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.
August 20, 1967
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.
Pope told of his son's sacrilege anyway, risking it, and Williams laughed the loudest. He has an almost limitless enthusiasm for spontaneity, for getting the most out of a moment. He reacts. Getting the most sometimes means to ignite his famously combustible temper, to engage his iridescent vocabulary. If, however, he ever had the egotist's inability to laugh at himself he surely does not have it now.
"Hell, it's been almost seven years," he said to Pope. "Your boy is a new generation. Listen, listen, I'm a grandfather. Isn't that something? Isn't that funny? A grandfather." He said he could tell he must be getting old by the way he was getting so critical of young hitters. "I remember when Cobb criticized me for not trying to punch the ball to left field away from Boudreau's shift. Boy, I thought Cobb was an old crab, and here I am getting older, and I find I'm more critical." He did that little thing with his mouth and eyes, denoting scandalous behavior. "I try not to knock anybody," he said, "but some of these guys just aren't hitting what they should be. Listen, you know I have a lot of respect for hitters like Mays and Kaline and Clemente, and I like some of these young kids—Rico Petrocelli of our club and that kid in Houston—Staub—I'm impressed with him. But they all could be better.
"So many of them get up there just to swing. You see them all the time, hopping after that first pitch. Dammit, take a strike. See what the guy's got. I'm talking about the first strike in a ball game. I bet if you checked you'd find the guys who swing at that first strike hit about .050 on that pitch. Do they learn? No, hell, no. They keep swinging at it. You sure as hell ought to be able to remember what you learn. I think, I know I can tell you the exact pitch and pitcher I hit every one of my first 250 home runs off of."
Jack Brothers arrived almost simultaneously with a little black cat that began to mew at the back door in response to the aroma of Williams' cooking. "Where the hell you been, Bush?" said Williams to Brothers. "We're trying to make history and you're sleeping. Pour yourself some coffee."
Brothers said Ted would be pleased to know he had already eaten and was ready to go, but he took a cup anyway. More often than not Williams fishes alone; he just gets into his custom-made 17½-foot open boat with its 100 horses and goes out and finds his own. But he also likes to patronize the guides and has firm friendships with many of them, and there were too many of us for one boat. Brothers has been an Islamorada fishing guide for 15 years. He is from Brooklyn. Williams had known Brothers a long time but had not fished with him prior to the day before, when we had also chartered young Billy Grace's boat. Today Grace would meet us at the fishing spot.
The little cat was now mewing in earnest at the back door. "Damn cat," said The Kid. "I hate cats. Been trying to run him off for weeks. I've thrown things at him—for crissakes, I've done everything but drown him." He began to gather up the leftover bacon. There was enough to feed 10 cats. He opened the screen door and fended off the cat gently with his foot. "Get the hell out of the road," he said. He laid the platter of bacon down on the concrete floor of the porte cochere and the cat went to it hungrily. "No sense letting it go to waste," said The Kid.
"All right, let's go," he said. "Let's get serious. It's time to start thinking about fishing. Bear down, Bush. Let's start bearing down."
Islamorada is the jewel inset of a two-mile key called Upper Matecumbe, 68 miles south of Miami and 82 miles north of Key West. Until the word got around about the fishing, it was mostly inhabited by a tribe of big-hearted, hard-headed, industrious white natives called Conchs who years ago had infiltrated from the Bahamas after first having fled the American Revolution as supporters of the Crown.
The Gulf Stream runs by five miles offshore to the east, a playground for sailfish, dolphin, marlin, wahoo and king-fish. On the coral reefs there are snapper, jack, barracuda and grouper; on the flats of the Gulf side, or Florida Bay side, there are snook, bonefish, permit, redfish and the champion fighter from prehistoric days, Tarpon atlanticus, the silver-king tarpon.
Bonefish drew Ted Williams to Islamorada years ago, and the Conchs have helped keep him there. The best thing about Conchs, Williams found, was that they did not make a fuss over him. They took him for granted. He was just "Hi, Ted" to them. He could bonefish in peace. As the years went by, he ran his box score to more than a thousand bonefish. Satiated, the thrill fading, he switched to tarpon as the principal quarry. He became hooked on tarpon. In 1964 he needled the Islamorada Fishing Guides Association into putting together a highly selective invitational tarpon tournament called the Gold Cup, which he won in 1965. The guides say it is the best fishing tournament in the world, and one of the most heavily gambled on. The Kid was using our trip to get himself tuned up for the tournament.
