Battle Buddies: John Glenn and Baseball's Ted Williams

John Glenn and Ted Williams, shown above in this undated photograph, served in the same Marine fighter squadron in Korea. (Photo via Fox News)
John Glenn and Ted Williams, shown above in this undated photograph, served in the same Marine fighter squadron in Korea. (Photo via Fox News)

It takes a legend to know one.

Ted Williams, the late baseball Hall of Famer and last of the .400 hitters, was a prideful man who looked up to nobody, but he made an exception for John Glenn.

"Lemme' tell ya', that guy is one gung-ho Marine. Man, he could fly a plane," said Williams, who was in Glenn's Marine fighter squadron in Korea. In fighter-jock speak, there is no higher compliment.

This was in Florida in 1998 just before then-Sen. John Glenn was to launch into space again aboard the shuttle Discovery. Williams was asked whether Glenn at age 77 was up to the task, and did not take kindly to the question.

"If John Glenn tells you he can do something, he can do it," he said. "There's a real American hero, that guy. He's a great man. In fact, he's my idol."

The then-80-year-old Williams was a bit miffed at the time that his old battle buddy hadn't yet stopped by to see him. Williams was itching to grill Glenn on the particulars of the flight and the systems of the Discovery.

Glenn eventually paid a visit. Williams said later, "We just started talking, you know, about the weight of the thing and the pressure and all. I've seen him excited and enthusiastic, but he was really excited about this trip."

Williams was ill at the time and it was not clear if he would make it to the launch, though Glenn had invited him because, "He's a good friend, he's the best." Williams, as usual, was emphatic: "You bet I'll be there!"

The tributes poured in Friday from around the world for Glenn -- the Marine, the senator, and the "right stuff" astronaut who was the first American to go into orbit on the capsule Friendship 7 in 1962. He died in Ohio on Thursday at age 95.

NASA Director Charles Bolden, another Marine fighter pilot and retired major general who flew four times on the space shuttle, remembered his friend as a "humanitarian, a human being."

"John knew that he embodied taking care of his people," Bolden said, "whether as a pilot, where at times he had Ted Williams, the great baseball player, on his wing in Korea, or whether he was leading Marines, or whether he was in the Senate, where he fought for people he never knew."

Glenn's orbital flight was pivotal in the "space race" against the then-Soviet Union. Even so, Russia's counterpart to NASA honored him Friday.

In a statement, Russia's State Space Corporation Roscosmos said: "Roscosmos highly values Mr. Glenn's big contribution to the world history of cosmonautics. We want to express our deep condolences to the relatives, friends and colleagues of this outstanding man -- world cosmonautics has sustained a big loss," the Russian Tass news agency reported.

Glenn flew 149 combat missions in World War II and in Korea, where his ability to get low on close air support missions and take hits from ground fire earned him the nickname "Ole' Leadass."

Glenn was once asked about the nickname as he raced down a Capitol corridor to a floor vote but initially dismissed the question. As the doors to the elevator closed, Glenn said, "Well, you had to get low to dig 'em out."

Williams had also served stateside in World War II, and was called back by the Marines to fly in Korea. At the time, it was Williams who was the national hero. Appropriately, in his last at-bat for the Red Sox before going to war, Williams knocked one out of the park.

"So I get into K-3, which was our base over there, and we're having a big squadron meeting, you know," Williams said. "And there's two guys standing over there, maybe 60 to 70 feet. And I look and I say, 'That looks like the right stuff to me.'" He didn't remember who the other fellow was, but "one of them was John Glenn," Williams said.

There are a number of versions of what happened when Williams was flying an F-9 Panther fighter-bomber that took multiple hits from ground fire, but Williams confirmed part of the story.

His hydraulics were iffy, his radio was out and he didn't appear to realize that his tail was on fire. Glenn flew to his wingtip and pointed up. They gained altitude and the fire went out in lighter air.

Now the trick was to get back to base.

Williams would not bail out. He was 6-foot-3 and thought his knees would catch, and that would be the end of baseball. Williams put his plane into a dive and came roaring down the landing strip.

Word had reached the base that Williams was in trouble and other pilots in the squadron, including a few ballplayers who also had been called up, gathered on the runway.

Williams confirmed what happened next. He leaped from the cockpit and ran as fast he could away from the plane. The other members of the squadron now feigned nonchalance. Jerry Coleman, the Yankees' second baseman and a veteran of World War II, shouted "Hey Ted, that's a lot faster than you ever ran around the bases."

"Yeah, those guys," Williams grumbled in recalling the light-hitting Coleman's joke. He shouted back, "What the hell do you know? You never got on base."

Williams returned to baseball and took up where he left off, winning his last batting championship in 1957 at age 39 with an average of .388: "They thought I couldn't pull the ball anymore," he recalled of the pitchers sent against him. "The hell I couldn't."

After Williams died in 2002, Glenn did a tribute to his old friend for Major League Baseball. "We flew together quite a lot and got to know each other very well," said Glenn. "Ted was an excellent pilot, and not shy about getting in there and mixing it up. Ted may have batted .400 for the Red Sox, but he hit a thousand as a U.S. Marine."

Headquarters Marine Corps put out a tweet Thursday after Glenn's death: "The Corps lost a legend today. Col. John Glenn -- an astronaut, a senator, a Marine -- died at the age of 95. Semper Fi, Sir."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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