America's Past Time

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

"Ted could string expletives together to the point of poetry," claims Ellis. "He could manage to insult your mother, his mother, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost all in one fell swoop."

Lucrative endorsement contracts were not enough to compel better manners from Williams, or force him from the Keys during fishing season. In the Sixties Sears, Roebuck and Co. was interested in signing Williams to a sporting-goods endorsement deal, but he refused to make the trip to the company's corporate headquarters in Chicago, insisting instead that they send someone down to him. "That deal was signed in my living room in Little Torch Key," remembers Apte, recapturing the surreal scene. "There he was, this Sears executive in a suit, sitting in a house in the middle of the Keys." The deal was cemented over drinks in a nearby tavern.

The company discovered that hooking Williams was one thing, but reeling him in was something else entirely. "One time," recalls Billy Knowles, a fishing guide who has lived in Islamorada for 60 years, "we were doing a promotional film for Sears and Roebuck, and they sent this woman down here to oversee the whole thing. Well, I told them, “When Williams gets going, she's not going to be here long.' And they said, “No, Billy, she's tough. She works for Winchester.'" Knowles smiles. "Well, first day Ted starts telling some very colorful anecdotes." Pause. "She wasn't there the next day." Nothing personal against the woman, explains Knowles; Williams just wasn't that comfortable around outsiders.

Environmentalist Amy Knowles and long-time guide Billy Knowles (top) relax at the Lor-e-lei; Knowles (bottom) swaps fish tales with Keys resident Carl Hiaasen
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Environmentalist Amy Knowles and long-time guide Billy Knowles (top) relax at the Lor-e-lei; Knowles (bottom) swaps fish tales with Keys resident Carl Hiaasen

Several of the guides tell the story of Williams being approached at the Lor-e-lei by a man he'd never met. "Aren't you Ted Williams?" the stranger inquired. Not wanting to be bothered, Williams replied simply: "No." The man pressed on: "Boy, you sure do look like him." Williams proved equally persistent. "I get that a lot," he told the man, who walked away shaking his head. A few minutes later the man returned. "If I didn't know Ted Williams so well," he declared, "I'd swear you were him."

Such encounters became increasingly common. The area's tourism boomed in the mid-Eighties, following the founding of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and the implementation of aggressive marketing strategies designed to lure greater numbers of visitors down to the Keys. Between 1984 and 1990 alone, the county's tourist-development budget ballooned from approximately $500,000 to more than $10 million. The attendant increase in people traffic had an immediate impact on Islamorada's most celebrated resident. Not only were more and more people stopping Williams on the street, but autograph seekers, their brazenness fueled by the exploding baseball-collectibles market, began to climb the chainlink fence around his modest bayfront home.

Worst of all, there were too many fishermen, weekend warriors and corporate know-nothings more interested in catching a tan than a tarpon. The trend has only intensified. "You go out to the flats off Islamorada now," says one old-timer who started fishing the Keys in the Forties, "and you've got a boat every few yards. It looks like a parking lot."

Amy Knowles (no relation to Billy), who lives in Williams's former residence, would be happy if her aquatic back yard were that peaceful. "People constantly tear through here on their Jet Skis," says the environmentalist, standing in her screened-in porch, looking out over the water. Williams, who moved to the modern two-story house seeking shelter and tranquility after Hurricane Donna leveled his original Islamorada home in 1960, might appreciate the irony. Or, maybe, like the house's current occupant, he'd just be ticked off. Last spring Knowles traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify in front of a House of Representatives subcommittee holding hearings on the preservation of public land and waterways. With no legislative relief in sight, though, it seems unlikely the tide of weekend water warriors will ebb. "They just keep coming," observes Knowles, who vows to keep fighting.

One can hear it in Knowles's resolve and in the reminiscences of the island's fishing guides. Williams's independent spirit -- his glorious contrariness -- endures among the locals, even if the last .400 hitter himself is no longer one of them. Never content to be caught in a crowd, Williams left Islamorada in 1988 for the relative seclusion of Hernando, Florida. It is there that, at age 83, he recovers from, or perhaps just refuses to give in to, complications following open-heart surgery last January.

"I pray for him," says Isa Ortiz, before adding, proudly, that the Islamorada Village Council last year passed a resolution renaming a half-block residential stretch down the street from her restaurant, just off U.S. 1, Ted Williams Way. She smiles. It fits.

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