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The Kid said it was about time we showed up. It was 5:15 in the morning. The sun had not yet begun its assault on the Florida Keys. By 10 o'clock it would be 85�, and Charley Trainor, the photographer, would have his freckles double-coated with a petroleum compound made for World War II aviators marooned at sea. The Kid had bacon—a good two pounds of bacon—bubbling and spitting in twin skillets on the stove, and the coffee was hot. "All right," he said, "get the hell out of the road."
We were standing there like children who have awakened to strange events. "Just sit your behinds down and stay out of the road. We're making history here. How do you like your eggs?"
There was some ponderous shuffling as the three of us who were now his subjects found seats at the large dinette table. There were Charley the photographer and Edwin Pope, the writer from Miami, and myself, and however improbable our status as fishermen, we were there to go for tarpon with The Kid, who is an expert at it, who may be, in fact, the best at it, the way he used to be the best at putting a bat on a ball. He had invited us to an early breakfast, because he said he did not trust us to find our own at that hour and he wanted to be at the fishing spot no later than 7. He had it scouted.
The Kid said his cooking would not win prizes, but as a man alone after two aborted marriages he knew some of the mysteries of steaks, chops, broiled chicken and roast beef. "I do a pretty fair job with them," he said. "I do not make pies," he said, raising his eyebrows and the side of his mouth.
He had on the red Bermuda shorts I have come to think of as his home uniform in Islamorada, and a faded red shirt that had a few character holes in it. He wore Sears, Roebuck tennis shoes without socks, and his copper-brown calves stuck out prominently from the tails of the Bermudas. In 1938, when he was 19 years old and a pitcher-outfielder in San Diego, just starting as a professional ballplayer, he was 6'3" and weighed 168 pounds. Eventually, when he had been exposed to major league regimens, he got up to 200 pounds, but it was still appropriate to call him The Splinter. The Splendid Splinter , to be sure, because there was more to him than attenuation. His own particular preference for a nickname was always The Kid. Occasionally in conversation he still refers to himself as The Kid. It is a pleasing way of taking the edge off the first person singular.
The exposed calves were a giveaway to his enormous natural power. He had never appeared terribly strong in a baseball uniform, but baseball players do not audition in Bermuda shorts. The power had to be there somewhere. There were always the wrists and hands, of course, and the eyes. Everybody talks about the wrists and eyes. People used to say he could read the label on a revolving record with those eyes, but he says that was fiction. The wrists and eyes look ordinary enough. His legs give him away.
He decided that the way we wanted our eggs was soft-boiled. He brought them to the table hot and distributed them unopened in little egg holders and was back at the stove when we began fumbling with them, trying to get inside without burning our fingers. "Will you look at that?" he said, mocking us in a loud voice. "Isn't that something? Isn't that something? What an exhibition." He fixed a particular scorn on Edwin Pope, whose attempts must have been spectacular. I do not know, because at the time I was trying desperately to be nonchalant with my egg. "The great Edwin Pope. The great Edwin Pope can't even open an egg. Here," he said, circling the table with a knife and spoon, deftly opening all our eggs. "Isn't that funny?" he said. "Boy."
Pope had been itching for two days to tell of an episode involving his 16-year-old son Eddie. When told that his daddy was going fishing with Ted Williams, Eddie had replied, "Gee, Ted Williams. That's great. Ted Williams. That's the guy designs all that terrific fishing equipment for Sears!" Pope said he pointedly informed his son that Williams had also appeared in a few major league box scores in days gone by. Eddie then said, "Oh, does he play ball, too?" Pope was apprehensive that Williams might take the episode as a knock on his baseball skills and the historical position they deserve. The Kid had always guarded that reputation zealously, kicking and spitting his way through the stormy years in Boston, baring his teeth to sportswriters and tipping his hat to no man.
Once Ted Williams said all he wanted in life was to walk down the street and have people say, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." Those of us who think he made it and would gladly so testify may not represent the majority opinion, but if he did not make it there were certainly mitigating circumstances. He was interfered with by two wars, each one drawing him uncomplaining into the cockpits of fighter planes, each extracting precious time—four and a half years—from the peak of his young man's physiology. He hit .406 one year (1941) before he went to World War II, and when he came back from Korea he had a season in which he hit .388. That was 1957 when, like Williams, who was then 38 years old, baseball was passing from its golden age. None of the alleged great hitters of today have come close to either of those figures.
Williams had been a fisherman almost before he was a ballplayer, and he said that when he could no longer hit .300 he would just quit and go fishing, but he never proved he could not hit .300. At 42 he batted .316. Three-sixteen is what Frank Robinson hit to win the American League batting championship last year.