinnatians, we are fond of the Air Museum, and took 2/3 of our nephews one day. A lot of fun. I think there’s an entire hanger we haven’t seen.

      I have seen Rocket Boys, but guess what? The book is even better! I studied it as part of my degree in nonfiction.