Early one Tuesday morning in October, in a hilltop house nestled
among live oaks dripping Spanish moss--a house set on the
highest point in Citrus County, Fla., dominating all it surveys
like a medieval castle--an old man struggles. He is close to
blind. His long feet are wrapped in leather slippers with
elastic across the instep so they won't fall off. A Boston Red
Sox cap is on his head. A TV producer smiles and holds up a cue
card that isn't helping.
Ted Williams says, "I know a young--"
"No, not 'I know a young man,'" the producer says. "'This young
"All right," Williams says. "This young man...said he'd go to
prison himself before releasing prisoners early. And he's got
...inmates working for the people of Middlesex County."
"That was good--the first part," the producer says. "But the
"All right," Williams cuts in. "If you don't like the second,
let's go again."
And with that the temperature in the cozy den ticks upward ever
so slightly. Not good. Williams's temper has long been famous
for its sudden, lung-tearing explosions, and everybody in the
room--the producer; the cameraman; Frank Brothers, Williams's
live-in aide; and Buzz Hamon, director of the Ted Williams
Museum & Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla.--has been
grinning, cajoling, trying to take the edge off the morning's
project. Williams is making a TV ad for Brad Bailey, a candidate
for sheriff of Middlesex County, Mass. Problem is, three strokes
in five years have chipped away 75% of Williams's field of
vision, so that he sees as if looking through a pipe, and it
doesn't help that the glare of the TV light makes the phrases on
the cue card nearly unreadable. Long ago Williams bent his life
into a furious pursuit of perfection. Now here he is, in a
roomful of people, tripping over words.
Hamon protectively suggests that Williams talk off the top of
his head. Williams won't have it. "I've got to have the idea to
start with," he rasps. "You've known me two years, and you think
you can run my goddam life."
Williams grabs the card, wrenches it back and forth in rhythm
with a classic example of Ted-speak, his uniquely cadenced blend
of jock, fishing and military lingo, marked by constant
profanity and a growling emphasis on the most unlikely word.
"Now, look, see where that goddam light is?" he says. "The light
is on that sonofabitch, and that's where I want it."
In 1941 Williams hit .406 for the Red Sox. In the 55 years since
then, few players have come close to hitting .400, and the
legend of The Kid's eyesight has only grown: He could follow the
seams on a baseball as it rotated toward him at 95 mph. He could
read the label on a record as it spun on a turntable. He stood
at home plate one day and noticed that the angle to first base
was slightly off; measuring proved him right, naturally, by two
whole inches. In the '60s Brothers--the son of Williams's friend
Jack Brothers, a famous Florida Keys fishing guide--would show
up on Williams's porch in Islamorada every Saturday morning to
spend the day helping Williams pole his skiff through the
shallows. Each time, Williams would bet Brothers one hour's
poling that he could cast his line and guess, within six inches,
how far the lure had flown. "I lost every time," Brothers says.
"He'd cast 112 feet and say, 'A hundred eleven feet, 10 inches.'
No marks on the line."
But that was long ago. Williams is 78 now. Since falling in his
driveway and breaking his left shoulder two years ago, he has
been unable to drive. This year, for the first time in five
decades, he didn't go fishing. His buddies Jack Brothers, Joe
Lindia, Sam Tamposi--and, worst of all, his longtime live-in
girlfriend, Louise Kaufman--have died in the past five years,
and the lines on Williams's face have sunk deeper with each
loss. His voice carries a jagged weariness, a residue of seeing
bits of his rich life fall away one by one.
And the parade of trouble didn't stop there. Looking to cash in
on the late-1980s sports-memorabilia craze, he entangled himself
in a partnership with a scam artist that, when it all crashed in
a welter of lawsuits, cost Williams close to $2 million in
losses and legal bills. Williams then signed up with the
well-established trading card and collectibles company Upper
Deck Authenticated, but that deal, too, unraveled in a messy
whirl through the courts. Meanwhile, his clean, highly readable
signature brought such a bonanza to forgers that the Ted
Williams autograph--once a symbol of sporting quality--has
become one of the most suspect in the business.
