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SI FOR KIDS
Several strokes have robbed Ted Williams of his fabled eyesight, but at 78 he's as cantankerous as ever and enjoying fatherhood at last
by S.L. Price
Issue date: November 25, 1996
Early one Tuesday morning in October, in a hilltop house nestled among live oaks dripping Spanish mossa house set on the highest point in Citrus County, Fla., dominating all it surveys like a medieval castlean old man struggles. He is close to blind. His long feet are wrapped in leather slippers with elastic across the instep so they won't fall off. A Boston Red Sox cap is on his head. A TV producer smiles and holds up a cue card that isn't helping.
Ted Williams says, "I know a young"
"No, not 'I know a young man,'" the producer says. "'This young man.'"
"All right," Williams says. "This young man...said he'd go to prison himself before releasing prisoners early. And he's got ...inmates working for the people of Middlesex County."
"That was goodthe first part," the producer says. "But the second"
"All right," Williams cuts in. "If you don't like the second, let's go again."
Hamon protectively suggests that Williams talk off the top of his head. Williams won't have it. "I've got to have the idea to start with," he rasps. "You've known me two years, and you think you can run my goddam life."
Williams grabs the card, wrenches it back and forth in rhythm with a classic example of Ted-speak, his uniquely cadenced blend of jock, fishing and military lingo, marked by constant profanity and a growling emphasis on the most unlikely word. "Now, look, see where that goddam light is?" he says. "The light is on that sonofabitch, and that's where I want it."
In 1941 Williams hit .406 for the Red Sox. In the 55 years since then, few players have come close to hitting .400, and the legend of The Kid's eyesight has only grown: He could follow the seams on a baseball as it rotated toward him at 95 mph. He could read the label on a record as it spun on a turntable. He stood at home plate one day and noticed that the angle to first base was slightly off; measuring proved him right, naturally, by two whole inches. In the '60s Brothersthe son of Williams's friend Jack Brothers, a famous Florida Keys fishing guidewould show up on Williams's porch in Islamorada every Saturday morning to spend the day helping Williams pole his skiff through the shallows. Each time, Williams would bet Brothers one hour's poling that he could cast his line and guess, within six inches, how far the lure had flown. "I lost every time," Brothers says. "He'd cast 112 feet and say, 'A hundred eleven feet, 10 inches.' No marks on the line."
But that was long ago. Williams is 78 now. Since falling in his driveway and breaking his left shoulder two years ago, he has been unable to drive. This year, for the first time in five decades, he didn't go fishing. His buddies Jack Brothers, Joe Lindia, Sam Tamposiand, worst of all, his longtime live-in girlfriend, Louise Kaufmanhave died in the past five years, and the lines on Williams's face have sunk deeper with each loss. His voice carries a jagged weariness, a residue of seeing bits of his rich life fall away one by one.
And the parade of trouble didn't stop there. Looking to cash in on the late-1980s sports-memorabilia craze, he entangled himself in a partnership with a scam artist that, when it all crashed in a welter of lawsuits, cost Williams close to $2 million in losses and legal bills. Williams then signed up with the well-established trading card and collectibles company Upper Deck Authenticated, but that deal, too, unraveled in a messy whirl through the courts. Meanwhile, his clean, highly readable signature brought such a bonanza to forgers that the Ted Williams autographonce a symbol of sporting qualityhas become one of the most suspect in the business.
It has been, to say the least, a far more public and contentious walk through the sunset than Williams ever dreamed. And while nothing can threaten his legacy as one of the American Century's cultural icons, the result of all his travails is a bewildering new image of Ted Williams as dupe, Ted Williams controlled, that hardly jibes with nearly 60 years of tales depicting him as alternately cold and warm, bitter and sentimental, obnoxious and funny, tough and generousbut always savagely independent. This is, after all, a man who turned down a reported $100,000 and a chance to pal around with Robert Redford as an adviser on The Natural because Atlantic salmon were running. This is a two-war Marine pilot who flew half his 39 missions in Korea as John Glenn's wing man, but when they jetted deep into enemy territory, just as often it was Williams leading one of America's greatest pilots.
