America's Past Time
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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."
"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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.