It has been, to say the least, a far more public and contentious
walk through the sunset than Williams ever dreamed. And while
nothing can threaten his legacy as one of the American Century's
cultural icons, the result of all his travails is a bewildering
new image of Ted Williams as dupe, Ted Williams controlled, that
hardly jibes with nearly 60 years of tales depicting him as
alternately cold and warm, bitter and sentimental, obnoxious and
funny, tough and generous--but always savagely independent. This
is, after all, a man who turned down a reported $100,000 and a
chance to pal around with Robert Redford as an adviser on The
Natural because Atlantic salmon were running. This is a two-war
Marine pilot who flew half his 39 missions in Korea as John
Glenn's wing man, but when they jetted deep into enemy
territory, just as often it was Williams leading one of
America's greatest pilots.
One summer in the early 1960s, Williams was at his baseball camp
in Lakeville, Mass., when a call came in from nearby Hyannis
Port: President Kennedy wanted to speak to him. "Tell him I'm a
Nixon fan!" Williams roared.
And on this Tuesday morning? He will not be pushed. He does it
his way: "No one has impressed me more in such a short time...
as a man....Ahhh ...well, hold it there...turn it towa--... the
right.... No one has impressed me more in such a short period of
time as an up-and-coming young man: Brad Bailey....I can't see
that big print, for chrissakes!"
Then, abruptly, Williams nails it, the rhythm and tenor of a
sweet endorsement: "Just wait till you meet Brad Bailey, and
you'll be soooold yourself." The TV guys murmur how perfect it
is. Williams beams and leans back in his chair as the men start
packing. "That'll be nice," he says. "Why didn't you bring Cecil
B. DeMille? All right!"
He's happy now, and he starts talking baseball. The Red Sox will
finally win a World Series, he says, when they get a new
ballpark. Fenway Park's cockeyed outfield throws off the game's
balance, and when the wind comes in, you have to crush the ball,
and then there's the annoying matter of the Green Monster and
how it rewards the lefthanded hitter with neither the will nor
the talent to pull the ball the way Williams did year after year
because a pure hitter, a perfect hitter, swings
quick-quick-quick. "That little chummy leftfield fence," he
says, voice dropping, then picking up speed. "And lefthanders do
more against it than righthanders...if they're late! Well, jeez,
who wants to be late?"
Someone wonders why Williams didn't hit to left more, and he
says, "I can show you real quick why the hell I had so much
trouble going to leftfield." For a heartbeat, no one says a
word. Show us? This is a man who uses a cane to walk, who hasn't
swung a bat in public in five years, whose left arm was so numb
after his last stroke, in 1994, that he couldn't feel a set of
keys lying in his hand. "Where's the bat?" he says.
Someone hustles up a bat ("Oh, that's a heavy sonofabitch, isn't
it," Williams says. "Babe Ruth model, probably"), and as he
works his palms into the grain, a jolt of delight hops from
person to person: This is, after all, the sporting equivalent of
Michelangelo taking up his chisel. But that lasts only an
instant. For as Williams rises to his feet, it becomes clear
that he isn't wearing any pants. His green polo shirt is tucked
into his Hanes. Dread courses through the room: This could be
awful. This could be Ted Williams--who, as a young man, once
strutted the streets of Boston muttering, "Teddy F------
Ballgame, the best f------ hitter in the major f------
leagues"--falling in a pathetic heap. But Williams isn't
worried. His voice takes on a sharpness it hasn't had all
morning. His eyes flash. He pulls himself up to his entire 6'3",
leans toward a hassock and points down with the huge black bat
and says, "O.K.! Here's the plate."
Williams wobbles, rights himself, directs the hassock into
place. "Move it back this way," he says. "Christ, don't put it
in my ass! Hold it right there." His Dalmatian, Slugger, sniffs
at his ankles. Williams plants his feet. "Now, look," he says.
"I was on the plate like this, and I pulled everything. If I'm
right here, they put everybody on the right side, and they
pitched me inside." He takes a step, bumps his shins against the
hassock, teeters. Four hands reach up to steady him. "Whoops!
O.K. And they pitched me inside, so that I had to pull
everything: Pull, pull, down and in, down and in! Whoops,
bye-bye! In order for me to hit the ball to leftfield, look what
I had to do: When I pulled the ball, it was out here like
that--see my bat? It's horizontal. But when I tried to go to
leftfield, I had to go inside out, and look where my bat is!
