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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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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."

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