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 moss -- a house set on the highest point in Citrus County, Fla., dominating all it surveys like a medieval castle -- an 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."
"All right," Williams cuts in. "If you don't like the second, let's go again."
And with that the temperature in the cozy den ticks upward ever so slightly. Not good. Williams's temper has long been famous for its sudden, lung-tearing explosions, and everybody in the room -- the producer; the cameraman; Frank Brothers, Williams's live-in aide; and Buzz Hamon, director of the Ted Williams Museum & Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla. -- has been grinning, cajoling, trying to take the edge off the morning's project. Williams is making a TV ad for Brad Bailey, a candidate for sheriff of Middlesex County, Mass. Problem is, three strokes in five years have chipped away 75% of Williams's field of vision, so that he sees as if looking through a pipe, and it doesn't help that the glare of the TV light makes the phrases on the cue card nearly unreadable. Long ago Williams bent his life into a furious pursuit of perfection. Now here he is, in a roomful of people, tripping over words.
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 Brothers -- the son of Williams's friend Jack Brothers, a famous Florida Keys fishing guide -- would 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 Tamposi -- and, worst of all, his longtime live-in girlfriend, Louise Kaufman -- have 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 autograph -- once a symbol of sporting quality -- has 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 generous -- but 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.
One summer in the early 1960s, Williams was at his baseball camp in Lakeville, Mass., when a call came in from nearby Hyannis Port: President Kennedy wanted to speak to him. "Tell him I'm a Nixon fan!" Williams roared.
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 Williams -- who, 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 that -- see 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 one -- wherever 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 assassination -- not 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 Antonucci -- who, unbeknownst to Ted, was a convicted felon -- in 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 week -- if 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.
The hands that launched 2,654 major league hits, the hands that guided the stick of a bullet-pocked F-9 Panther as it screamed out of the Korean sky on its way to a crash landing, the hands that made Ted Williams the only man to be enshrined in both the baseball and the fishing halls of fame, hover over a photograph. "Where?" Williams asks, narrowing his eyes. The color picture shows Williams and Ruth in 1942. Brothers points to a spot just above Williams's 23-year-old chest.
"Right here?" Williams says. He lays his left hand on the photo and, with his right hand, firmly scripts his name across the gloss. He pushes the picture aside, signs another of the same scene. Then another. Five hundred dollars for the signature, $750 for a personal message. He leaves four fingerprints on each photo, right next to his 23-year-old knee.
"I'm doing all right," Williams says. "I feel right enough most of the time, but I can't sign for hours like I did." He squints hard. The other day he stayed too long in a hot shower ("Shampooed the hell out of my hair!" he says) and emerged dizzy and weak. "But, jeez," he says, "I guess I'm lucky to be able to sign at all."
Here is Ted Williams, rounding third. The first epoch of his public life began with the Red Sox in 1939 and ended 21 years and 521 home runs later as he stood on second base during a midseason game, noticed how far away third base seemed and thought, I'm done. He quit playing at the end of that year. In the second epoch he learned how to live without baseball, trying his hand as a big league manager but pouring his heart into becoming one of the world's best fishermen; for two generations he seemed, with his three broken marriages and his fishing-shack sensibility, the prime example of what used to be called "a man's man." Today, for some people, Ted Williams is but a signature on a photo, a collection of squiggles and dots to be bought and sold, the price rising every time he falls ill and expected to skyrocket the day he dies.
The big news for collectors is that he will be signing for the public during the 500 Home Run Hitters Show at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City from Nov. 22 to 24. Of the 11 living 500-home-run hitters, all of whom are scheduled to be there, Williams will get the most for each signature. He hasn't done a large autograph show since 1991. This will probably be his last.
Yet, even though his body is breaking down, there is a rare vitality to Williams. His mind and competitive zeal remain sharp. Earlier this year Hamon was discussing the .400 hitters' display in Williams's museum, and Williams asked innocently, "We got DiMaggio's bat coming in?" Hamon fell for it and said, "Joe DiMaggio never hit .400," and Williams grinned, spat on his fingertips and shined them up nice on his lapel.
He was never cuddly. In his playing days he was called Terrible Ted as much as he was called the Splendid Splinter. Disgusted by a home crowd that jeered and cheered him in the same inning of a game between the Red Sox and the Yankees in 1956, Williams trotted in toward the dugout spitting toward both the left- and rightfield stands. Then, to make sure everyone got the message, he stepped back out of the dugout and spit again. As he retells the story -- as he feels that moment, that crowd -- he begins to boil again.