He's shouting, swinging the bat smoothly, his muscled right arm
guiding it through more than fast enough for a 78-year-old man,
because who wants to be late? His wrists crack, and the bat
snaps up at the end, making it easy to imagine him in Fenway,
lean and whole. "So I have this much to hit the ball," he says,
"and here I'd be on a flat plane, and I had six, seven inches to
hit it. So anyway, I moved a little farther back, and it was
And for the next 30 seconds the old man stands over a hassock,
the years falling off his shoulders and his bat gliding over the
plate. He tells of that hitting lesson from Pittsburgh Pirates
star Paul Waner, and of outwitting the Cleveland Indians' great
pitchers of the late '40s and early '50s, and of the time New
York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra picked up on that small
adjustment Williams made in the batter's box. Finally, after
reaching to show how he went after outside pitches, Williams
comes back to the present. "Whoa, I'm going to fall down," he
says lightly, and he plops safely back into his easy chair.
It has been a priceless performance, surreal and somehow grand,
and now that it's over, there isn't much to say. Brothers clears
the room, and Williams shuffles out last. "Hard right," Brothers
says, and Williams turns down the hallway toward his bedroom for
some rest. Then he stops. "Where's John-Henry?" he says.
"John-Henry said he could come this morning."
Brothers says John-Henry had a meeting. "Aw, hell," Williams
says. "He's always in a meeting."
Ted Williams's only son is out of his car and moving, feeling
that adrenaline again, that hop in his gut. "I don't know what
it is," says John-Henry Williams, 28, snapping his fingers.
"It's like, I know what I'm doing now. I'm in my element. Like
Ted Williams: Put him at the plate, something happens. When I go
into a store looking for Ted Williams autographs, I walk in and
I can just see one--wherever it is. I can pick 'em out."
For five years he has been cruising malls in New England, in Las
Vegas, wherever, pulling up at places like this one, the Sports
Treasures kiosk in the Natick (Mass.) Mall. He zeroes in on a
$175 plaque or a $199 ball, accosts an unsuspecting clerk and
asks about the autograph on the item, its history, who had it
last. He demands phone numbers. Sometimes John-Henry buys; he
claims to have $40,000 worth of forgeries in storage. Some
pieces he confirms as real.
"That Ted Williams plaque you have?" John-Henry says now. "It's
fake." The clerk's mouth drops open.
"It is?" he says.
"The ball, too." John-Henry grills the clerk at length about the
items' histories. Then he leaves.
Asked later if he makes many mistakes in assessing the
authenticity of Williams memorabilia, John-Henry says, "I've
never been wrong."
He is not a popular man. One store in the Boston area has
threatened to arrest him for trespassing. "He's probably one of
the most disliked people I know," says Phil Castinetti, owner of
Everett, Mass.-based Sportsworld, the largest memorabilia dealer
in New England. And Castinetti is one of John-Henry's allies.
Barry Halper, owner of the world's largest private collection of
baseball artifacts, bumped into John-Henry last March at the
opening of the Yankees' spring training stadium in Tampa. The
two went down to the gift shop, and John-Henry buttonholed a
clerk. "He says, 'Where'd you get that?'" Halper recalls. "'I'm
John-Henry. He's my father.... What show? Where?' All of a
sudden it's a war. All of the items, he said, are fake. He
talked about suing." Halper says he saw John-Henry do the same
thing at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego. "He's very hyper,"
Halper says. This isn't meant as criticism. Both Halper and
Castinetti say forgery is rampant in memorabilia today.
"It's a field larded with fakes," says Charles Hamilton, the
handwriting expert who helped expose the fraudulent Hitler
diaries in 1983. "A tremendous number of Williams forgeries are
coming on the market." However, Hamilton volunteers, "I've been
very suspicious of Ted Williams's son. When a man becomes
incapacitated like Williams is, and his son continues to pour
autographs onto the market, I naturally wonder where they're
coming from." Told that Ted had been seen signing photos just a
few days earlier, Hamilton murmurs, "Is he still signing? I was
News of such an exchange comes as no shock to John-Henry.
"Plenty of people think I'm the one forging these signatures,"
he says. Others say his crusade against fakes is merely a
cynical ploy to pump up the price of the memorabilia he now
peddles for Ted. "It's the furthest thing from the truth,"
John-Henry says. "It doesn't matter what type of forgeries are
out there; it's not going to affect the amount of money I make.
But when I see people devaluing his autograph, that's not fair."
In the 1940s and '50s no baseball player evoked as much love and
loathing as Ted Williams. Today no figure in memorabilia
polarizes opinion or elicits gossip the way John-Henry does.
Separated by 50 years and 1,500 miles, Ted and John-Henry had an
arm's-length relationship for most of John-Henry's childhood.
