SI Vault
John Underwood
August 21, 1967
No longer a splinter, Ted Williams (right) is just as splendid—and brash—as ever when he turns his skill against another worthy opponent, the leaping tarpon of the Florida Keys
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August 21, 1967

Going Fishing With The Kid

No longer a splinter, Ted Williams (right) is just as splendid—and brash—as ever when he turns his skill against another worthy opponent, the leaping tarpon of the Florida Keys

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He carted out some of his stronger thoughts about baseball, his game; how it would better serve a faster generation by limiting the season to 140 games and playing seven-inning second games in doubleheaders. He said too much leisure was keeping talented kids off the diamond, and it was a shame. He said he still felt it took more individual talent than any other sport, more individual work, the work of a loner. He said Joe McCarthy was the only real manager he ever played for, that the others were just guys in the dugout. He said he would be less than honest if he expressed surprise over being elected to the Hall of Fame, "I felt I had the record for it, but"—a big grin—" I thought a couple of the knights of the keyboard might try to keep me dangling awhile."

It was just after 11 o'clock when the tarpon hit. Actually, it hit The Kid's second cast; it passed by his first, spooking slightly, and he had to put the second one out 80 feet. The tarpon jumped, exposing its great body, the scales jingling like castanets. It was obviously bigger than the one he had lost the day before. Swiftly Williams joined the battle, planting the hook with those three quick bursts. He moved with the action, leaning, sitting down, knees bent, knees straight, talking, checking the drag, getting Jack to maneuver the boat. A mixture of suntan oil and sweat got into his eyes, and he wiped at it with his left hand. We were a quarter of a mile from the spot where the tarpon hit when he got it up to the boat and then had to frantically pass the rod under the boat and grab it on the other side as the tarpon desperately maneuvered. "I hope it isn't this tough in the damn tournament," said Jack. "It will be," said The Kid, holding firm.

The nose of the tarpon thudded into the stern of the boat, and it moved off; Jack wanted to gaff it. "I'll tell you when I'm ready, Bush. I'm going to put him right there at the side. I'll tell you right where he'll be. Don't try to do anything unless he's ready." He yelled to Billy Grace in the other boat, where Trainor was clicking off pictures. "Get closer, Billy, bring it closer so he can get this. I'll lead him right up now"—Jack had the gaff poised—"don't scare him, don't scare him. All right, c'mon up, Billy, dammit. All right," and the gaff was home. They hoisted the fish up in the air. "Ninety-five pounds," said Brothers. It had taken 35 minutes. "The guide's dream," said Jack Brothers. "All you do is pole the boat and gaff the fish when he says gaff it."

"Here, look at this," said Ted, displaying the broken head of the red-and-yellow bucktail lure that he took from the fish's mouth. "Isn't that something? He split it in half." They lowered the stricken tarpon into the water, and Jack began to work it around, washing water through the gills, and gradually it began to revive. "He's going to make it," said Ted. "He's all right, he'll make it. He'll make it unless some shark comes along and bites his tail.

"All right," he said. "Lunchtime."

The Kid's house is easy to find once you have found it the first time, which we had the day before. There are a couple of faded signs, one tacked to a telephone pole, that mark the intersection—Madero and List roads—near his home, but they are not to be taken seriously. If you ask a native where Ted Williams lives he will tell you by landmarks instead of street names. He has five acres. The two-story, two-bedroom white stucco house is backed up to a small lagoon, where he has a concrete dock. Coconut trees hang over the water. One day when I was there he was sitting with a friend watching out the rear window through binoculars as a white crane dived for fish in the lagoon; he marveled at the skill with which the bird made its kill.

The front of the house is camouflaged by a grove of rubber trees and gumbo-limbos and lignum vitaes and sea grapes, all tucked in by a high chain link fence, with a no-trespassing sign for emphasis and a burglar alarm for protection. Separated from the main house is a small shed where he keeps his large supply of fishing equipment and tools and where he devotes hours to tinkering around and making lures. He holds one up, fresh off the workbench: "Now that is a well-tied fly."

" Williams" is in small script on the front screen door, but except for the den upstairs there is little on display to associate the name with baseball. The book of photographs in the living room is mostly of fishing triumphs; there are mounted fish on the walls and two beautiful salmon flies suspended in glass on top of the TV set. On the cyprus-paneled den walls there are pictures that go back. There is a skinny kid with curly hair and a smile, standing at the train station in Boston in a double-breasted suit and brown-and-white wingtip shoes. There is an autographed picture of Cardinal Cushing. There is one of The Kid and Casey Stengel at Cooperstown, and The Kid swinging a bat. There are some of his prize catches: a 1,235-pound marlin he got in Peru; a 500-pound thresher shark in New Zealand. There is a picture of the 20-pound salmon he got the day after he beat out teammate Pete Runnels for the American League batting championship on the last day of the 1958 season, when he had to travel all night to make it to the Miramichi before the fishing season closed.

All through the house, the prevalent face is that of his daughter and only child, Barbara, called Bobbie Jo. In the pattern of the compulsive snapshot photographer, they show her metamorphosis from stringy-cute, when they were fishing buddies, to rounded-winsome, when she made him a grandfather. She is everywhere—under glass on tabletops, on walls, standing partially upright on bureaus. He had wanted a boy.

There is a large collection of books, but no trophies. He says his trophies are up north. He reminds himself that he will have to get them down here one day. He reads a lot, and he will not leave a page unturned if it pertains to something he is interested in or would like to absorb. He has, for example, a library of how-to books on golf. He says he prefers Middlecoff's to Hogan's among the better ones, because Hogan's is too technical. Williams says that his practical application, however, was rotten. "Geez, I sliced everything, you know? I had no control over my long shots." His golf was a series of broken club heads and bent shafts. He has developed a theory on that, too. Like Ty Cobb, he was a natural right-hander who just happened to pick up a bat one day and started batting left-handed. As a result his real power hand, his right, was always farther away from the ball at contact. He believes this diminished power and direction. He believes he would have been an even better hitter had he started right-handed. And that he might have been able to hit a golf ball straight.

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