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Rounding Third
S.L. Price
November 25, 1996
Several strokes have robbed Ted Williams of much of his fabled eyesight, but at 78 he's as cantankerous as ever and enjoying fatherhood at last
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November 25, 1996

Rounding Third

Several strokes have robbed Ted Williams of much of his fabled eyesight, but at 78 he's as cantankerous as ever and enjoying fatherhood at last

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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 Red-ford 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!"

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