By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Ted Williams did. Which is why, in Islamorada, it is the Splinter, not DiMaggio, of whom the old men still speak. To them, Williams -- independent, accomplished, solitary to the point of misanthropy -- was the archetypal American male. Since he never suffered fools, spectators, or tourists, he remains something else besides: patron saint to Islamorada's besieged locals.
"That's still the biggest sailfish ever caught on fly line," says Stu Apte, admiring the 136-pound, electric-blue beauty stuffed and mounted on the living-room wall of his Plantation Key home. "I caught a bigger one recently," he adds matter-of-factly, "but I don't kill them anymore."
The 71-year-old Apte is a legend among sportfishermen. His home, located directly on an inlet, is a shrine to serious angling. A bill formerly belonging to a 1000-pound marlin sits on a pedestal in a corner of the living room. Photos, awards, and citations -- testimony to the 44 world records Apte at one time or another has held -- dangle from the walls like colorful lures.
And it was Ted Williams, Apte says, who taught him many of the finer points of the sport. "I met Ted in 1949," remembers Apte, then a student at the University of Miami. "I was fishing for snook off the Tamiami Trail near the Everglades and decided to pack up for the day. Driving back in my car I see this big dude throwing a fly line. He looked like he knew what he was doing, so I stopped to talk with him."
The exchange that followed was brief. "Had any luck?" Apte inquired. "Well, Bush," said the six-foot three-inch stranger, barely bothering to turn around, "not too much." Bush was short for bush leaguer, baseball slang for a minor-league player. But still Apte did not recognize Williams, who only a few months earlier had collected his fourth American League batting title and was in the prime of his career. "He told me his name was Ted," says Apte, shrugging his shoulders. "I wasn't a baseball fan."
The 30-year-old Boston Red Sox star and the 19-year-old fishing champion-to-be struck up a fast friendship. And mentorship. "He browbeat me into learning to pole-tow a boat," laughs Apte. "He taught me a lot, always calling me “Bush.' I knew I'd finally arrived as a fisherman when he called me “Stu.'"
Eventually the two men became long-distance neighbors in the Florida Keys. Apte moved to Little Torch Key in the late Fifties during a temporary layoff from Pan American Airways, for whom he worked as a pilot. Williams moved to Islamorada for good following his retirement from baseball in 1960. The two men often fished together.
How good a fisherman was Williams? "For my money," says Apte, "Ted was one of the top ten overall anglers in the world. He was a perfectionist. People say he was difficult, but then, so am I. If you're a fighter pilot [as both Apte and Williams were during the Korean War] and you're not a perfectionist, you're dead."
In retrospect it should come as no surprise that Williams became so accomplished a fisherman. Sportfishing, like hitting, is a lonely, challenging pursuit. And for most of his twenty-year playing career, there appeared to be no lonelier or more driven figure in baseball than Ted Williams.
"All I want out of life," the young San Diego native announced upon his arrival in Boston in 1939, "is to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" For Williams desire became obsession. During the season he would routinely sit in his hotel room for an entire day before a big game, thinking about the opposing pitcher, running through every possible sequence of pitches he was likely to see. In the winter he would sit at home with his bats, methodically sanding and oiling them.
The scientific approach extended to the field. Williams's sense of spatial relations on the diamond was so finely tuned that once, after being called out on strikes, he complained that the pitching mound and home plate were not properly aligned. The next day, to appease his still-brooding star, Williams's manager measured the distance between the mound and the plate. The plate was off slightly.
Williams's stubbornness was matched only by pride. Going into the final day of the 1941 season, the 23-year-old outfielder was batting an incredible .3996. If the Kid, as he was called by sportswriters and fans, had declined to play that day, his average would have been rounded up to the magic mark of .400. (Only a handful of players had achieved the distinction in the modern era.) Williams, though, refused to take immortality sitting down. Instead he played both games of a double-header, registering six hits in eight at-bats and propelling his final season average to .406.
He would eventually lead the American League in batting average a total of six seasons, two of those seasons winning baseball's "triple crown," pacing the league not only in average but runs batted in and home runs as well. (By comparison there has been no triple crown winner in baseball since 1967, and only one other player besides Williams performed the feat twice.)