And on this Tuesday morning? He will not be pushed. He does it his way: "No one has impressed me more in such a short time... as a man....Ahhh ...well, hold it there...turn it towa... the right.... No one has impressed me more in such a short period of time as an up-and-coming young man: Brad Bailey....I can't see that big print, for chrissakes!"
Then, abruptly, Williams nails it, the rhythm and tenor of a sweet endorsement: "Just wait till you meet Brad Bailey, and you'll be soooold yourself." The TV guys murmur how perfect it is. Williams beams and leans back in his chair as the men start packing. "That'll be nice," he says. "Why didn't you bring Cecil B. DeMille? All right!"
He's happy now, and he starts talking baseball. The Red Sox will finally win a World Series, he says, when they get a new ballpark. Fenway Park's cockeyed outfield throws off the game's balance, and when the wind comes in, you have to crush the ball, and then there's the annoying matter of the Green Monster and how it rewards the lefthanded hitter with neither the will nor the talent to pull the ball the way Williams did year after year because a pure hitter, a perfect hitter, swings quick-quick-quick. "That little chummy leftfield fence," he says, voice dropping, then picking up speed. "And lefthanders do more against it than righthanders...if they're late! Well, jeez, who wants to be late?"
Someone wonders why Williams didn't hit to left more, and he says, "I can show you real quick why the hell I had so much trouble going to leftfield." For a heartbeat, no one says a word. Show us? This is a man who uses a cane to walk, who hasn't swung a bat in public in five years, whose left arm was so numb after his last stroke, in 1994, that he couldn't feel a set of keys lying in his hand. "Where's the bat?" he says.
Someone hustles up a bat ("Oh, that's a heavy sonofabitch, isn't it," Williams says. "Babe Ruth model, probably"), and as he works his palms into the grain, a jolt of delight hops from person to person: This is, after all, the sporting equivalent of Michelangelo taking up his chisel. But that lasts only an instant. For as Williams rises to his feet, it becomes clear that he isn't wearing any pants. His green polo shirt is tucked into his Hanes. Dread courses through the room: This could be awful. This could be Ted Williamswho, as a young man, once strutted the streets of Boston muttering, "Teddy F------ Ballgame, the best f------; hitter in the major f------ leagues"falling in a pathetic heap. But Williams isn't worried. His voice takes on a sharpness it hasn't had all morning. His eyes flash. He pulls himself up to his entire 6'3", leans toward a hassock and points down with the huge black bat and says, "O.K.! Here's the plate."
Williams wobbles, rights himself, directs the hassock into place. "Move it back this way," he says. "Christ, don't put it in my ass! Hold it right there." His Dalmatian, Slugger, sniffs at his ankles. Williams plants his feet. "Now, look," he says. "I was on the plate like this, and I pulled everything. If I'm right here, they put everybody on the right side, and they pitched me inside." He takes a step, bumps his shins against the hassock, teeters. Four hands reach up to steady him. "Whoops! O.K. And they pitched me inside, so that I had to pull everything: Pull, pull, down and in, down and in! Whoops, bye-bye! In order for me to hit the ball to leftfield, look what I had to do: When I pulled the ball, it was out here like thatsee my bat? It's horizontal. But when I tried to go to leftfield, I had to go inside out, and look where my bat is! Vertical!"
He's shouting, swinging the bat smoothly, his muscled right arm guiding it through more than fast enough for a 78-year-old man, because who wants to be late? His wrists crack, and the bat snaps up at the end, making it easy to imagine him in Fenway, lean and whole. "So I have this much to hit the ball," he says, "and here I'd be on a flat plane, and I had six, seven inches to hit it. So anyway, I moved a little farther back, and it was perfect."
And for the next 30 seconds the old man stands over a hassock, the years falling off his shoulders and his bat gliding over the plate. He tells of that hitting lesson from Pittsburgh Pirates star Paul Waner, and of outwitting the Cleveland Indians' great pitchers of the late '40s and early '50s, and of the time New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra picked up on that small adjustment Williams made in the batter's box. Finally, after reaching to show how he went after outside pitches, Williams comes back to the present. "Whoa, I'm going to fall down," he says lightly, and he plops safely back into his easy chair.
