by Hap Rocketto
I never met Ted Williams. I saw him play a few times, but not in person, only through the miracle of black and white television so I did not see the vibrant green of Fenway Park’s grass and walls and the rich burnt orange of its dirt but rather varying shades of gray. Williams was a complex figure. Sportscaster Bob Costas, who, like my daughter Leah, attended the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, once asked Williams if he realized he was the real life American hero often portrayed in the movies by John Wayne. Williams laconically replied, “Yeah, I know.”
They differed in some ways. Williams left California to find his fortune and Wayne moved there to find his. Williams performed in real life what Wayne only performed in reel life. Wayne was a silver screen pilot in seven movies while Williams was a real pilot in two wars. Wayne portrayed a Marine in The Flying Leathernecks and Sands of Iwo Jima while Williams was one.
They also had much in common. They looked a bit alike in their mature years. Williams was a great athlete while Wayne, who played football for the University of Southern California, was a good one. Marriage was not a comfortable institution for either one as they both were married thee times. They were both outdoorsmen, politically conservative, and patriots. Both have been recognized with the ultimate accolade of their professions, Cooperstown for Williams and an Oscar for Wayne. Williams went on to manage a bit after he retired from the field and Wayne moved behind the camera as a director and producer.
Modern baseball statistical analyses, Sabermetrics, place Williams, alongside the great Babe Ruth and the fraud Barry Bonds as the three most potent hitters to ever have played the game. A 2007 Harris Poll placed Wayne as the third most favorite American film stars. Both men were consummate professionals, so much so that even now, long after their deaths, both still rightfully rank in the top three of their respective professions.
I have met Lones Wigger. I have shot with, and against him, countless times since we first met in 1965; me a wet behind the ears high school senior while he was a young captain, fresh from a gold medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics, on a rising trajectory in the little known, or appreciated, sport of rifle shooting.
In some respects Wigger is the antithesis of Williams. Physically he is a short stocky man while Williams was well known as “The Splendid Splinter.” Wigger has been married but once and that relationship has lasted over 50 years. He is the father of three children who have followed in his footsteps, becoming successful in their own right in a field where their father cast the largest of shadows, Deena an All American and Olympian, Ron also an All American and the successful West Point rifle coach, and Danny an NRA Distinguished Rifleman. Williams was married three times and enjoyed a twenty year relationship with a fourth woman. Williams’ only son, John Henry, was offered a courtesy tryout with the Boston Red Sox but, after a short time, faded into the obscurity of the low minor leagues and left baseball.
Williams comes from the west coast while Wigger is a son of the prairies, much like Wayne. Williams was taciturn and did not get along with the press while the garrulous Wigger’s memory for names and faces and outgoing demeanor reminds one of a politician running for office.
Both were military men with combat experience. Williams saw service in World War II and Korea as a Marine aviator. Wigger, a career Army infantry officer, did two tours in Viet Nam. Wigger is patriotic, conservative, and outspoken on matters close to his heart, much like Williams. Wigger, like Williams, is a fierce competitor be it softball, volleyball, or shooting.
Like a Ph.D. candidate preparing to defend his thesis Williams studied all aspects of hitting, from pitching delivery to bat construction. Wigger knows no facet of shooting so insignificant that it doesn’t deserve detailed study, from the rules, to reading conditions, to ammunition testing, to rifle set up. The story of Wigger tearing apart a rifle to see if there was a way that he could squeeze a few extra Xs out of it on the morning after he used it to shoot a 3200 is a part of shooting folk lore.
They both were blessed with superb vision and quick reflexes. It was said that Williams could see the seams and stitches of a rotating baseball as it closed on him at 95 miles per hour, just 0.4 of a second to see and react! Wigger is a keen observer of conditions and some think that he can actually see the wind as it plays across a rifle range.
Williams is in the Baseball Hall of Fame while Wigger is a member of the Olympic, International Shooters’ and the US Army Marksmanship Unit’s Halls of Fame. Wayne has an Oscar, his foot prints in concrete in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
The similarity between the three men in seemingly divergent fields leads me to believe that those at the top of their fields share common attributes. They paid close attention to detail, have an overwhelming desire to succeed, and the will to devote countless hours of hard work-not in competition-but in the all important exhausting tedious grind of preparation and honing basic skills.
Wayne, Williams, and Wigger: maybe close to the end of the alphabet but in the forefront of their chosen vocations.