Williams had left his boat at the Coral Shores Marina on Long Key, where he has a standing 50¢ bet with the proprietor that every time he goes out he will get a tarpon. It would be quicker by car to Long Key and, from there, quicker by boat to the spot. We piled into Williams' Ford and he drove.
The Kid drives much the way he used to get ready to hit a baseball. When he was waiting in the on-deck circle or standing at the plate, he could not be still. He moved his arms and jerked his shoulders, pumped his bat, squeezing the handle as if to wring out the reluctant base hits. When he drives a car he is no less convulsive. He is a highly animated conversationalist and sometimes finds it necessary to take both hands off the wheel to make a point. He drives with his knees. He does not drive slowly.
To fish with Williams and emerge with your sensitivities intact is to undertake the voyage between Scylla and Charybdis. It is delicate work, but it can be done, and it can be enjoyable. It most certainly will be educational. An open boat with The Kid just does not happen to be the place for one with the heart of a fawn or the ear of a rabbit. There are four things to remember: 1) he is a perfectionist; 2) he is better at it than you are; 3) he is a consummate needler; and 4) he is in charge. He brings to fishing the same hard-eyed intensity, the same unbounded capacity for scientific inquiry he brought to hitting a baseball.
Fishing guides are, by tradition, bullies, but the guides do not bully Williams. Jimmie Albright, who has fished with him for almost 18 years and is more or less his regular companion the six months a year Williams lives in Islamorada, says that this is because Williams knows more about fishing than they do.
Williams encourages a constant ebb and flow of ideas, theories, critiques, digs, approvals and opprobriums. His favorite appellation is "Bush" short for bush-leaguer, but with Williams a mark of accreditation. If he calls you Bush, you're in. Often he confers it on the guides.
That first day we had gone with the falling tide to a spot a mile east of Long Key. Most of the time was spent situating the boat in the prospective line of the tarpon run at the edge of a channel. Naturally, Williams questioned Brothers' choice of position. Brothers asked him if he had brought his fly rod, just in case. "I think you'll find spinning gear better by 2 to 1," said The Kid. "I think you will also find I'm prepared, that I'm very well prepared." He began to switch the color of his lure from red and yellow to pink. The lures he makes himself from dyed bucktail. Brothers joked that the color of the lure was to satisfy the fishermen, not the fish; that it was a matter of "proper presentation." Williams' fingers moved nimbly, tying the necessary knots and biting off the ends with his teeth. He winked at me. "Boy, the guides would like to know how to tie that knot," he said. "That's one knot I'll never show them." He said it was a 100% knot. Brothers said there was no such thing. They argued about that for a while.
The Kid put a shapeless white hat on his head and an extra layer of grease on his lips and assumed his waiting stance on top of a tackle box, looking out across the water, his left hand on his hip, his right holding a weapon: a Ted Williams reel with 15-pound monofilament line and a Ted Williams seven-foot rod. Sears puts the Williams name on its top line of equipment, after himself approves it. He grants Sears about 60 days a year of his time, attending clinics, making films, doing promotional work. It takes another 45 days to fulfill his obligation as a Red Sox vice-president, which consists mainly of trying, in the spring, to pound into the heads of young hitters the recipe for becoming the greatest hitter who ever lived. Another 60 days are spent at his boys' camp in Lakeville, Mass. From August to October he retires to a little cabin on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick and fishes for Atlantic salmon.
From the tackle box Williams could make conversation and watch for the coming of the tarpon. In this stance The Kid allowed his stomach to take its course uninhibited, letting it stick out. Sometimes he rolled on the sides of his feet as he kibitzed with the rest of us. His stomach is no longer a splinter's stomach, but otherwise he appears in excellent condition. He is 48 now but looks 35. As a young man he had been shocked to see the hair on his chest turning silver, but only a little of the silver ever got to his head. His great curly thatch is still brown. He weighs 230 pounds. Late in his baseball career, when he was harassed by injuries, he hit four straight pinch home runs, and I suggested that he looked like he could go up there right now and make a living pinch-hitting. He said that prospect never appealed to him at all. Nor had he ever wanted to be a manager. He said it had something to do with the "knights of the keyboard," his antagonists in the press box.
