The Kids Last Out
Wait until Foxx sees me hit.
Theodore Samuel Williams, 1918-2002
That was the verbal come-back one would expect from the Kid, even when he was still a kid an 18-year-old rookie just signed by the Boston Red Sox. He never conceded anyone could possibly be better than he was when standing at the plate or filling a different kind of plate with fish.
Or, probably, at just about anything else. The big guy with the prickly personality was a know-it-all. But as often has been said, if you know it all or can do it all, it aint bragging. And the Kid had some powerful credentials.
The Kid, of course, is Ted Williams, and that comment came from his lips in 1938 when, in his first spring training camp, teammate Bobby Doerr told him Wait until you see this guy Foxx hit. At the time, old Double X was among the most feared sluggers in baseball. Some of his records still stand.
So what did the brash, skinny kid from the West Coast have to say but Wait until Foxx sees me hit. That tells you more about the guy who was also called the Splendid Splinter or Ballgame Teddy than all the stories that have filled the pages and airwaves since his passing last Friday at age 83.
If, perhaps, he wished he hadnt said it, he kept it to himself a couple years later when Double X in his waning career out-hit the Kid to lead the league. But come to think of it, the Splendid Splinter wasnt known for saying he was sorry or even hinting he could have been wrong. Wrong about anything.
Not Everybodys Hero
Before we go into all that, allow me to confess I was never a Ted Williams fan, even though I was a 12-year-old New Englander and Boston was supposed to be New Englands team when the papers were filled with the first reports of the Kid.
Williams got so much press from the very beginning. Already the Knights of the Keyboard, as the Kid would refer to sportswriters, were suggesting he would overshadow another young star named Joe DiMaggio, who at the time was my second-favorite player only behind Lou Gehrig, then wrapping up a career studded with accomplishments.
You know how kids are or at least were back when we were emerging from the Great Depression and baseball was truly the national game. Year after year, the teams had the same rosters, and both youngsters and oldsters knew the home team batting lineup by heart. It rarely changed from season to season. Whats more, I was a renegade New Englander. A Yankee fan.
I hated all the kids who were Red Sox fans and all hyped up by all the glowing reports of the Kid. Who was he to be compared to that other outfielder, Joe DiMaggio, the quiet respectful Jolting Joe? Perish the thought that the Kid was a better man with the bat than Iron Man Gehrig.
But since those days when I was an aspiring second baseman on the Chepachet Grammar School team until now, the Kid was always the object of comparison and not only as a baseball player, but also as a fisherman.
The Kid on the Fly
I was smart enough to give up baseball in favor of fishing, for I was no Bobby Doerr at second base though I did have a .333 batting average from grammar school through my first year of college. But there was never a moment that, given the choice, Id have rather swung a bat than a fishing pole.
It was in the arena of casting for fish that I first met, and later associated on more than several occasions, with the Kid. In fishing, he was like he was in baseball: Brash, confident, damned good and not reluctant to let everyone know how good he was. He bragged, but he could and did back up his bragging.
As I recall, it was in 1958, two years after I joined the Evening and Sunday Sun as outdoor editor, that I met the Thumper. The Red Sox were in Baltimore to play the Orioles, and a press conference was scheduled on a Bay cruise boat at the docks where now stands Harbor Place.
Sports editor Paul Menton suggested I write something about Ted Williams, then praised almost as highly in the world of fishing as in the world of baseball. I was intimidated. The Kid had a reputation of animosity with scribes dating back to almost his first days with the BoSox. How could I get him to talk to me?
Turns out, it wasnt that difficult: He was going to look me up. Not infrequently when the team was traveling, he sought out the outdoor writer in the host city to get some tips on where he might fish during the morning and early afternoon of a night game. I told him about the smallmouth bass fishing on the upper Potomac. He took the bait.
Two days later, he called. I phoned Ray Main, a quiet, old-time railroad engineer who lived in Brunswick and agreed to take us fishing. I had to caution Ray not to say a word about it. The Kid didnt want any other people around and he didnt want others to know where he might be fishing.
He was a master of the flyrod, but he only caught a few fish that day. The river was low and the day was a scorcher. He berated Ray for dunking live minnows for bait as Ray always did. And after a few hours, he just came out and said this place stinks.
Dont bring me back here, he added. I can catch more fish at the hotel. And he mixed a few expletives in his observations on the river that is considered among the best smallmouth bets anywhere and good enough then that Ray caught six bass to Teds three. Ray was shocked and disappointed. It wasnt his fault the fish werent hungry that day.
I was embarrassed and angry, but back in those days or at least when writing for Paul Menton one didnt berate sports heroes. If you couldnt write anything good about someone, you didnt write anything. And thats what I did.
At various times thereafter, our paths crossed, usually in Florida. Same old story. One tread lightly when talking about bonefish because Sammy Snead had a world record. Williams didnt and he wanted one probably more than another .400-plus season at the bat.
One day on the water he would be genial, wanting to talk and swap information. The next day, he would look at you with a blank stare as if to say, Who the hell are you to interfere with my fishing? I, like other fishermen, learned not to talk first, but just wait to determine the mood of the moodiest angler I ever came across.
When the Kid was good, he was good. But when he was bad, he was horrid. But boy could he cast a fly. And boy could he hit.
The Final Score
Still, in my book, Ted Williams wasnt the fisherman Baltimore native Joe Brooks was. Brooks and the Kid were often compared at fishing camps. Joe had the savvy, Williams the reflexes.
And he wasnt the all-around ball player that Joe DiMaggio was. No question that he could hit, but Jolting Joe could do anything and with class. Enough said.