But beginning in 1991 the two grew closer, and John-Henry
gradually assumed responsibility for his father's business,
cutting out some of Ted's old cronies and advisers and earning
resentment in the process. John-Henry's campaign against
forgeries only made more enemies, and while some collectors,
dealers and friends of Ted's defend John-Henry's zeal as
necessary to protect his father's interests, others spin Sonny
Dearest tales of greed and opportunism. "Some of the things I've
heard?" says John-Henry. "That I don't let him do what he wants.
That I force him to do things. That isn't right."
Forgery, rumor, character assassination--not a pristine world,
memorabilia. "You're dealing with a lot of real sharpies," Ted
says. "And little did I realize it."
In 1989 Ted Williams, without consulting anyone, entered into a
partnership with Vincent Antonucci--who, unbeknownst to Ted, was
a convicted felon--in a memorabilia business in Crystal River,
Fla. Within a year Williams had invested at least $150,000 in
the business and signed about 15,000 items for Antonucci to
sell. He received nothing in return, and Antonucci skipped with
at least $38,000 of Williams's cash. Williams consulted John
Dowd, the lawyer who had conducted Major League Baseball's
investigation of Pete Rose, and he advised Williams to wash his
hands of the matter. Dowd said it would cost Williams far more
to sue than he would ever recover. But Williams had never taken
losing easily. "Every month I called Ted and told him what the
bill was," Dowd says. "And he'd say, 'I don't care. Whip his
ass.'" The final legal tab was $1.6 million. Williams won the
suit but has received no money from Antonucci, who was
subsequently convicted of grand theft and now sits in jail on
the Florida panhandle.
In 1990 John-Henry, then studying business at the University of
Maine, got the idea of selling a T-shirt commemorating the 50th
anniversary of Ted's .406. "He said no way," John-Henry says.
"He didn't trust me, a kid, at all." Two of Ted's friends wore
him down, however, and the success of the T-shirt helped bring
Ted and John-Henry closer together and resulted in the creation
of Grand Slam Marketing, a family clearinghouse for Ted Williams
photos, autographs, jerseys and a CD-ROM biography, all presided
over by John-Henry. His task? "Protection," he says. "A buffer
so that someone else isn't handling the money, so that another
Antonucci problem doesn't come up."
There have been problems anyway. John-Henry ran into serious
legal trouble when, after Ted had signed an exclusive
three-year, $2 million contract with Upper Deck Authenticated in
'92, John-Henry and Grand Slam started the Ted Williams Card
Company, a direct competitor. The two sides sued each other:
John-Henry claimed that certain Williams cards released by Upper
Deck were unauthorized, and Upper Deck claimed that John-Henry
had tried to break Ted's contract. According to Upper Deck
communications director Camron Bussard, John-Henry said Ted was
unable to sign just after his third stroke, in 1994, and "then
Ted would sign for Grand Slam Marketing and appear at shows."
The two sides settled out of court in April 1995, and Ted
honored the rest of his Upper Deck contract. Later that year the
Ted Williams Card Company was dissolved.
After the '94 stroke John-Henry closed the Ted Williams Store he
had opened 1 1/2 years earlier in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and
moved to Florida to care for his father. There John-Henry became
the buffer against the outside world that he and Ted wanted him
to be. "I still make mistakes," John-Henry says. After five
years he still doesn't feel he has his father's total
confidence. "But I'm his son," John-Henry says, "and I don't
know when you ever beat that."
Some of Ted's current and former associates, including Dowd,
don't like the new arrangement. There was a time when any of
Ted's pals could go to Ted with a project, a favor to ask, a
call to make. No more. "Every project has to go through
John-Henry," says one friend of Ted's, who requested anonymity.
"Every time you make a move, John-Henry says, 'How much?'"
John-Henry and Ted have heard that before, have read anonymous
quotes saying Ted signs autographs all day. The fact is, Ted
says, he spends most of his time in physical therapy and
watching CNN. He signs 30 to 40 items twice a week--if that. "He
doesn't make me sign any more than I feel like signing," Ted
says. "I just decide: Boom! And that's it. John-Henry's been a
helluva guy and a helluva son. He's smart, and he's honest, and
of course he thinks, Jee-sus, Ted Williams is really something."
John-Henry makes no apology for liking the things that money
brings. He shows off his top-of-the-line BMW and his souped-up
Porsche. And he no longer worries much about what people say of
him. Not long ago he read that someone had said he would be
handsome if he didn't have dollar signs in his eyes. So he took
two pieces of adhesive note paper, drew dollar signs on them and
stuck them to his eyelids. He smiled wide. Someone took a picture.
