It was 1969 and I was 13 years old. Islamorada, Florida was part of a small cluster of islands that made up the Florida Keys. About a 45-minute drive from Miami across a series of narrow bridges and a straight stretch of two lane highway, Islamorada was a sleepy fishing town, an oasis of marinas, restaurants and tourist hotels. A gas and soda stop for with wide- eyed northeastern families on vacation and usually headed for Key West. To this kid from Rahway, New Jersey on vacation with his family Islamorada was as far away from home as you could get.
It was also home to the greatest hitter who ever lived.
You had to know what you were looking for to find it. The house on Madeira was two blocks off of what could hardly be called the “main drag” in Islamorada. You made a right at Lorilies, a small tavern and restaurant. There was a marina in the back and if you turned right and drove about 100 yards you could see the house on the left, behind a gate and tucked back from the road. Ted Williams liked his privacy.
The house was on a large lush piece of property that sat smack on the water. You couldn’t see much of it from the road but you could make out it was a house.
In one of Mickey Mantle’s books he tells of passing through Islamorada with Billy Martin during spring training on their way to the “action” in Key West. Mantle was then a promising power hitting centerfielder with the Yankees and Williams was his idol. In his book the Mick said he entertained thoughts of dropping in for a visit at Ted’s house and got as far as the end of the driveway before even the great #7 chickened out and gunned the engine.
For about ten days each year beginning in 1966 and continuing to 1972, Ted Williams and I had one thing in common. We both lived in Islamorada.
Catching a glimpse of the man himself in his native habitat would prove to be as elusive as a sighting of big foot. He had been here, he had been there. Rumors and small talk. His favorite restaurant was “Isa & Manny’s,” a small mom and pop place with about eight tables that served up Cuban food with an island flair. There was a picture on the wall of Ted Williams posed next to a giant tarpon. As a kid “Isa and Mannys” was my favorite restaurant too. Not for the food but for the possibility that Teddy Ballgame might stroll in and order a bowl of conch chowder.
My plan was simple. If our paths would ever cross, I would say hello and shake his hand. I knew enough about baseball and fishing (I knew Ted loved to fish) that I’d be able to carry on an intelligent enough conversation that Ted and I would become buddies maybe even go fishing together. I guess as a teenager I was pretty damn naïve.
On the last day of our vacation I’d convince my father to take one more spin past Ted Williams house on Madeira. Perhaps that would be the day Ted Williams would be raking leaves in the yard and we could have that long postponed chat but I guess Ted didn’t like to do yard work either.
Fast forward to 1985. I’m living in Ocala, Florida and Ted still calls Islamorada home. I had discovered Jack Smalling’s “Baseball Address list” a few years earlier and amazingly you actually could write to many of the old time ballplayers and for the price of a self-addressed, stamped envelope, get an autograph through the mail. It was like magic! People still looked at you a little funny if you told them you collected autographs but it was a small price to pay to make that connection with the baseball gods we read about.
I found a great picture of Williams. An 8×10 of a young “Splinter” swinging a bat and looking skyward. I mailed it to Islamorada. A month had passed with no reply and I assumed that the great hitter had delegated my letter to the trash heap. Another pesky intrusion into his private life. Six months later an envelope arrived at my house with an Islamorada, Florida postmark. Inside the photo was inscribed “To Jimmy, Your Pal, Ted Williams.” After these many years I was finally pals with the Splendid Splinter.
Around that same time I had happened to be driving through Crystal River, Florida and in a small shopping plaza spotted a sign for a baseball card shop called “Talkin Baseball.” It seemed like everyone in those days was selling cards. I’ve never really had a lot of interest in them but as an autograph collector, I found occasional bargains in card shops, where the owners often had had little or no interest or knowledge in autographs. The quicker they got rid of these unknown and foreign commodities, the better.
The owner of the card shop was a fellow named Vince Antonucci, a name that would later be infamous in hobby circles and become, by Ted Williams own admission, the most despised man he’d ever met. Antonucci would one day become Ted’s exclusive agent, which is a lot like having 100 geese that lay golden eggs. He would also one day be featured on the TV show “America’s Most Wanted.”
In 1987, Ted Williams moved from Islamorada to Citrus Hills which was a community being developed to lure retirees to the “good life” in Florida. And what better spokesman than the idol of their generation? The Florida Keys had grown too congested and Williams didn’t need much prodding by developer Sam Tamposi, who had been a minority owner in the Red Sox after Tom Yawkey had died. Tamposi gave Williams a large tract of land and had a house built on the highest point in Citrus Hills. When I heard the news I couldn’t have been more elated as Citrus Hills was less than a 30 minute drive from my home in Ocala.
In 1987 I was a full time autograph dealer and was finally starting to make a little money at it thanks in large part to private autograph signings, which were a new concept at the time. Famous ballplayers had been appearing at card shows, shaking hands and signing autographs for a small fee. I figured I could cover more ground and provide greater accessibility if I went to them. I paid their fee, had multiple items signed and documented the in-person encounter with a snapshot. I then sold the autographed product nationwide. It doesn’t sound too innovative today but trust me– in 1987 it was hot stuff. Now, as if destiny had waved her wand, Ted Williams and I who were already “pals” (and I had the photo to prove it) were practically neighbors.
What Almost Was
In 1937, 19-year- old Ted was playing for the San Diego Padres, one of the Pacific Coast League’s most popular teams. The PCL was a stopping point for players who were on their way out of the majors or on their way in. Ted was on his way in.
As his reputation began to build, he was asked which pitch bothered him the most. “Can’t tell the difference,” the confident “Kid” replied. “They all look like they are hanging out in front of the plate on a string.”
Fifty-one years after that season, I got a call.