"I have compassion for Roberto Alomar," he says, his voice starting to rise as he refers to Alomar's spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck in September. "I know how upset you can get at a certain thing, and I was so upset!" His face twists, his mouth gapes to reveal a pair of incisors worn to nubs. "I had dropped a fly ball. Just as I started looking up to get the fly ball, bases loaded, a goddam raindrop came down, you know? And I lost just a little bit of the ball, and it hit my glove and bounced out. Well, I really got booed. Boy, I can understand how a guy can get so pissed. He hears that boo, boy, he wants to crack the goddam bark off!
"All those things happened to me because I wasn't doin' as good as I should, or they didn't think I was tryin'." He pauses, and when he speaks again his voice is quaking. "God almighty, was I tryin'. But I was a long, skinny guy, couldn't run. If you can run good, they all think you're a hustler. Well, crap, not everybody can run. I think every day about it: God, do I wish I could've run. They bring in that guy, Rickey Henderson. Christ! I wish I'd had wheels like that. I just close my eyes and say to myself, Oh, boy."
Even now he maintains a touch of innocence. He's thrilled by anything new, curious with the intensity of someone who, having missed out on college, has an autodidact's respect for knowledge, books, information. What's going to happen in the Middle East? Is Penn State going to win? Who's the greatest man of the century? Yes, the ball is juiced, but, Williams says, "there's as much talent in the big leagues today as there's ever been. I see plays in the outfield I have never seen before." He doesn't stop with baseball. "What do you think of that Agassi? You know who's done more for tennis in the last 15 years? Bud Collins. You know he used to chew me out in the goddam papers? I hated the little bastard. But he knows what he's talking about, no question! He should be the commissioner of tennis! You tell him that."
It's that odd, outsized passion, as much as his .344 lifetime average and his 4 1/2 years of service in World War II and Korea, that always made Williams larger than life. So big that four U.S. presidents -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush -- speak of him on tape at his museum. So big that Boston just named a tunnel after him. Unlike DiMaggio, who carried himself with Olympian reserve, Williams was all too human, radiating flaws and ambition. Bats flew into the stands, fishing rods splintered and sank. "He always wanted to be perfect," says Florida Keys fishing guide George Hommell. "And when he wasn't, he'd get mad."
His wars with the Boston fans and media so scarred Williams that he refused to tip his hat after homering in his final at bat, in Boston in 1960. But in time this denial took on power, became a strange symbol of integrity, of one man's insistence on remaining true to himself. How else to explain why a thirtysomething candidate for sheriff in Massachusetts goes all the way to Florida to seek Williams's blessing? How else to explain why, in 1988, Bush asked Williams to campaign for him during the New Hampshire primary? The two hit a fishing show in Manchester, and, Bush says, "I might as well not have existed."
"Ted would bring out these tremendous crowds," says Hommell, who accompanied Bush and Williams on those campaign stops. "In that area Ted is God. After all these years, it's still the same."
So is he. When Williams began rehabilitation from his stroke in March 1994, he met a 17-year-old girl named Tricia Miranti from nearby Inverness, Fla. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of five because of a brain aneurysm, Tricia had a lively manner and a roaring laugh that struck a deep nerve in Williams. He is famous for his charity work, but when he is with Tricia, he shows a tenderness few people ever see. "If you could explain love, that would be it," says Tricia's mother, Vicki.
"Have you met her?" Williams says of Tricia. "Didn't you think she was special?"
For a while Williams visited Tricia on weekends, but that wasn't enough. He made calls that helped her get into college; he has arranged weekly training sessions for her with his personal trainer, at his expense. All this took Vicki by surprise. "Close friends of ours would say, 'We see him on the golf course, and he's always very abrupt and very rude,'" she says, "but they haven't seen the side we've seen."
When people hear of Tricia's relationship with Williams, they ask her to get his autograph for them. She refuses. "I don't see Ted Williams," Tricia says. "I just see him. As he is." He will sit by as she works out in his pool, suggest new exercises and goad her to try harder. Since Tricia began working with Williams's trainer, she has been able to do more assisted walking than doctors thought she ever would. This has given her a confidence she didn't have before. "It has made me want more," Tricia says. "Anything is possible."
Wanting, however, isn't good enough for Williams. "Oh, Christ," he says, eyes tearing up. "I look at her and I damn near cry every time. I look at her and I say to myself, Oh, God, I wish I could do more." When he gets tired of wishing, he gets mad -- "angry at life," Vicki says. Angry at fate, at God.
Williams isn't happy with God. At an age when most men make peace with their maker, Williams rages. While Tricia splashes, he looks up at the sky and demands to know why she should suffer, and when he gets no answer, he curses God. As for himself, Williams scratches the belly of 10-year-old Slugger and snaps his eyes upward to make just one snarling request: "I absolutely pray to that ---- Jesus Christ that I die before my dog."