The hands that launched 2,654 major league hits, the hands that
guided the stick of a bullet-pocked F-9 Panther as it screamed
out of the Korean sky on its way to a crash landing, the hands
that made Ted Williams the only man to be enshrined in both the
baseball and the fishing halls of fame, hover over a photograph.
"Where?" Williams asks, narrowing his eyes. The color picture
shows Williams and Ruth in 1942. Brothers points to a spot just
above Williams's 23-year-old chest.
"Right here?" Williams says. He lays his left hand on the photo
and, with his right hand, firmly scripts his name across the
gloss. He pushes the picture aside, signs another of the same
scene. Then another. Five hundred dollars for the signature,
$750 for a personal message. He leaves four fingerprints on each
photo, right next to his 23-year-old knee.
"I'm doing all right," Williams says. "I feel right enough most
of the time, but I can't sign for hours like I did." He squints
hard. The other day he stayed too long in a hot shower
("Shampooed the hell out of my hair!" he says) and emerged dizzy
and weak. "But, jeez," he says, "I guess I'm lucky to be able to
sign at all."
Here is Ted Williams, rounding third. The first epoch of his
public life began with the Red Sox in 1939 and ended 21 years
and 521 home runs later as he stood on second base during a
midseason game, noticed how far away third base seemed and
thought, I'm done. He quit playing at the end of that year. In
the second epoch he learned how to live without baseball, trying
his hand as a big league manager but pouring his heart into
becoming one of the world's best fishermen; for two generations
he seemed, with his three broken marriages and his fishing-shack
sensibility, the prime example of what used to be called "a
man's man." Today, for some people, Ted Williams is but a
signature on a photo, a collection of squiggles and dots to be
bought and sold, the price rising every time he falls ill and
expected to skyrocket the day he dies.
The big news for collectors is that he will be signing for the
public during the 500 Home Run Hitters Show at the Tropicana
Hotel in Atlantic City from Nov. 22 to 24. Of the 11 living
500-home-run hitters, all of whom are scheduled to be there,
Williams will get the most for each signature. He hasn't done a
large autograph show since 1991. This will probably be his last.
Yet, even though his body is breaking down, there is a rare
vitality to Williams. His mind and competitive zeal remain
sharp. Earlier this year Hamon was discussing the .400 hitters'
display in Williams's museum, and Williams asked innocently, "We
got DiMaggio's bat coming in?" Hamon fell for it and said, "Joe
DiMaggio never hit .400," and Williams grinned, spat on his
fingertips and shined them up nice on his lapel.
He was never cuddly. In his playing days he was called Terrible
Ted as much as he was called the Splendid Splinter. Disgusted by
a home crowd that jeered and cheered him in the same inning of a
game between the Red Sox and the Yankees in 1956, Williams
trotted in toward the dugout spitting toward both the left- and
rightfield stands. Then, to make sure everyone got the message,
he stepped back out of the dugout and spit again. As he retells
the story--as he feels that moment, that crowd--he begins to
"I have compassion for Roberto Alomar," he says, his voice
starting to rise as he refers to Alomar's spitting at umpire
John Hirschbeck in September. "I know how upset you can get at a
certain thing, and I was so upset!" His face twists, his mouth
gapes to reveal a pair of incisors worn to nubs. "I had dropped
a fly ball. Just as I started looking up to get the fly ball,
bases loaded, a goddam raindrop came down, you know? And I lost
just a little bit of the ball, and it hit my glove and bounced
out. Well, I really got booed. Boy, I can understand how a guy
can get so pissed. He hears that boo, boy, he wants to crack the
goddam bark off!
"All those things happened to me because I wasn't doin' as good
as I should, or they didn't think I was tryin'." He pauses, and
when he speaks again his voice is quaking. "God almighty, was I
tryin'. But I was a long, skinny guy, couldn't run. If you can
run good, they all think you're a hustler. Well, crap, not
everybody can run. I think every day about it: God, do I wish I
could've run. They bring in that guy, Rickey Henderson. Christ!
I wish I'd had wheels like that. I just close my eyes and say to
myself, Oh, boy."