Standing there, he gave the impression he did not have to talk at all to enjoy himself; that he could stand there, perfectly silent, by the hour waiting for fish, a demonstration of patience he had never exhibited waiting to bat.
"Bear down, just bear down, Bush," said The Kid.
When the fish came, his demeanor abruptly changed. He went into a slight crouch, like a corner back anticipating a charge; where before only his eyes were alert, the prospect of action seemed to galvanize and bring to attention the rest of his body, and when he made his cast it was quick and sure.
It is Ted's opinion that he will average one score for every five tarpon that strike. The average for lesser tarpon fishermen is much lower, maybe one for 10. That first day he had four fish on the line. One was down at Long Key. Then when we switched across to the Florida Bay side, seven miles southwest of Islamorada on the edge of Buchanan Bank, to catch the falling tide there, he had three more. On this side, especially in June, Brothers said, the tarpon seem more eager to cooperate.
The first one jumped and spit out Ted's bucktail. The second rolled and spit it out. Finally the third took it firm. The fish exploded into the air. Sawhack-whack-whack. The tarpon jumped seven times, swooshing spectacularly into the air as Williams played it, worked it, reeled, kept the pressure on. All the time he was instructing us, telling us what he was doing, advising Charley when to shoot and what lens opening he might use, cautioning Jack about getting too eager with the gaff.
"It's a medium-size fish...about 50-60 pounds.... When he rolls, that's the time to put the pressure. If you can turn him there, it takes a lot out of him. If he jumps, get on him again.... See how I lighten the drag when it's under the boat? Watch, now, he'll jump. When I say, 'Now,' be ready to shoot. Now!" and the fish was up again, just feet away from the boat. The fish tired rapidly, and then when he had it next to the boat and Brothers stood waiting with the gaff the silver monster slipped the hook, as if at that critical moment it decided the entire episode was distasteful, and it was gone.
I have heard of the carnage when the Williams temper stirs. The fractured golf clubs. The snapped fishing rods. The busted water coolers. He does not have much sympathy, either, for another man's errors when the man is represented to be something he is not. Once on this same Buchanan Bank when he was going through his paces for a movie photographer he had hired to get footage for Sears, a tarpon he was playing actually jumped into the boat. He predicted aloud that it was about to happen, sensing the line of the jump, and when he discovered the photographer had missed this wildest of scenes he paid him off on the spot and told him to just get the hell back to shore. But with himself he is especially severe. So I expected him to blow.
But he did not. "That's all right, it happens," he said calmly. "It happens."
In the meantime I had found time to make a few tentative tries myself at getting in the way of a tarpon. I had made up my mind I would not attempt to carry out a fiction that I knew the ins and outs of tarpon fishing. I was very careful to point out that I had never fished for tarpon, had never used a rod that required two hands for casting. I did this as insulation against the inevitable embarrassment. Things not done out of habit usually feel awkward, and awkwardness is the mother of error.
In short order I had proved to their satisfaction that if I was no tarpon fisherman I was also no liar. Williams began to refer to my casts as "Chinese," as in Chinese homers, or bloopers. He tried to advise me. "Here," he said, grabbing the rod. "Now, keep the line here, just off the fingertip, and wait longer before you let it go." He shot one out about 60 feet. "Yes," I said, "I got it. Right." I popped another straight up into the air. "Damn," I said. "Beautiful Chinese cast," he said, but shortly after the cast a fish hit my lure in spite of myself. It jumped once, a silver blur in my face, and broke the line. "Wow," I said. Williams was paternally comforting. "It wasn't your fault," he said. "It must have been one of Jack's knots." He grinned as Jack tried to make a comeback. "It wasn't my knot, it was...."
