I Wrote Ted Williams’s Last Words
Author Bill Nowlin traces the history of his lifelong admiration for Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams. Nowlin's involvement with Williams led to his editing Ted Williams Magazine for the Ted Williams Museum and included him preparing a “ghostwritten” welcome letter for each issue.
Ted Williams was my hero as I grew up a Red Sox fan in Greater Boston.
The first time I met him, though, was at spring training one year when the Red Sox were in Winter Haven. It was the spring of 1988 and my friend Henry Horenstein was working on a book with Walt Hriniak. Henry was going to Florida for spring training, so I tagged along for a couple of days. Ted was the last one out of the Red Sox clubhouse; there were maybe 20 people clustered around outside. He made a beeline for a boy in a wheelchair and chatted with him for a couple of minutes, then said “Gotta go to work” and stepped onto a golf cart to take him down to the lower fields. There he watched some of the prospects bat and offered comments. Over time, some of the dozen or so who had followed him went up and got an autograph.
Finally, there were just two left. He quietly growled, “What have you got there?” and signed something for the other guy and a baseball for me. As he was signing the baseball, I said, “Mr. Williams, I just wanted you to know that I had my tonsils out when I was six years old and you sent my father a signed picture made out to me. It’s been on my wall ever since.” His response was one syllable, something like “Unhhh.”
I wasn’t offended. I thought that was the perfect response. I took my ball and left him alone to keep working.
Years later, I worked on a book with Jim Prime—who had, himself, written words for Ted Williams in their coauthored book, Ted Williams’ Hit List. Jim and I interviewed 200 people who had known Ted Williams over the years. Our joint effort was published in 1997. Another edition came out after his death in 2002 as Ted Williams: The Pursuit of Perfection.
It was a thrill to work on that book. I had the opportunity to interview John Glenn, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Larry Hawkins (the Marine Corps pilot who likely saved Ted’s life the time he crash-landed his plane), John Underwood, Doris Kearns Goodwin, his high school coach, some other childhood friends, two barbers who cut his hair . . . the list went on and on.
The book was the first that really began to explore Williams’s Latino roots, though when his nephew Manuel Herrera reached out to us after publication, I really dug in and helped bring together another book devoted to the topic, The Kid: Ted Williams in San Diego.
I began to be a regular attendee at the annual Ted Williams Museum gathering in Hernando, Florida, and for a few years edited the magazine and newsletter. I had the opportunity for three meals at Ted’s house, all on different days—lunch, breakfast, and dinner. It’s not like we were best friends or anything. I don’t know if he remembered my name 10 minutes after I left. But when we saw each other, he remembered me as loaning the museum a collection of game-used bats I had assembled and my interest in asking him questions about his work with the Jimmy Fund (that will be part of a future book) and the like.
Ted suffered medical reverses later in life. He wasn’t able to attend the inaugural ceremonies for the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum in San Francisco, but in his stead, I was honored to accept the award inducting him into their Hall of Fame. Jim Prime had accepted the induction award on Ted’s behalf at the Atlantic Salmon Hall of Fame event in Canada. Jim says, “I even took off my tie and chucked it aside in his honor.”
“I’ve found that you don’t need to wear a necktie if you can hit.”
~ Ted Williams
Editing the magazine meant that in 2000 and 2001, I had ghostwritten a welcome over Ted Williams’s name to lead off the publication. I wrote it and submitted it for approval. I did the same thing in 2002. Suffering the effects of a stroke, he nonetheless appeared—wheelchair-bound—in a tent set up for the annual museum event, accompanied by his son, John Henry, and his daughter, Claudia. You could see him straighten in the wheelchair when the national anthem was played. His two children said a few words to the couple of hundred assembled guests, and Ted raised his hand. He was then wheeled off the stage and into a waiting van to be taken home.
A few months later, he died on the day after the Fourth of July. He had never attended another public event. He hadn’t said anything at the museum event. I called him on Memorial Day, and we exchanged a few words. I realized later that the last words he had offered to the public were the words that I had written over his name, the words of welcome to museum guests that had appeared in the Ted Williams Magazine.
Here are those words:
Induction 2002—A Personal Welcome from Ted Williams
Looking back on 2001, I want to say that we have an awful lot to be thankful for.
I say that, though this has been a very difficult year for me. One word sums up a lot of my feelings about the last year: perseverance. I needed it as a ballplayer and I sure had to call on it during these last twelve months.
It’s been a long year and a trying year and certainly the longest slump that Teddy Ballgame has ever been in! I had to persevere all year long and it’s been a battle at times. Most of all, though, I am grateful—really and deeply grateful—to everybody who persevered with me through this time.
It has been a difficult year for the American people as well and for our many friends in other lands. My cap is off to the brave rescue personnel in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, to the passengers who fought back on that United Airlines flight and to our leaders and military who have responded appropriately and with determination.
Family means a lot in times like these. My family has been with me throughout. John Henry has been by my side all year long and you couldn’t ask for a more supportive son. Claudia pinch-hit for me at the 2001 induction and hit a grand slam. She’s been terrific all year.
And my friends. Boy, the thing I missed most were my friends. I know so many of you have called. I’ve been glad to have the chance to talk with some of you, but I wish I could have spoken with all of you. Your love and support means so much to me.
I’ve had a few people come visit, too. Happy doesn’t describe how I felt seeing my old friends Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky show up on my doorstep. They both drove all the way down from Boston to see me. After having me drive them in all these years, it was nice to have them return the favor. Those were a couple of wonderful days.
One of the bright spots in this otherwise difficult time was my induction into the Atlantic Salmon Hall of Fame. Some of my happiest memories were of fishing that river with my great friend Roy Curtis and now we are reunited in that great hall of fame.
I’ve been looking forward to the 2002 induction ceremonies. I worked on the selection of the hitters and the other award winners and I am so pleased to be able to honor some of the players I admired. Roger Maris—what a power hitter! And Don Mattingly—“Donnie Ballgame”—wow! Of course, my old friend Enos Slaughter from my days as a player—this guy could hit AND run! And Dwight Evans of the Red Sox—what a great player he was!
Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi both won the award they named after me for the second year in a row. I like that. Consistency. That’s a big word for me, too.
Al Kaline. He says I helped him out with a couple of pointers. That kid didn’t need any help from me. What talent he had as a hitter!
Now let me tell you about Gaylord Perry. I’m sure glad I never had to try to get a hit off him! Virgil Trucks, now I did hit a few off him. But I’ll tell you, Trucks and Feller were the fastest two pitchers I ever faced.
I’m looking forward to seeing my good friend Tommy Lasorda again. I’ve missed him.
I hope you all enjoy yourselves this year and I just want to close by repeating one thing I left you with last year: I really do know how lucky I’ve been in my life. Get a good pitch to hit!
“I object to fishing tournaments less for what they do to fish than what they do to fishermen.”
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