It has been a priceless performance, surreal and somehow grand, and now that it's over, there isn't much to say. Brothers clears the room, and Williams shuffles out last. "Hard right," Brothers says, and Williams turns down the hallway toward his bedroom for some rest. Then he stops. "Where's John-Henry?" he says. "John-Henry said he could come this morning."
Brothers says John-Henry had a meeting. "Aw, hell," Williams says. "He's always in a meeting."
Ted Williams's only son is out of his car and moving, feeling that adrenaline again, that hop in his gut. "I don't know what it is," says John-Henry Williams, 28, snapping his fingers. "It's like, I know what I'm doing now. I'm in my element. Like Ted Williams: Put him at the plate, something happens. When I go into a store looking for Ted Williams autographs, I walk in and I can just see onewherever it is. I can pick 'em out."
For five years he has been cruising malls in New England, in Las Vegas, wherever, pulling up at places like this one, the Sports Treasures kiosk in the Natick (Mass.) Mall. He zeroes in on a $175 plaque or a $199 ball, accosts an unsuspecting clerk and asks about the autograph on the item, its history, who had it last. He demands phone numbers. Sometimes John-Henry buys; he claims to have $40,000 worth of forgeries in storage. Some pieces he confirms as real.
"That Ted Williams plaque you have?" John-Henry says now. "It's fake." The clerk's mouth drops open.
"It is?" he says.
"The ball, too." John-Henry grills the clerk at length about the items' histories. Then he leaves.
Asked later if he makes many mistakes in assessing the authenticity of Williams memorabilia, John-Henry says, "I've never been wrong."
He is not a popular man. One store in the Boston area has threatened to arrest him for trespassing. "He's probably one of the most disliked people I know," says Phil Castinetti, owner of Everett, Mass.-based Sportsworld, the largest memorabilia dealer in New England. And Castinetti is one of John-Henry's allies.
Barry Halper, owner of the world's largest private collection of baseball artifacts, bumped into John-Henry last March at the opening of the Yankees' spring training stadium in Tampa. The two went down to the gift shop, and John-Henry buttonholed a clerk. "He says, 'Where'd you get that?'" Halper recalls. "'I'm John-Henry. He's my father.... What show? Where?' All of a sudden it's a war. All of the items, he said, are fake. He talked about suing." Halper says he saw John-Henry do the same thing at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego. "He's very hyper," Halper says. This isn't meant as criticism. Both Halper and Castinetti say forgery is rampant in memorabilia today.
"It's a field larded with fakes," says Charles Hamilton, the handwriting expert who helped expose the fraudulent Hitler diaries in 1983. "A tremendous number of Williams forgeries are coming on the market." However, Hamilton volunteers, "I've been very suspicious of Ted Williams's son. When a man becomes incapacitated like Williams is, and his son continues to pour autographs onto the market, I naturally wonder where they're coming from." Told that Ted had been seen signing photos just a few days earlier, Hamilton murmurs, "Is he still signing? I was misinformed."
News of such an exchange comes as no shock to John-Henry. "Plenty of people think I'm the one forging these signatures," he says. Others say his crusade against fakes is merely a cynical ploy to pump up the price of the memorabilia he now peddles for Ted. "It's the furthest thing from the truth," John-Henry says. "It doesn't matter what type of forgeries are out there; it's not going to affect the amount of money I make. But when I see people devaluing his autograph, that's not fair."
In the 1940s and '50s no baseball player evoked as much love and loathing as Ted Williams. Today no figure in memorabilia polarizes opinion or elicits gossip the way John-Henry does. Separated by 50 years and 1,500 miles, Ted and John-Henry had an arm's-length relationship for most of John-Henry's childhood. But beginning in 1991 the two grew closer, and John-Henry gradually assumed responsibility for his father's business, cutting out some of Ted's old cronies and advisers and earning resentment in the process. John-Henry's campaign against forgeries only made more enemies, and while some collectors, dealers and friends of Ted's defend John-Henry's zeal as necessary to protect his father's interests, others spin Sonny Dearest tales of greed and opportunism. "Some of the things I've heard?" says John-Henry. "That I don't let him do what he wants. That I force him to do things. That isn't right."
