Nineteen thirty-nine was Ted Williams's rookie season with the Boston Red Sox. It was also the year that my father, Donald Nicoll, contracted peritonitis, brought on by a burst appendix. He was almost 12 at the time. My father's father, George, was a man who rarely tuned his radio to anything but sports. Whether my grandfather's fanaticism led him to divine Williams's place in baseball history or whether he saw the rookie as a likely candidate to respond to a letter from a carpenter in Boston, I'll never know. He wrote Williams, told him his son was dying of peritonitis and asked if he would visit the boy in the hospital. Williams wrote back to say that he would.
"Guess who's coming to see you?" my grandfather asked his son. " Ted Williams!" To my grandfather's dismay, Dad said only, "Who's he?"
The rest of the family did not inherit Grandfather's passion for sports. In fact, when visiting my grandparents' Boston home as a child, I made a conscious effort to ignore whatever sporting images flickered across their television screen. My interest in the family's Williams story was briefly renewed when his autobiography, My Turn at Bat, came out in 1969. There, on page 237, was a mention of the first child Williams had visited in a hospital, Donald Nicoll, who was dying of a stomach disease. Two additional comments intrigued me. One was that Williams still visited my family. I thought the story had lived and died in that hospital room, with the bats that were sent, like flowers, urging a speedy recovery. The other comment, which made all of us laugh, was that my father had gone into the ministry. Obviously, his life as a preacher had been so fleeting that I had never heard him tell of it. In fact, he had been a student pastor in a Congregational church in the late '40s.
The Williams story lay dormant for many years. Then I met and fell in love with Barry, a baseball fan, and told him of the family connection with Ted Williams. He was deeply impressed. "He befriended my father once," I said. Barry listened with obvious pleasure as I recounted the story, but he wanted to hear more. He wanted to talk to my father, and he wanted to see the bats. Early in 1986 we decided to visit my parents at their house in Maine.
On the drive from New York City, I repeated as much of the story as I knew. It wasn't much. My grandfather had died in 1983, and I warned Barry once again that the rest of the family didn't care much about baseball. By now, the bats might have been burned for firewood.
When we arrived at my parents' place, "Tell me about Ted Williams," were nearly the first words Barry spoke to my mother, Hilda. Those words were followed by, "Where are the bats?"
Mom volunteered to search for them in the coal bin, the laundry room and the garage, places where other useless articles had been tossed. Meanwhile, Barry followed my father into the living room, where Dad settled into a rocker. Dad linked his fingers, slid them over and behind his head, tipped back in the chair and said, "He used to call me Melon Head."
Barry and I sat spellbound as my father told us the story. "Why, Ted used to grab onto one leg of a chair—bigger than that one—and with one hand lift it up over his head," said my father.
"So," said Barry as Williams's shadow fell across the floor of the living room, "you saw him again after you got out of the hospital?"
"Oh sure," said Dad, casually, but swelling with pride. "He used to come up to the house for dinner when the Red Sox were playing at home. Then in the morning I'd meet him for breakfast at the hotel where he lived. I remember one time the waitress asked, 'What are you having, Sonny?' "