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 Sports-world, 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 1½ 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."