Even now he maintains a touch of innocence. He's thrilled by
anything new, curious with the intensity of someone who, having
missed out on college, has an autodidact's respect for
knowledge, books, information. What's going to happen in the
Middle East? Is Penn State going to win? Who's the greatest man
of the century? Yes, the ball is juiced, but, Williams says,
"there's as much talent in the big leagues today as there's ever
been. I see plays in the outfield I have never seen before." He
doesn't stop with baseball. "What do you think of that Agassi?
You know who's done more for tennis in the last 15 years? Bud
Collins. You know he used to chew me out in the goddam papers? I
hated the little bastard. But he knows what he's talking about,
no question! He should be the commissioner of tennis! You tell
It's that odd, outsized passion, as much as his .344 lifetime
average and his 4 1/2 years of service in World War II and
Korea, that always made Williams larger than life. So big that
four U.S. presidents--Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan
and George Bush--speak of him on tape at his museum. So big that
Boston just named a tunnel after him. Unlike DiMaggio, who
carried himself with Olympian reserve, Williams was all too
human, radiating flaws and ambition. Bats flew into the stands,
fishing rods splintered and sank. "He always wanted to be
perfect," says Florida Keys fishing guide George Hommell. "And
when he wasn't, he'd get mad."
His wars with the Boston fans and media so scarred Williams that
he refused to tip his hat after homering in his final at bat, in
Boston in 1960. But in time this denial took on power, became a
strange symbol of integrity, of one man's insistence on
remaining true to himself. How else to explain why a
thirtysomething candidate for sheriff in Massachusetts goes all
the way to Florida to seek Williams's blessing? How else to
explain why, in 1988, Bush asked Williams to campaign for him
during the New Hampshire primary? The two hit a fishing show in
Manchester, and, Bush says, "I might as well not have existed."
"Ted would bring out these tremendous crowds," says Hommell, who
accompanied Bush and Williams on those campaign stops. "In that
area Ted is God. After all these years, it's still the same."
So is he. When Williams began rehabilitation from his stroke in
March 1994, he met a 17-year-old girl named Tricia Miranti from
nearby Inverness, Fla. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of
five because of a brain aneurysm, Tricia had a lively manner and
a roaring laugh that struck a deep nerve in Williams. He is
famous for his charity work, but when he is with Tricia, he
shows a tenderness few people ever see. "If you could explain
love, that would be it," says Tricia's mother, Vicki.
"Have you met her?" Williams says of Tricia. "Didn't you think
she was special?"
For a while Williams visited Tricia on weekends, but that wasn't
enough. He made calls that helped her get into college; he has
arranged weekly training sessions for her with his personal
trainer, at his expense. All this took Vicki by surprise. "Close
friends of ours would say, 'We see him on the golf course, and
he's always very abrupt and very rude,'" she says, "but they
haven't seen the side we've seen."
When people hear of Tricia's relationship with Williams, they
ask her to get his autograph for them. She refuses. "I don't see
Ted Williams," Tricia says. "I just see him. As he is." He will
sit by as she works out in his pool, suggest new exercises and
goad her to try harder. Since Tricia began working with
Williams's trainer, she has been able to do more assisted
walking than doctors thought she ever would. This has given her
a confidence she didn't have before. "It has made me want more,"
Tricia says. "Anything is possible."
Wanting, however, isn't good enough for Williams. "Oh, Christ,"
he says, eyes tearing up. "I look at her and I damn near cry
every time. I look at her and I say to myself, Oh, God, I wish I
could do more." When he gets tired of wishing, he gets
mad--"angry at life," Vicki says. Angry at fate, at God.
Williams isn't happy with God. At an age when most men make
peace with their maker, Williams rages. While Tricia splashes,
he looks up at the sky and demands to know why she should
suffer, and when he gets no answer, he curses God. As for
himself, Williams scratches the belly of 10-year-old Slugger and
snaps his eyes upward to make just one snarling request: "I
absolutely pray to that ---- Jesus Christ that I die before my
There was a moment, just a sliver of time, when John-Henry
Williams had a taste of what his father knew as a hitter. It was
in late winter 1989, and John-Henry had left the University of
Maine against Ted's wishes to give baseball one serious shot, in
a semipro league in California: three games a week and all the
batting practice you could ask for. "I was hammering baseballs,
300 a day," John-Henry says. "I'm in Fresno, and I'm hitting off
a batting machine cranked to the max, 105, 106 miles per hour.
Dad talks in books about how your blisters start bleeding? I
knew what that was like. And how you start smelling leather
burning off the bat? I knew what that was like. You know, it's
all timing...and ooh, I was sooo strong. I was hitting the ball
so good. Crushing it."