So now, with the sun just rising on our second day and Charley Trainor busily lathering up with his World War II marooned-aviator's suntan lotion, we were heading back out to Buchanan. "Bet you $100 I get one today," said The Kid. Over the roar of his 100 horses he and Jack began a discussion on the amount of drag necessary for tarpon. They differed sharply. Jack likes a heavier drag. About seven pounds. Ted said that heavy a drag will pop your line when you get a real hot fish, and he brought up my miss as an example. The argument carried us to Buchanan Bank.
Brothers got us situated, and in the quiet moments as we waited, the sun getting higher, The Kid opened up for discussion one subject after another, sampling them as if they were unlabeled canned goods, each offering something worth considering. There is a difference between knowing and knowing it all. Williams has a keen, honest intellectual curiosity. The things he knows and feels sure of he is adamant on (baseball, the size of a hook, the value of his time); the things he does not know he wants to know. He wants to know what you think, right now, here in the car, in the living room, in the boat. From Charley he wanted to know about cameras, and demonstrated an exceptional knowledge himself by the questions he asked. Listen, Edwin, tell me about this Frazier guy. Is he much of a fighter? Is Shoemaker better than Hartack? Why is that? What do you think about Vietnam? Why did SPORTS ILLUSTRATED pick Jim Ryun as its Sportsman of the Year? What's he got that Frank Robinson doesn't have?
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.
His celebrated appetite for privacy has not been diminished by the years. His phone is unlisted. It is not even printed on the receiver. When it gets to be too well-known, he changes it. To get in touch with him requires liaison with his secretary. Then he calls you. And when he says he will call at 7:30, he calls at 7:30, on the dot. Presumably, close friends and fishing guides are the only ones who know how to make direct contact, and Conchs don't snitch. In turn he seeks out their company. Often in the mornings, at daybreak, he materializes at Islamorada Tackle and Marine where the guides congregate, and he hangs around ribbing and needling. He has been especially close to Albright. He was visiting the Albright house when word arrived that he had been called back into the service for the Korean War in 1952, and when an AP guy came around to seek him out The Kid jumped into one of Albright's closets. Albright invited the reporter in, and deliberately small-talked for an hour as Williams silently melted in the closet.
Once or twice a week he foregoes the pleasure of his own cooking to patronize a small Cuban-style restaurant called Manny and Isa's, just on the other side of the Over-Sea Highway on the crusty little road that used to be the highway. He prefers it there, because recognition is less likely and he can wear his fishing uniform, and because the food is excellent. Manny was the cook down at the more fashionable Green Turtle Inn before he struck out on his own with black-eyed Isa, his wife, who knows how to make a Key lime pie. Isa is Ted's pet. He does not spare her the needle.
"Veal," he says loudly, and patrons at other tables look up knowingly. "People tell me there are a lot of restaurants on the Keys selling veal and saying it's turtle steak. This tastes like veal to me, Isa." "Oh, no, Ted," says Isa with a Spanish accent, pouting and shaking her finger at him. She runs off to the kitchen and returns with a great slab of meat, which is unmistakably turtle. "You see?" says Isa. "Well, I don't know," says Ted, making that wry face. "Oh, Ted, you are fooling me," says Isa, jabbing him on the shoulder.
It was here, at Manny and Isa's, that we went for lunch: Cuban sandwiches all around, recommended strongly by The Kid. "How about a beer?" he said. "A beer's good with Cuban sandwiches." Drinking beer is one of his more recent diversions. When he was younger he traveled strictly on nonalcohol. He still bridles when downwind from a cigarette-smoker. "What are you, a chain smoker?" he said to Pope, making him change seats. "Damn." At the table I asked if, in view of the obvious effort he puts in fishing, he got as much satisfaction from it as baseball gave him. He said no, that to become a success at baseball required more hours of practice, more competition, more everything, so he could not say that. But he said he had concluded that the two most enjoyable fish to fish for in the world were the tarpon and the Atlantic salmon. He crossed his legs, pushing back his chair, and launched into a soliloquy.
