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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ted Williams: A Tough Story

HERNANDO, Florida -- While young ballplayers all over Florida chase dreams of future glory and, more likely, immediate riches, Ted Williams, one of the greatest players to play baseball and the last major leaguer to hit over .400 for a season, spends his days in a Gainesville rehabilitation center for stroke victims, dreaming of the past. His private room looks out upon the overgrown central Florida landscape but he spends most of his time in bed, with the guard-rails up so he doesn't fall out onto the floor.


The wrists that snapped the bat over at the end of his perfect swing are now weak and feeble. The hands often miss the object they are reaching for. And the eyes, those eyes that could spot vultures circling over Boston's Fenway Park all the way from Cambridge, now can hardly make out familiar faces across the room. The man who once clouted Rip Sewell's eephus pitch -- a baseball masquerading as a balloon -- out of the park in the 1946 All-Star Game now flinches when his physical therapist drops an armful of the real things down on him.


He is supposed to bat the balloons away in an exercise designed to reawaken his reflexes. He may never appear in public again, or walk without a walker, or, what he loved to do most in his retirement, tie another fly and cast it into a school of trout.


Perhaps most importantly for the people who live off him, Ted Williams may never sign another baseball.


Teddy Ballgame is out of the lineup, maybe forever. And yet, he continues to provide full-time incomes for 20 people who are profiting from things he did on the ballfield 50 years ago. There is the Ted Williams Card Co., and the Ted Williams memorabilia store in Newton, Massachussetts and the contract with Upper Deck and something called Grand Slam Management, a mail-order warehouse located across from Citrus Hills, the Hernando housing development in which he has a home.


And of course there is the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame, a brand-new building at the entrance to the development, a shrine to a man still living. It was opened, with a lavish dedication service attended by more than 30 Hall of Famers, on Feb. 9, just 13 days before Williams suffered the stroke that has kept him on his back, except for brief periods with his walker, ever since. He has had two others in the past 10 years but this one was bad, leaving him blind and paralyzed for the first few weeks.


"If he had remained like that, it would have killed him," said Lewis Watkins, an artist who manages the museum. "Ted's a fighter," Watkins said. "He's the most complex and caring individual I've ever known."


Complex, yes. Saintly, no. Williams spit at the fans and resented Joe DiMaggio for getting favorable press in New York while he was being blamed for one Red Sox failure after another, and he was bitter about having to serve twice in the military, in World War II and Korea, losing more than four prime-time seasons. He dared to blow his own horn in that master-servant era of baseball in which players did not have the right to think, feel, brag or aspire. When he was criticized early in his career, he became an introvert and stopped talking to the press.


His personal life was largely unhappy. He was stung by two failed marriages and devastated when Louise Kaufman, his companion of 22 years, died of cancer last August. He lost his home in Islamorada to a hurricane and was bilked out of $2 million in a marketing scam. He suffered through the hell of his oldest daughter's alcoholism and never wanted any more children. After John Henry and his sister, Claudia, were born, Ted Williams left his second wife.


Sadly, the relationship between Williams and his son, John Henry, was just developing when Williams was felled by this latest stroke.


And then again, he was always there. When he worked as a pitchman for Sears, he would send John Henry a case of bats and a hundred balls evry spring. Now his signature provides John Henry with an annual income of about $500,000. Watkins, who has seven lithographs of Williams on display in the museum, acknowledges his connection with Williams has helped him become more widely known. He did not even know who Williams was when he was commissioned to do some lithographs of Williams in 1988.


It is the kind of story usually associated with professional boxers, who are underpaid to begin with and always beset by leeches of the human variety. It is not the kind of story we expect to hear about baseball players, especially not Hall of Famers and especially not legendary figures of the caliber of Ted Williams, who never made more than $125,000 a season to play the game but whose name on a baseball or a bat or a photograph amounts to many times that every year.


"And it will go on for a while, even after he dies, I'm sure," Watkins said.


Until there are no more pieces to be sold.