There was a moment, just a sliver of time, when John-Henry Williams had a taste of what his father knew as a hitter. It was in late winter 1989, and John-Henry had left the University of Maine against Ted's wishes to give baseball one serious shot, in a semipro league in California: three games a week and all the batting practice you could ask for. "I was hammering baseballs, 300 a day," John-Henry says. "I'm in Fresno, and I'm hitting off a batting machine cranked to the max, 105, 106 miles per hour. Dad talks in books about how your blisters start bleeding? I knew what that was like. And how you start smelling leather burning off the bat? I knew what that was like. You know, it's all timing...and ooh, I was sooo strong. I was hitting the ball so good. Crushing it."
John-Henry got a tryout as a first baseman with the Toronto Blue Jays, but it went nowhere. He could hit some, but he hadn't played much in high school or at Maine. When it was his turn to hit for the Blue Jays scouts, he was so jacked up that he nearly fell over. "The first one came in, and I swung and finished my swing before the ball ever got there," he says. "It was sooo slow. The next one, I did the exact same thing."
And that was that. It hurt some, but not as much as you might think, because John-Henry didn't love baseball. He was born eight years after his father stopped playing, and he didn't follow the Red Sox growing up. His mother liked it that way. Already twice divorced, Ted had met Dolores Wettach, a former Vogue model, on a flight to San Francisco in the early 1960s. They married, and for six years they fished and hunted together and argued, Dolores giving as good as she got. She moved away to a 60-acre spread in Vermont when John-Henry was six and his sister, Claudia, was three. Dolores, not Ted, taught John-Henry and Claudia how to fly cast.
"My mother loves my dad," says Claudia, 25, "but when she married Ted Williams, she married baseball, she married the fans, she married everything else. She couldn't deal with it. No one can deal with it. Don't tell me there's a famous relationship out there that works. My mom saw what was happening, saw how it would affect John-Henry and me -- and she took us away."
John-Henry says it didn't faze him, growing up without his dad. He would see Ted once a year, talk to him on the phone in between. Not until high school did he begin spending summers with Ted. Still, if John-Henry struck out in Little League, it was cause for celebration among his opponents; if he got a hit, well, He's Williams's kid, whaddya expect? He tried to shrug it all off.
Claudia was different. She wanted no one to know who her father was. She applied to one top private college three times without success; when Ted found out, he made some calls, and all of a sudden the dean was on the phone, welcoming her to the school. Claudia told him no thanks. All the money Ted gave her is in a bank account, ready for her to give back. She is an English teacher in Weilheim, Germany. She competes in triathlons, happy that almost no one in Germany cares about baseball. "Whatever was there that represented Ted Williams, I went the opposite way," Claudia says. "Not out of resentment. I was determined to have people know I am Claudia, not the daughter of...."
Ted suffered his first stroke in December 1991. It took a quarter of his vision. He bounced back, and doctors later found that he'd had a second stroke without knowing it. But the 1994 stroke changed everything. Williams had just taken a shower and toweled off. A blood clot broke out of his heart and floated to the right side of his brain, numbing his left side and wiping out another 50% of his eyesight. "I had my shorts and my T-shirt on the bed, and I started to reach for my shorts," Williams says. "Jeez, I get down on my knees, then I'm lying on the bed, and I couldn't move. Finally I got my shorts, crawled and got my shirt. But I couldn't do anything else."
John-Henry was handling Ted's business affairs from Boston then, and when he got to the hospital in Florida the next day, he was horrified. Ted was blind. John-Henry moved down, took charge of Ted's care. He changed Ted's diet, cut out fats and alcohol, yanked him out of bed when he cursed and said he didn't want to exercise. John-Henry took showers with Ted to make sure he didn't fall, escorted Ted to the bathroom, clipped his toenails. "He has taken a lot of hits," says Brothers, "but how many kids, no matter who their father was, would drop their lives and move 1,500 miles to take care of him? John-Henry did."
Brothers is right. John-Henry has taken hits for his inexperience, his demeanor, his supposed motivation. But two facts are indisputable: Before John-Henry's arrival, Ted was vulnerable to criminals such as Antonucci, unsure of whom to trust. He isn't anymore. More important, because of his son, Ted has gained one of life's fabled rarities: a new lease. "If it wasn't for John-Henry," says longtime family friend Al Cassidy Jr., "Ted would be dead right now."
It wasn't easy, making room for each other. There have been arguments, the two men blowing up, neither backing down, phones slamming in midsentence. Meanwhile, Ted's blindness has been partly reversed, but he has had other setbacks. When he broke his shoulder two years ago, he sank into self-pity. "I was concerned it was the beginning of a downward spiral," says Williams's cardiologist, Rick Kerensky. "I thought we might lose him. But there's been an amazing turnaround since then."