"The tarpon is dynamic, eager, tackle-busting—well, he's just a sensational, lively, spectacular fish. He jumps better than any of them. He'll take any kind of lure, artificial or live. He requires you to have the ability to handle tackle, probably more than any fish I know of. First place, you're playing the fish with basically fresh-water equipment, which means you don't have the best drags or the fastest retrieves, and you're also using fairly light line. As a result, your knots have to be right—I want to show you that 100% knot, I can show you real quick, before you leave I want to show it to you—and everything has to be right. They don't know a whole lot about its life cycle, and you can't eat it, but it has more attributes as far as the gameness of the fish itself is concerned.
"Now, now, the Atlantic salmon. They are caught in beautiful streams. They are wonderful eating. Extremely game. They jump. They're sometimes so hard to catch you think they're smart, then the next time they're easy. Sometimes you cast for two hours in the same arc, here, then here, here, and all the time you're seeing fish, but you think you're never going to get one, and then you change the angle a foot and it drifts right over him and, boom, you've got one. On the average, I would say it takes 400 casts per salmon, 400 to 600 casts per salmon. But on every cast you have the expectation that it's going to happen.
"And, gee, it's a romantic fish. The life cycle is so damn romantic. They know specifically that certain salmon will be hatched in this area, will stay in the river for three years, go out, nobody really knows where, except to sea, and that they grow an awful lot at sea, and then two of them, male and female, come back as adults to the exact same area to spawn. Two of them, five years later, coming back upstream out of maybe 10,000 eggs. I guess if I had to spend the rest of my life fishing for just one fish it would have to be the Atlantic salmon."
We went out again to Buchanan in the afternoon and fished unsuccessfully until dark. Williams brought a radio along and lay back on the deck so he could watch Jack and me in action. Having caught his fish for the day he was prepared to needle away his time. "I want to see this," he said. "I've got to see this." But before long he was up with us. At dusk the conversation got back to the merits of a tight drag, and the argument heated up again. The Kid said, "All right. Bush, I'm just trying to help you. And I'm going to prove it to you. A hot fish, a hot fish, will break your line with that drag."
When we got to shore it was almost dark. "C'mon," he said to Jack. He got Jack's line and tied it around his waist and in the semidarkness loped off into a ragged field of weeds and coral rock, lurching as he picked up speed on the uneven ground, and when he gave a sudden yank—whamp—the line popped. "Isn't that funny, Bush?" he shouted. "Isn't that funny?"
It was after 10 o'clock when we reached his house and relaxed into the big, soft, flower-printed chairs in the living room. Ten o'clock is late for The Kid, because he has got to be up and Out There again the next morning or he feels he has missed a chance, but sitting there, yawning, his eyes red, he told of his evolution as a fisherman. He tells the story in an absorbing anecdotal style, absently scratching his head and pulling on his hair and working his arms and legs around, his sunglasses dangling from the V of his shirt. He said it all began back in San Diego with a guy named Chick Rotert and an 11-year-old kid named Ted Williams.
"I guess a lot of people thought Chick was a rummy or something, because he used to like to drink that 3.2 beer, but as far as I was concerned he was a great man. Chick used to go fishing around those bass lakes near San Diego, and he'd come back with six-, seven-pound bass, nice, you know, nice bass. I was just fascinated as hell. That appealed to me, you know? So, I finally got a rod and reel, a $3.95 Pflueger Akron reel and a Heddon bamboo rod. Just a straight bamboo rod. But I will tell you one thing"—he gave me a hard look—"I went out and learned how to cast the damn thing before I went fishing with it. I learned how to use it.
"So, I got my first chance to go fishing, and I got some bass, not very big, and from there I tried the surf in San Diego. Used to go out with a wonderful man, Mr. Cassidy. I played on a baseball team with his kids, and he was nuts about fishing, you know, but his kids didn't care anything about fishing, so he would take me. He'd want company, and we'd go up to Coronado Beach, and we would fish the whole night, till 4 in the morning, and here I am a young kid, and I'd go to sleep all the way back and he'd have to make it without anybody to talk to. The dearest man, a great fellow.
