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?' "
My father ducked his chin and became the small, shy boy Williams had known: " 'Nothing,' I said meekly to the waitress. She urged me twice more to order something while I shook my head, trying to be polite. Finally, Williams growled, 'Oh, come on, Melon Head! Whaddya want, one egg or two?' 'One, please,' I said. 'I've already had one breakfast this morning.' "
After breakfast my father and Williams would go out to Fenway Park and play a little catch before batting practice. At game time Donald would take his seat and watch his friend play ball.
My mother returned, batless, from her search. "I think I remember Jonathan borrowing them for the company softball game, don't you, Don?" she said. Barry shut his eyes, envisioning my brother and his workmates hurling Williams's bats about on a dusty local field. "We can look when we're at Jon's tomorrow," I said in what I hoped were soothing tones. "I'm sure he's got them carefully stored."
"Oh yeah," said Jon the next day as Barry jumped from the car asking about the bats. "Where did I put those things?" Williams's bats were nowhere in the jumble of old furniture and junk on the front porch, nor were they hidden in a nether corner of the house, and they were definitely not suspended over the mantelpiece. We followed Jon out of the house as he walked to the toolshed. Barry's eyes, as if triggered by a homing device for baseball paraphernalia, zeroed in on a far corner of the shed. In one bound, he leapt over a Rototiller, a lawn mower and a tool bench and landed beside the bats.
The next thing we knew, Barry was standing on the lawn, swinging his way into some lifelong fantasy. "His hands must have been huge!" said Barry. He held out one of the bats as evidence. It was a bat from my childhood days—worn brown ash, chipped at the handle and signed by Williams along the shaft.
Buoyed by the success of our Maine trip, Barry and I decided to go on to spring training in Florida. So in March 1986 we found ourselves in Winter Haven, hoping to meet Williams, who was with the team as a hitting instructor. Each day we checked with the parking lot attendant, and each day he told us that Williams's car was not there. Finally, on our last day, he told us that Williams had arrived and pointed to a complex of fields where the minor leaguers were working out. We walked along a muddy road to the lower fields, debating what we were going to say and how we were going to say it. We wandered from field to field, finding plenty of ballplayers but no sign of baseball history. At last we found a sign that read TED WILLIAMS FIELD.
"This is as close as we're going to get," I said with some relief, and I asked Barry to pose for a photograph under the sign. Just as my finger came down on the shutter button, a golf cart rolled by, and Barry's index finger shot out toward it. "That's him!" he said.
A large man climbed out of the cart and strode through the open gate of a fenced-in field. Barry watched, incredulous, as I walked very slowly toward the field. "Hurry," he said.
Already a horde of fathers and their young sons were gathered at the gate, pointing and gawking, grasping yet-unsigned balls and waiting for a chance to speak to the two men who were now engaged in conversation by the batting cage: Williams and Carl Yastrzemski.
Williams turned and walked briskly back toward the gate. He seemed to see nothing through his dark glasses, and his expression was impassive. I stepped in front of the mob of fathers and sons just as he reached the gate. "Mr. Williams?" I said.
Perhaps my voice had the same timidity that had been in little Melon Head's when he ordered breakfast. Williams did not break his stride or shift his gaze. He did not acknowledge that I had spoken, and in one instant I knew that the words I chose would have to be the right ones. "Do you remember a kid named Don Nicoll?" I asked.
He stopped in his tracks and looked at me. The hard edges of his face melted, and he said softly, "I sure do."
"Well," I said, suddenly a child myself, "he's my father."
We talked, not for long, while the fathers and sons stood by, puzzled and envious. The words I had spoken had wrought some magic. No, my father was no longer a minister, and my grandfather had died, in Faulkner Hospital, where Williams had once visited a gravely ill boy. He said he was sorry and asked me to carry his best wishes to my grandmother and my parents.
"We wondered," I sputtered, "if we could have a picture."
"Why, sure," he said and threw his arm across my shoulder. "Is this your husband?" Barry wriggled like a nervous child as he hobbled the camera between his hands.
"Sort of," I said stupidly, wanting Barry at that moment to be bound to my family.
"Well, that's fine, just fine," said Williams, gallantly ignoring our fumbling with words and our camera. Barry took two photographs, and we thanked Williams.
I sent my grandmother a copy of the picture Barry took of me with Williams. She tucked it away, right along with a photo of Williams with Melon Head, taken 51 years ago this summer. Until she died two years ago, Grandma kept the pictures in a drawer with other family photos and mementos—things you don't look at often but are glad to have.
Jessica Nicoll is a writer and dancer who is now living in Brooklyn.