America's Past Time

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

Williams's achievements, however stunning, did not make him a beloved figure in his adopted hometown. Just the opposite. The more brilliantly he performed for the mediocre Red Sox (mediocre because for most of Williams's career the team lacked adequate pitching), the more the Boston faithful resented his personal triumphs. Williams responded in kind. After his second season, when Red Sox fans greeted the young player's temporary hitting slump with boos, Williams never again tipped his cap. Later in his career he took to spitting over his shoulder while trotting around the bases after a home run, a measured response to what he considered the fans' hypocritical applause. He rained profanities on the legion of sportswriters who tore him down one day only to write glowingly of him the next. More and more he withdrew until it appeared he was playing only for himself, driven by some secret dissatisfaction he would never be able to fully communicate or exorcise.

Despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- the numbers piled up. By 1960, his final season, the Kid arguably had made good on his youthful boast to become the greatest hitter who ever lived. At the time of his retirement, only five players in history had hit for a higher lifetime batting average, and only two players had ever slammed more career home runs. No man ranked as high as Williams in both categories.

And certainly no player would ever make a more dramatic exit from the game. In his final trip to the batter's box, on an overcast late-September afternoon, the still-exceptional 42-year-old hitter drilled a ball into the right-field stands of Boston's Fenway Park for a home run. The 10,000 or so spectators, realizing they would never have another chance to salute him, erupted.

George Hommell (above) looks back on good times with the Kid (below)
Steve Satterwhite
George Hommell (above) looks back on good times with the Kid (below)
Gary Ellis says Williams could be salty at sea
Courtesy of RedBone journal
Gary Ellis says Williams could be salty at sea

They stood, and in the words of writer John Updike, who was there that day, "thumped, wept, and chanted, We want Ted!'" long after he had rounded the bases and disappeared into the dugout. Williams, keeping the promise he had made to himself twenty years earlier, refused to acknowledge the crowd.

"When Ted came down at the end of the Fifties," remembers George Hommell, founder of World Wide Sportsman, Islamorada's largest supplier of sporting equipment, "there weren't that many people, not that many boats." Hommell, who sold his interest in World Wide to Bass Pro Shops a few years ago and now works as the store's general manager, wears a teal polo adorned with the World Wide logo and a pair of khakis. At the mention of Ted Williams's name, a broad smile swims across his face. "Ted," recalls Hommell, "used to say he was the greatest fisherman ever. If you disagreed with him, he'd ask you to name a better one. One day this sportswriter replies God,' and Ted says to him, Yeah, maybe. But you had to go back a hell of a long way.'"

Williams brought to bear on fishing the same scientific approach he'd mastered in baseball. "Ted was more of an intense angler than people may have realized," says Gary Ellis, sitting in his office at the Redbone Gallery, a nonprofit organization he runs to raise funds for cystic fibrosis research. The 63-year-old guide first went fishing with Williams in the early Seventies. "He was very scientific," recalls Ellis. "If you handed him fishing line, he could tell you the elasticity." Fishing with the perfectionist Williams, the guide admits, was often challenging, and not just because the fish might not be biting that day. "Ted didn't tolerate much from anybody if he didn't know him or like him," says Ellis.

Stories of Williams's temper are as plentiful as the bougainvillea that grows throughout the Upper Keys. Hommell, still one of the area's most respected guides, recalls an encounter he had with Williams while out fishing with a female tourist from England. The woman hooked a tarpon, but the fish broke off. Williams, fishing nearby, had his companion Jack Brothers pull their boat next to Hommell's. "Miss, I think you let that fish get out a little too far," said the ballplayer-turned-fisherman, angling for a dig.

A few minutes later, though, Williams hooked a tarpon, only to lose it. The woman, seeing this, recited Williams's line back to him. "Mr. Williams," she said, "I think you let that fish get out a little too far." The Splinter's reaction, according to Hommell, was classic Williams. "He broke the rod over his leg, cranked the motor, and went home," laughs the old fisherman. "He got out of there so fast he almost threw Brothers overboard."

Stu Apte's favorite Williams fishing story also ends with a tirade. "We were fishing near my house in Little Torch Key around 1960," recalls Apte. "The water was too shallow, so I cut the motor on the boat. I can still hear Ted: Well, hell, we were out there yesterday.' He made me go, but I told him if we got stuck, he'd push." Apte smiles because he knows how the story ends. "Well, we got stuck and he cussed up a storm pushing that boat out of the mud."

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