America's Past Time

Where have you gone, Ted Williams? Islamorada turns its eyes to you

The sun is setting in Islamorada. At the Lor-e-lei, a bar and marina popular with locals and tourists alike, a television set carries the evening telecast of ESPN's Sportscenter. "Hey, Timmy," yells a middle-age man wearing a cap, sunglasses, and a deep tan. "The Yankees looked good today, huh?" The world champions earlier in the afternoon had defeated the Boston Red Sox, and in the process shaved a few points off Boston slugger Manny Ramirez's gaudy, early-season .414 batting average.

"Yeah," remarks Timmy's friend a few moments later, watching a highlight of Ramirez being thrown out by a step at first base, "it's tough to hit .400."

Neither man mentions that it is exactly 60 years since a player has finished a season with a batting average of .400 or better. Or that the last hitter to do it also played for the Boston Red Sox. Or for that matter that he once lived half a block from where they sit. Most visitors don't know those facts. Long-time residents know them so well they hardly seem worth repeating.

Fishing legend Stu Apte has collected his share of trophies and memories
Courtesy of RedBone journal
Fishing legend Stu Apte has collected his share of trophies and memories

In 1941 Ted Williams hit an astonishing .406. Almost twenty years later, his remarkable career behind him, he fled to the Florida Keys in pursuit of fertile fishing waters and something more elusive than .400. He went looking for his place in the world. He found it. Then the tourists arrived.

Now living near the Gulf Coast of Florida, Williams, weakened by two strokes, kidney failure, and multiple surgeries, clings to life as doggedly as his old friends in Islamorada cling to the frontier ethic Williams once embodied.

The stretch of U.S. 1 that runs through Islamorada provides a virtual history lesson of the area's development from post-World War II fishing village to present-day resort center. Vintage Fifties motels advertising the barest of amenities ("AC! TV!") are sandwiched between modern time-share condos, big chain hotels, and sprawling spas offering guests a sliver of private beachfront. Mom-and-pop tackle shops are dwarfed by one-stop shopping complexes featuring not just fishing supplies but restaurants, souvenir shops, and mega tiki bars, all catering to the approximately 1.7 million tourists who every year visit or drive through this town of roughly 7000 residents.

Manny and Isa's Kitchen, like the Lor-e-lei, is a holdover from the old days, when area businesses relied primarily on the locals for patronage. Manny and Isa Ortiz, both Cuban, met in Islamorada in the late Fifties. They opened their first restaurant in 1965. "Ted Williams," says Isa, remembering one of her earliest customers, "is a beautiful person. He brought us a lot of business. They tell me that when he'd get in from fishing in the afternoon, he'd look around and say, Let's go to Manny and Isa's and get a Cuban sandwich!'"

On the walls are a couple of "fishing with Ted" articles from the Sixties, one from Sports Illustrated, the other from the Miami Herald. Both mention the restaurant. A black-and-white photo of Williams, the proud fisherman standing alongside his enormous catch, adorns the wall directly in front of the door. It is the only picture of Williams in the place. "Customers over the years have walked off with all of my framed photos of Ted," sighs Isa, looking up at the eight-by-ten. It is unlikely she means regular customers. People, for obvious reasons, rarely steal from an establishment they frequent.

In the photo Williams, in his late forties at the time, wears a white T-shirt, a pair of khaki shorts, and white tennis shoes. Aviator-style sunglasses hang from his shirt, exaggerating the dip of the V-neck. The lean, almost gangly physique of his early playing days, the one that earned him the nickname "The Splendid Splinter," is long gone. He is noticeably thicker, especially around the middle, but, with his curly black hair and striking Welsh-French-Mexican features, he remains undeniably handsome.

Williams's understated smile suggests that, as on the baseball field, the source of his satisfaction is not public recognition but the private joy derived from a thing well done. Triumphant and slightly detached, Williams looks like he just might have stepped out of an Ernest Hemingway novel. Or into one.

Specifically The Old Man and the Sea, in which a Cuban fisherman named Santiago hooks a giant marlin, then fights him day and night, telling himself that even "the great DiMaggio," the legendary Yankee center fielder, would have to applaud his tenacity. Santiago is the story's lonely protagonist, Joe DiMaggio its mythic hero.

There was always a touch of irony in Hemingway casting DiMaggio, and not Williams (who, after all, was DiMaggio's most notable contemporary), as the old man's inspiration. In real life the ever-dapper DiMaggio associated the smell of fish with the life he had escaped, with the long hours for little pay endured by his father, an Italian immigrant fisherman in San Francisco. True, Hemingway's selection of DiMaggio had more to do with the Yankees star's exploits on the baseball diamond, the myriad feats performed in front of 50,000 or more spectators that to the writer represented the ideal of "grace under pressure." But DiMaggio, for all his greatness, never hit .400. Nor, for that matter, did he fly combat missions during the Korean War. Or did he ever, as Hemingway himself might have put it, fight a really big fish.

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