"From there I fished for yellowtail and tuna, met some kids whose big brother had a boat and I'd get on a trip—I remember one time in San Diego, I'm making a guess at this, in 1933 or '34, I went out on a little boat one day and we caught 98 barracuda. Ninety-eight. And we brought them back into town, and we had them on ice, wrapped up four in a paper, and we'd just give them to anybody on the street. Just wrap 'em and give 'em away.
"Of course, after that I was bought by the Red Sox and shipped to Minnesota, and during that summer I had the chance to fish for walleyes up at Mille Lacs Lake. It was about that time I read an article in Field & Stream about snook. The writer said a 10-pound snook tied tail to tail with a 20-pound muskie would drag the muskie all over the lake. I had fished for muskie, and I thought, boy, I sure want to catch one of those snook.
"Finally I came down here, and snook turned out to be everything he said they were. I was stationed at Pensacola at the time, instructing in Corsairs at the air station, and a buddy and I saved up our gas ration stamps to buy enough gas to get us down to Everglades. The first or second cast I got a 15-pound snook, and it took off like nothing I'd ever had on freshwater equipment. We had a good day, and we were at this fish house at Everglades, and I said, 'Gee, we caught a lot offish today,' and the guy said, 'Bring 'em in, we'll buy them.' "How much do you pay?' 'Eleven cents a pound.' So the next day we kept every snook we caught, and we had 110 pounds of snook, which is quite a little haul of snook. And that's the first and only and last time I ever sold fish.
"After the service I made up my mind I was going to come down a week early just to fish before spring training. Hell, I found out a week wasn't even close to being enough time. The next year I came a month early, then two months, and before I knew it I was a resident of Florida.
"One night I was coming home—hadn't had too good a day. Hadn't been using a fly rod very much then, and I wasn't doing well with plugs. I saw this guy on the Tamiami Trail. Gee, he had a nice fish on a fly rod. I stopped the car and went back, and here's this 10-pound snook. We started talking and he said he'd been catching a lot of little tarpon up in these bilateral canals, said he was getting so many his arms were tired. I thought he was bulldozing me, but I told him I'd give him a new reel—I saw he had this old beat-up one, and it just so happened I had two new reels with me—if he'd tell me where this place was, and he agreed and I went back the next day and sure enough he was right, they were there, and I used my fly rod and from then on I used nothing but a fly rod in the Tamiami area, because it's 2-to-1, it's 10-to-1 more effective than spinning gear around all those little bushes.
"I did that for three years, but there got to be more people coming down each year, and now I was listening to people telling me about blue water and the Florida Keys and bonefish. Bonefish were just starting to get caught on flies. This is about 1950. Lee Cuddy says, why not move to the Keys? So, that winter I came to Islamorada, and I caught 67 bonefish, and before long I had bought myself a house and I was permanent."
Reflecting, he said there were so many places he'd like to try. He said he'd like to have a big boat he could outfit and hire a crew and just fish around. "I can't think of anyone who had more fun than Zane Grey with his big boat," he said. "Listen, what a hell of a life he had, you know? I'd love to have a big 60-foot shrimper-type boat, deck it out with what I need and be able to cruise all through Central America. That's where the tarpon are."
The next week, with Jimmie Albright as his guide, The Kid won the Gold Cup tarpon tournament for the second time. He won it on the last day of the tournament. On the morning of that day he was in 11th place. By mid-afternoon he had caught five tarpon.
Before the tournament the betting got lively and the two of them, Jimmie and The Kid, wound up with $1,100 riding on the outcome. Every time Jimmie would venture into a group of anglers and guides, Ted would say, "I don't know what you have in mind, Bush, but you better bring your checkbook Friday night when this is over."
When the bets were collected, he gave the entire $1,100 to Albright, plus an extra $200 he claimed he won. Jimmie doubts it. He also gave Jimmie the gold tiepin with the leaping tarpon that goes to the winner. The Kid does not wear ties. He has a couple of clip-ons he calls "phony-baloney ties," but they stay in the drawer. Jimmie compared it with the time in 1946 when The Kid played in his only World Series. He gave his Series check to the Boston clubhouse boy.
Jimmie said that every morning before they went out during the week of the tournament Ted stopped to feed the little black cat. "The cat was so darned determined," said Albright. "He just kept hanging in there. And Ted hates cats, you know."