“Are you the fellow who buys old autographs?” said the fellow on the phone. “I saw your advertisement in Sports Collectors Digest. My father used to play ball in the PCL and I’ve got about a dozen signed baseballs. Are you interested?” My answer, of course, was yes. I bought the baseballs for $500. it was 1988 and that much money went along way if you were buying autographs. I don’t recall the details 32 years later, except for one. It caught my eye immediately. It was a PCL ball signed by the entire 1937 San Diego Padres team including the team’s young star, Ted Williams. Wow! I finally had my letter of introduction. My ticket to meet the great Ted Williams in the flesh. Surely there was no one on earth that would treasure this ball more than the Splendid Splinter. What sentimental memories would this invoke? 1937 was the last season he had played ball in his hometown before moving on to Minneapolis and eventually to Fenway and greatness.
I composed my letter to Williams thoughtfully and offered the baseball to him as a gift, wanting to give it to him personally. Of course, the thought did run through my mind that I would mention upon meeting him that since we lived so close together and I was a local guy who had already done private signings with the likes of Bill Terry and Johnny Mize, it might be a natural fit for us to work together.
I had visons of Ted dropping by my house in Ocala and sharpie in hand signing a stack of photos, chatting baseball and collecting his check. Or even better, having an ice tea or lemonade on the porch (Ted wasn’t a drinker) or having my wife prepare his favorite a chocolate milk shake while we talked over how the Red Sox were doing or cussed about “Those Damn Yankees” (I had heard that Ted cussed a lot).
Heck. we were almost business partners already.
It didn’t take long to get a letter back. Not nearly as long as it took for the signed photo to make its way through the mail when he lived in Islamorada. I nervously opened the letter which had been written by a secretary but contained notes in shorthand to indicate that it had been dictated directly from Williams himself. He would be delighted to have the ball. The letter said. In fact, a Ted Williams Museum was being built near his home and it would be a welcome addition to display there. He mentioned that he too would want to pick it up personally in Ocala or have me bring it by his house. He said he had a few things going on but as soon as his schedule would permit he would be in touch.
I don’t know if he ever tried to call me and I wasn’t home or maybe even tried to stop by and I wasn’t there. This I do know: shortly after he wrote the letter to me, Ted Williams happened to be going grocery shopping in a small shopping plaza near his home and spotted a sign for “Talkin Baseball.”
The greatest hitter who ever lived strode into Vince Antonucci’s Crystal River baseball card shop unannounced and Vince soon became his friend, confidant and business agent. In fact it was to come out later during the sizable legal quagmire that would surround the ill-fated venture that Antonucci was not content to simply be Ted’s business manager. Somehow, he was able to persuade Williams to become a PARTNER in his business, investing large sums of his own money in the company that was now called “Ted Williams’ Talkin Baseball.”
Inventory and money tended to disappear until the day that the aging Williams showed up in front of the store with a ladder and began tearing his name off of the storefront. In the legal battles that would follow there were no winners. Williams poured thousands upon thousands into legal representation. Antonucci was found guilty and sentenced to five and a half years in jail and ten years’ probation and was ordered to pay back the money he had stolen from his famous partner.
Paroled in 1993 after only a year and a half of actual jail time, Antonucci skipped town. Reports surfaced from around the country of a man representing himself as Ted Williams’ former business manager, always with car loads of purported signed Ted Williams photos and balls for sale to finance his cross country travels.
According to court files, Antonucci had surrendered only about one and a half pages of items from a 65- page list of inventory that it was determined he still owed to Williams, who remained furious. Within 24 hours of becoming the subject of a segment on “America’s Most Wanted,” Antonucci was captured in Anacortes, Washington and placed in custody.
Williams appeared at the courthouse when Vince was sentenced again and led away in leg irons. Estimates of the cost to Williams from the scheme have ranged from $1 million to $3 million. As a result of the fiasco, his son John Henry would take over the reins to “protect” his father from other such profiteers. It was like going from the frying pan into the fire.
Gods and Letters
I never did meet Ted Williams, never got to be best friends as I had hoped, never got to talk about baseball or fishing or anything else for that matter. I saw him in person once. It was at a hotel in St Petersburg, Florida about ten years before he died. The occasion was a baseball alumni old-timers weekend. I was staying at the hotel and was seated in the lobby. There was a crowd of about 30 people with photos and baseballs all near a side entrance where it was rumored Williams would be arriving shortly. I could hear the sound of paper rustling as baseballs were torn out of their boxes and saw the group pushing close together arms outstretched. A booming voice could be heard above the din. “I’M NOT SIGNING ANY DAMN AUTOGRAPHS!”
He went directly to the elevator door which someone had held open for him. I watched as the door slowly closed.
The fishing isn’t that great in Islamorada anymore. It’s been “fished out,” they say. The old two lane road has been replaced by a four lane highway and you have to run for your life just to cross the street. Large concrete bridges have replaced the small narrow rickety ones. Isa and Manny’s restaurant is still there but they moved up the street from the old site. Someone stole the picture off the wall of Ted Williams posed next to the giant tarpon. The large lot on Madeira has been divided up and they built another house next to Ted’s old house, which you still can barely see from the road.
I eventually sold the autographed picture that I got through the mail. I kept a color photo copy in a frame hanging on the wall and finally took it down after Ted had passed. It brought back memories, mostly bad, about getting old, missed opportunities, the anticipation of vacations in Islamorada long ago when I was young. But probably most of all, the awful cryonic clamor after his passing. It was an inglorious end for a man served his country multiple times and deserved so much more dignity.
Although my days of hero worship have long gone, I can still remember that magnificent swing and Ted’s often quoted own words. “All I want out of life is when I walk down the street folks will say ‘there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived’.”
Although I never got MY wish , Ted Williams got his.