John-Henry got a tryout as a first baseman with the Toronto Blue
Jays, but it went nowhere. He could hit some, but he hadn't
played much in high school or at Maine. When it was his turn to
hit for the Blue Jays scouts, he was so jacked up that he nearly
fell over. "The first one came in, and I swung and finished my
swing before the ball ever got there," he says. "It was sooo
slow. The next one, I did the exact same thing."
And that was that. It hurt some, but not as much as you might
think, because John-Henry didn't love baseball. He was born
eight years after his father stopped playing, and he didn't
follow the Red Sox growing up. His mother liked it that way.
Already twice divorced, Ted had met Dolores Wettach, a former
Vogue model, on a flight to San Francisco in the early 1960s.
They married, and for six years they fished and hunted together
and argued, Dolores giving as good as she got. She moved away to
a 60-acre spread in Vermont when John-Henry was six and his
sister, Claudia, was three. Dolores, not Ted, taught John-Henry
and Claudia how to fly cast.
"My mother loves my dad," says Claudia, 25, "but when she
married Ted Williams, she married baseball, she married the
fans, she married everything else. She couldn't deal with it. No
one can deal with it. Don't tell me there's a famous
relationship out there that works. My mom saw what was
happening, saw how it would affect John-Henry and me--and she
took us away."
John-Henry says it didn't faze him, growing up without his dad.
He would see Ted once a year, talk to him on the phone in
between. Not until high school did he begin spending summers
with Ted. Still, if John-Henry struck out in Little League, it
was cause for celebration among his opponents; if he got a hit,
well, He's Williams's kid, whaddya expect? He tried to shrug it
Claudia was different. She wanted no one to know who her father
was. She applied to one top private college three times without
success; when Ted found out, he made some calls, and all of a
sudden the dean was on the phone, welcoming her to the school.
Claudia told him no thanks. All the money Ted gave her is in a
bank account, ready for her to give back. She is an English
teacher in Weilheim, Germany. She competes in triathlons, happy
that almost no one in Germany cares about baseball. "Whatever
was there that represented Ted Williams, I went the opposite
way," Claudia says. "Not out of resentment. I was determined to
have people know I am Claudia, not the daughter of...."
Ted suffered his first stroke in December 1991. It took a
quarter of his vision. He bounced back, and doctors later found
that he'd had a second stroke without knowing it. But the 1994
stroke changed everything. Williams had just taken a shower and
toweled off. A blood clot broke out of his heart and floated to
the right side of his brain, numbing his left side and wiping
out another 50% of his eyesight. "I had my shorts and my T-shirt
on the bed, and I started to reach for my shorts," Williams
says. "Jeez, I get down on my knees, then I'm lying on the bed,
and I couldn't move. Finally I got my shorts, crawled and got my
shirt. But I couldn't do anything else."
John-Henry was handling Ted's business affairs from Boston then,
and when he got to the hospital in Florida the next day, he was
horrified. Ted was blind. John-Henry moved down, took charge of
Ted's care. He changed Ted's diet, cut out fats and alcohol,
yanked him out of bed when he cursed and said he didn't want to
exercise. John-Henry took showers with Ted to make sure he
didn't fall, escorted Ted to the bathroom, clipped his toenails.
"He has taken a lot of hits," says Brothers, "but how many kids,
no matter who their father was, would drop their lives and move
1,500 miles to take care of him? John-Henry did."
Brothers is right. John-Henry has taken hits for his
inexperience, his demeanor, his supposed motivation. But two
facts are indisputable: Before John-Henry's arrival, Ted was
vulnerable to criminals such as Antonucci, unsure of whom to
trust. He isn't anymore. More important, because of his son, Ted
has gained one of life's fabled rarities: a new lease. "If it
wasn't for John-Henry," says longtime family friend Al Cassidy
Jr., "Ted would be dead right now."
It wasn't easy, making room for each other. There have been
arguments, the two men blowing up, neither backing down, phones
slamming in midsentence. Meanwhile, Ted's blindness has been
partly reversed, but he has had other setbacks. When he broke
his shoulder two years ago, he sank into self-pity. "I was
concerned it was the beginning of a downward spiral," says
Williams's cardiologist, Rick Kerensky. "I thought we might lose
him. But there's been an amazing turnaround since then."
Everybody has a theory about the turnaround: It's Tricia or
exercise or will or all of those. Maybe it's luck. Ted has his
own idea. "I could not have done it without John-Henry," he
says. "Could not."
Claudia has flown back repeatedly from Germany. "I've seen my
dad more in the last three years than in my whole life," she
says. "The type of person Dad is now is the type of father we've
always needed. Too bad it's now. Who knows how long it's going
to last? At least we've got him all to ourselves. He's my dad
Ted has a daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Joyce, whom
he doesn't see as often. "Had any kids?" he asks a visitor.
"They can be the most disappointing part of your life, but they
can be an awfully joyful part, too."
"He's discovering something brand spanking new: two kids," says
Williams's old friend Bob Franzoni. "That's one reason he's so
happy. He's got another life to look forward to."
Saturday morning. A fishing show is on ESPN, and Brothers is
serving up a hot breakfast, eggs and turkey sausage. Ted and
John-Henry sit at the kitchen table, trying to figure out the
fish on the screen. "That's a salmon, I think," Ted says. "No!"
he shouts. "It's a big brook trout! No, it might be a salmon,
Ted stayed up last night to watch the baseball playoffs, but as
usual he steers the conversation all over the map: Nixon's
funeral, President Clinton's tribute to Nixon, Gen. Douglas
MacArthur's handling of Japan. "The greatest idol in my life,"
Williams says of MacArthur. "He signed a picture for me."
John-Henry has moved from the table, out of Ted's sight line,
and Ted yells, "How would you like to have a sister, three years
younger than you are, weighs 135 to your 195--and there's no way
you can beat her? She swims 1,000 yards, what the hell, let's
go! He's disappeared already, eh?" Ted turns his torso left,
cranes his neck, finds his son. "He's hiding behind the door,
for Christ's sake. Where's Claudia?"
"She's at my house," John-Henry says.
"Boy, you hide when the news starts spreading," Ted says.
"Just listening to you sling it."
Sometimes Ted closes his eyes, and his mind conjures up the
pitchers he beat and the ones who beat him long ago. He sees the
ball pulled cleanly to right. But more and more he is haunted by
visions of his happiest moments, alone with a line and a stream.
"I dream of bonefish, I dream of salmon," he says. "I dream of
casting for them, I dream of the beautiful spots I've been. And
then I dream of some of the fish I've lost."
He speaks about his refuge on the Miramichi River in New
Brunswick, Canada, and about spending hours tying thousands of
flies and about the throat-catching moment after you've cast the
fly and played the fish and you feel the hook dig in. Talking
about fishing is not like talking about baseball or politics or
history. No, Williams calls what he did in the water "a
privilege" and lowers his voice as if describing something holy.
And he keeps coming back to the same fish, that 35-pound salmon
he hooked 3 1/2 years ago on Quebec's Cascapedia River. It was
the middle of the day. "Jeez, what a place!" he says. "Only
kings and presidents and big shots and billionaires get to fish
It was as big a salmon as he ever fought. "I made a helluva good
cast because I was in kind of a narrow spot, and I was picking
at it," he says. His hand slices back and forth across the
kitchen table as if it were the surface of the river. His face
is alight. "Picking at it this way, and I'm shootin' it that
way! I was casting 60, 70 feet--a dry fly--and he took it."
Williams leans forward, sets his feet and bears down. His face
reddens. "And I fought him," he growls. His voice drops, goes
soft as goose down. "And I fought him a little harder. And I
fought him really hard. I'm thinking, Jeez, I can't bring this
fish home, and I'm really flossing it to him, see! And it's a
deep little run there. He was down maybe 10 feet, and I couldn't
see him...and I'm really lifting him up! Ummmmph!" He has an
invisible fly rod in his hands, and he's trying like hell to
pull the fish up through the kitchen floor, his face screwed up
from the strain.
"And then I let go," he says. The invisible rod drops. He crooks
a finger in his mouth and tugs. "I had hooked him on this big,
dry single hook, and I was just pulling him too hard! I tried
the hard pull and he didn't break, so with a good bend I dragged
him right up, and the hook pulled out just as he came out of the
water." The salmon dropped with a splash. Gone.
It's over. Ted Williams comes back to himself, to a chair in a
kitchen, with a fish show on TV. "I didn't get him," he says.
"I'll always remember that moment when I close my eyes." He is
asked to name the river again, and he repeats it: Cascapedia.
"The closest place to heaven I'll be," he says. "I know that."