Everybody has a theory about the turnaround: It's Tricia or exercise or will or all of those. Maybe it's luck. Ted has his own idea. "I could not have done it without John-Henry," he says. "Could not."
Claudia has flown back repeatedly from Germany. "I've seen my dad more in the last three years than in my whole life," she says. "The type of person Dad is now is the type of father we've always needed. Too bad it's now. Who knows how long it's going to last? At least we've got him all to ourselves. He's my dad now."
Ted has a daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Joyce, whom he doesn't see as often. "Had any kids?" he asks a visitor. "They can be the most disappointing part of your life, but they can be an awfully joyful part, too."
"He's discovering something brand spanking new: two kids," says Williams's old friend Bob Franzoni. "That's one reason he's so happy. He's got another life to look forward to."
Saturday morning. A fishing show is on ESPN, and Brothers is serving up a hot breakfast, eggs and turkey sausage. Ted and John-Henry sit at the kitchen table, trying to figure out the fish on the screen. "That's a salmon, I think," Ted says. "No!" he shouts. "It's a big brook trout! No, it might be a salmon, small salmon!"
Ted stayed up last night to watch the baseball playoffs, but as usual he steers the conversation all over the map: Nixon's funeral, President Clinton's tribute to Nixon, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's handling of Japan. "The greatest idol in my life," Williams says of MacArthur. "He signed a picture for me." John-Henry has moved from the table, out of Ted's sight line, and Ted yells, "How would you like to have a sister, three years younger than you are, weighs 135 to your 195 -- and there's no way you can beat her? She swims 1,000 yards, what the hell, let's go! He's disappeared already, eh?" Ted turns his torso left, cranes his neck, finds his son. "He's hiding behind the door, for Christ's sake. Where's Claudia?"
"She's at my house," John-Henry says.
"Boy, you hide when the news starts spreading," Ted says.
"Just listening to you sling it."
Sometimes Ted closes his eyes, and his mind conjures up the pitchers he beat and the ones who beat him long ago. He sees the ball pulled cleanly to right. But more and more he is haunted by visions of his happiest moments, alone with a line and a stream. "I dream of bonefish, I dream of salmon," he says. "I dream of casting for them, I dream of the beautiful spots I've been. And then I dream of some of the fish I've lost."
He speaks about his refuge on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, and about spending hours tying thousands of flies and about the throat-catching moment after you've cast the fly and played the fish and you feel the hook dig in. Talking about fishing is not like talking about baseball or politics or history. No, Williams calls what he did in the water "a privilege" and lowers his voice as if describing something holy. And he keeps coming back to the same fish, that 35-pound salmon he hooked 3 1/2 years ago on Quebec's Cascapedia River. It was the middle of the day. "Jeez, what a place!" he says. "Only kings and presidents and big shots and billionaires get to fish in there."
It was as big a salmon as he ever fought. "I made a helluva good cast because I was in kind of a narrow spot, and I was picking at it," he says. His hand slices back and forth across the kitchen table as if it were the surface of the river. His face is alight. "Picking at it this way, and I'm shootin' it that way! I was casting 60, 70 feet -- a dry fly -- and he took it."
Williams leans forward, sets his feet and bears down. His face reddens. "And I fought him," he growls. His voice drops, goes soft as goose down. "And I fought him a little harder. And I fought him really hard. I'm thinking, Jeez, I can't bring this fish home, and I'm really flossing it to him, see! And it's a deep little run there. He was down maybe 10 feet, and I couldn't see him...and I'm really lifting him up! Ummmmph!" He has an invisible fly rod in his hands, and he's trying like hell to pull the fish up through the kitchen floor, his face screwed up from the strain.
"And then I let go," he says. The invisible rod drops. He crooks a finger in his mouth and tugs. "I had hooked him on this big, dry single hook, and I was just pulling him too hard! I tried the hard pull and he didn't break, so with a good bend I dragged him right up, and the hook pulled out just as he came out of the water." The salmon dropped with a splash. Gone.
It's over. Ted Williams comes back to himself, to a chair in a kitchen, with a fish show on TV. "I didn't get him," he says. "I'll always remember that moment when I close my eyes." He is asked to name the river again, and he repeats it: Cascapedia.
"The closest place to heaven I'll be," he says. "I know that."
Issue date: November 25, 1996
Historical Photo Gallery | Sports Illustrated Covers Gallery
Flashback 1967: Going Fishing with The Kid
Flashback 1996: Rounding Third
Flashback 1998: Ted Williams looks back on 80 memorable years
Flashback 1998: A birthday visit to The Kid