PBS has an evening of sports documentaries Monday. Erin Heidenreich’s “The War to Be Her,” about squash player Maria Toorpakai, arrives as a presentation of the series “POV”; “Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” is presented within the framework of the “American Masters” series.
The first puts a camera on its subject and follows her on a trip home from Toronto, where she then lived and trained, to visit her family in Pakistan. The second is all archival clips and new reminiscences. But they both touch on similar themes: the single-minded pursuit of excellence, how where you’re from might determine how you get where you’re going, self-knowledge and holding steady in the face of doubters and detractors — albeit in Williams’ case, this was a matter of snarky press and fans, where Toorpaki’s involved actual death threats. Each is about a person who channels anger into hitting a ball.
Even for someone who follows athletics as little as I do — I run into them occasionally, as if by accident — stories about sports can be terrifically moving. (I possibly spent as many hours watching Ken Burns’ “Baseball,” on which “Ted Williams” director Nick Davis worked as an intern, as I have watching actual baseball games.) As a viewer, you can drop into any game or contest and quickly get a sense of who’s up and who’s down; narratives of arrogance and underdogs, of improvisation and planning naturally follow.
Sport is a test of character, not in the sense that it improves or depends on it — because people with horrible characters have also been good at sports — but in that it amplifies a person’s qualities, his or her heroic strengths or fatal flaws. It is a generator of metaphors for life. Or, perhaps life is just a metaphor for sports.
Toorpakai’s story is a remarkable one. Growing up in South Waziristan, a Taliban-heavy tribal region, she lived for years as a boy, as Genghis Khan, with the support of her free-thinking parents — they got the message after she burned her dresses and cut off her hair with a kitchen knife. When she came out as a girl, in her teens, and began to focus on squash — which is huge in Pakistan — athletic competition became literally a life and death affair.
The film doesn’t have a strong narrative thrust — there is a competition at the end, as in every fictional sports film — but it is a winning portrait of a strong character in a family of strong characters. Toorkapai’s father makes an especially big impression, daring the Taliban to come kill him when they harass him over the phone. Nonconformists in a fundamentalist society where the radio plays pop songs encouraging women not to go to college, Toorpakai’s parents raised her and her sister, Ayesha Gulalai, a politician, as the equals of their brothers.
“I want to tell girls fear is taught,” Toorpakai says. “But you are born free, and you are born brave.”
Williams, whose 100th birthday arrives Aug. 30, was also formed by family circumstances, in an opposite fashion: That he and his brother were virtually abandoned by his Salvation Army soldier mother and a father described here as “a ne’er do well and a drunk,” meant, says daughter Claudia Williams, that “he had to be a survivor at a very young age.”
Resentment would become a sort of fuel for the athlete. “Everything about him is interesting in this gnarled, difficult way,” says sportswriter Roger Angell. “What a weirdo, what a great hitter.”
The last major league player to bat over .400, Williams is the first to be stamped with the 32-year-old “American Masters” brand, most often applied to figures in the fine and popular arts. Williams might not have thought of himself as an artist — he was the methodically analytical author of a volume, still in print, called “The Science of Hitting.” (“Craftsman” might have been more to his liking.) But there is something aesthetically beautiful in his form and timing. Says Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, “It was like he was carved out of stone for hitting specifically, made like David just for this particular endeavor.”
He was affable at times, angry much of the rest of the time. (His daughter pictures him taking the field, “grinding his teeth down a few more millimeters, thinking, ‘I’ll show you.’”) After Red Sox fans, who had embraced him in his first season, began to boo him when his second got off to a slow start, he stopped doffing his hat to the crowd, as was customary, after a home run. He had issues with the press and was an admitted failure as a family man until late in his life.
At the same time, he was a tireless supporter of a Boston children’s cancer charity and as responsible as anyone for the Baseball Hall of Fame recognizing Negro League players. (He was circumspect about his own Mexican American heritage, however.) He took a $35,000 pay cut in his last year, at his own insistence, because he had played poorly the year before. But he went on to finish with what commentator Ben Bradlee Jr. calls “one of the all-time great exits in sports.”
That story is well told here. It had me in tears, at any rate — I am that kind of sports fan.
‘American Masters: Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived’
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)
‘POV: The War to Be Her’
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd