In the eyes of many baseball historians, Ted Williams was the purest hitter ever to play the game. Williams, who patrolled Fenway Park’s left field for the Boston Red Sox from 1939 to 1960 with patrician arrogance, was the last major leaguer to hit.400, a feat he achieved in 1941 when his average was .406.
Life off the field for the Hall of Famer was less successful. His three marriages ended in divorce. After the 1973 split from his third wife, Dolores, he had, until recently, little contact with his son, John Henry, 26, and younger daughter Claudia, 24. And he was devastated when his companion of two decades, Louise Kaufman, died in August 1993.
Now, at 76, the “Splendid Splinter” (a nickname given the 6’3″ Williams when he was a gangly rookie) faces his own serious challenge. Starting in December 1991, Williams suffered a series of strokes; the third and most severe occurred a year ago, leaving the man with the most storied hand-to-eye coordination in baseball with limited peripheral vision and significant weakness on his left side.
Williams’s troubles could have been a blow to his psyche as well as to his body, for he had remained active well into his early 70s. Nine years after retiring as a player in 1960, he managed the Washington Senators for two seasons and their successor, the Texas Rangers, for one. He then worked as a spring-training batting instructor for the Red Sox. Over the last 35 years he has won renown as one of Florida’s most celebrated fishermen. And last month he presided over the induction of 20 players into the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame near his Hernando, Fla., home. He still shows flashes of that famous irascibility that used to terrorize sportswriters during his playing days. ‘For the last two years I haven’t even been to a ballpark—I have to catch games on TV, and then the sonofabitches go and have a strike, “says Williams, whose top salary was $125,000 a year. “I’m so sad about it,” he adds, “they’ve hurt baseball. “But on the day correspondent Don Sider visited him at his slate-roofed hilltop house, Williams was in great spirits, eager to talk about his rehabilitation and his desire to fish again.
I SHOULD HAVE REALIZED THAT I was maybe running into problems, because I wasn’t enjoying things near as much. Before the latest stroke, I had just gone on a nice trip with two of my three kids, and I did have a good time, but not as good a time as I should have had. We were driving up the Pacific Coast in a nice big Lincoln. Neither Claudia nor John Henry had been there before. And we’re eating crab, we’re eating tuna and swordfish all the way, and we’re going to see the seals in this place beneath a mountain. I was thinking about it the other day. I just didn’t realize: “Gee, what a wonderful thing to be taking this trip with my kids!” This trouble I’m having puts a lot of things in life a little more in perspective.
I can’t tell you exactly how bad I was when I had my last stroke, because I don’t remember things as well as I used to. But I know I’m getting along. I remember the first time my doctors told me, “Get out of bed and go to your closet and see if you can get a pair of pants.” It was like I was lost. I couldn’t do it. Tie my shoes? I couldn’t do it. Walk a block? I couldn’t have done it.
My day now is about 20 percent of my usual lifestyle in the last 25 or 35 years. I can’t run and I can’t drive, and so my life has been curtailed quite a bit. I am helped out by my son and several close friends. When I had my third stroke, I had to sleep all the time. I still don’t sleep quite as sound as I used to. But my appetite’s still pretty good. I don’t eat as heavy a meal, but, gee whiz, I eat a lot. Also I’m getting around better. Now I know I could go right out there—I’d take my cane with me just in case I needed balance—and walk a half-mile. I’d be tired, but I know I could do it. I’m getting so darned much better that I can’t moan and groan about anything, really, except not being able to drive or fish like I used to.
Sure, you get angry and frustrated and depressed. I think everybody does. It takes a certain amount of determination to come back from this. When you’re hurt, you know, the thing that bothers you the most is that you can’t do what you’re capable of doing. But I’ve had wonderful care, and, Jesus, I’ve worked hard trying to rehabilitate.
I go to Angstrom’s [Physical Rehabilitation Network clinic] over in Ocala, about 10 miles from here. I go three days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then, a couple afternoons I have my own private guy, Mark Esser, who comes to my house and works with me on weight machines. I have a treadmill and a rowing machine. And I do knee bends that are very beneficial. I do exercises with about 7½ pounds on my legs. And that’s tiring. My arms have stayed pretty strong, but my legs get a little wobbly once in a while.
At Angstrom’s I have speech therapy and occupational therapy. The occupational therapy is just doing daily routines, playing checkers or putting some puzzles together. Surprisingly, they’re easy, but they’ll still confuse you a little bit. In speech therapy we practice reading, writing and conversation.
The other patients at Angstrom’s are a hell of a stimulant. I play checkers with some of the kids, and when they beat me, oh boy, they think that’s great! I’m just in love with a couple of little boys over there who I gave baseball cards to. You’d think you were giving them gold or hundred dollar bills. And then there’s one little girl: She had a very serious operation that didn’t work out quite as well as they wanted. But she’s still pretty damn smart, and she wants to be a lawyer. And when you’re talking to her, she looks and listens so intently, it just breaks you up. I just can’t wait to see her today.
I think you get an awful lot from the people around you. And I try to relay that support to others. I’ll see an old guy in a chair and his wife is pushing him, and I’ll ask, “How you getting along?” And he’ll say, “Oh, pretty good.” I’ll say, “I want to tell you, right from the heart, the harder I work, the more I do, I feel better.” That’s the secret of rehabilitating. Yup, hard work.
As my vision goes, the doctors say I’m going to have to get by with what I’ve got. I can see everybody fine. But I’ve got to focus in. I can see a baseball swing on TV and I can still tell whether a hitter looks good or not. The problem is I don’t read very well. I’ll read across the page, and I’ll get to the end of the line. But I may not be able to get back to the start of the next line. So there’s no continuity to what the hell I’m reading.
Actually I think my eyesight is coming back a little bit. I know that guy over there [Williams gestures toward a fish mounted on one wall] is the greatest game fish, a bonefish. But nowadays I’ve got to have better light for just about anything I do.
Surprisingly, though I’ve lived here in this house four or five years, I’ll sometimes get lost. So every hallway that’s important is marked with a number 9 [Williams’s uniform number]: 9 to the bathroom, 9 to the living room, 9 to my bedroom. Little things like that help me navigate.
My biggest goal right now is to take a trip where I can enjoy the countryside and get to where I can fish regularly again. I just spoke with Sammy Lee, one of the great bass fishermen of all time. He told me about all the smallmouth they were catching on Lake St. Clair [above Detroit]. When I talk with guys like Sammy, I get excited. But I have to temper myself down and say, “I know I can’t do that right now.”
Still, I realize how lucky I am. I see so many people that are a hell of a lot worse off than I, so I don’t pity myself. I am walking around and I can see pretty good, and I can have fun and, well, you know, I’m getting there.