Forgery, rumor, character assassinationnot a pristine world, memorabilia. "You're dealing with a lot of real sharpies," Ted says. "And little did I realize it."
In 1989 Ted Williams, without consulting anyone, entered into a partnership with Vincent Antonucciwho, unbeknownst to Ted, was a convicted felonin a memorabilia business in Crystal River, Fla. Within a year Williams had invested at least $150,000 in the business and signed about 15,000 items for Antonucci to sell. He received nothing in return, and Antonucci skipped with at least $38,000 of Williams's cash. Williams consulted John Dowd, the lawyer who had conducted Major League Baseball's investigation of Pete Rose, and he advised Williams to wash his hands of the matter. Dowd said it would cost Williams far more to sue than he would ever recover. But Williams had never taken losing easily. "Every month I called Ted and told him what the bill was," Dowd says. "And he'd say, 'I don't care. Whip his ass.'" The final legal tab was $1.6 million. Williams won the suit but has received no money from Antonucci, who was subsequently convicted of grand theft and now sits in jail on the Florida panhandle.
In 1990 John-Henry, then studying business at the University of Maine, got the idea of selling a T-shirt commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ted's .406. "He said no way," John-Henry says. "He didn't trust me, a kid, at all." Two of Ted's friends wore him down, however, and the success of the T-shirt helped bring Ted and John-Henry closer together and resulted in the creation of Grand Slam Marketing, a family clearinghouse for Ted Williams photos, autographs, jerseys and a CD-ROM biography, all presided over by John-Henry. His task? "Protection," he says. "A buffer so that someone else isn't handling the money, so that another Antonucci problem doesn't come up."
There have been problems anyway. John-Henry ran into serious legal trouble when, after Ted had signed an exclusive three-year, $2 million contract with Upper Deck Authenticated in '92, John-Henry and Grand Slam started the Ted Williams Card Company, a direct competitor. The two sides sued each other: John-Henry claimed that certain Williams cards released by Upper Deck were unauthorized, and Upper Deck claimed that John-Henry had tried to break Ted's contract. According to Upper Deck communications director Camron Bussard, John-Henry said Ted was unable to sign just after his third stroke, in 1994, and "then Ted would sign for Grand Slam Marketing and appear at shows." The two sides settled out of court in April 1995, and Ted honored the rest of his Upper Deck contract. Later that year the Ted Williams Card Company was dissolved.
After the '94 stroke John-Henry closed the Ted Williams Store he had opened 1 1/2 years earlier in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and moved to Florida to care for his father. There John-Henry became the buffer against the outside world that he and Ted wanted him to be. "I still make mistakes," John-Henry says. After five years he still doesn't feel he has his father's total confidence. "But I'm his son," John-Henry says, "and I don't know when you ever beat that."
Some of Ted's current and former associates, including Dowd, don't like the new arrangement. There was a time when any of Ted's pals could go to Ted with a project, a favor to ask, a call to make. No more. "Every project has to go through John-Henry," says one friend of Ted's, who requested anonymity. "Every time you make a move, John-Henry says, 'How much?'"
John-Henry and Ted have heard that before, have read anonymous quotes saying Ted signs autographs all day. The fact is, Ted says, he spends most of his time in physical therapy and watching CNN. He signs 30 to 40 items twice a weekif that. "He doesn't make me sign any more than I feel like signing," Ted says. "I just decide: Boom! And that's it. John-Henry's been a helluva guy and a helluva son. He's smart, and he's honest, and of course he thinks, Jee-sus, Ted Williams is really something."
John-Henry makes no apology for liking the things that money brings. He shows off his top-of-the-line BMW and his souped-up Porsche. And he no longer worries much about what people say of him. Not long ago he read that someone had said he would be handsome if he didn't have dollar signs in his eyes. So he took two pieces of adhesive note paper, drew dollar signs on them and stuck them to his eyelids. He smiled wide. Someone took a picture.
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