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The Life

July 8, 2002
The one true Hall of Famer
ESPN The Magazine

Don't worry about where Ted Williams is going. He's been there for quite some time.

Charlie Gehringer once called the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown "heaven on earth," and he was right on several counts. Beautiful lakeside setting. Pleasant townsfolk. Validation for a life spent in the pursuit of baseball. Nice golf course, too. And get this: Your old friends get together there every year.

That's the little heaven Ted Williams found. It took him awhile, though. After his induction in 1966, same year as Casey Stengel, after he made a public plea that Negro leaguers be acknowledged by the Hall, the Thumper fled the scene. Thought it was too much trouble. "Bill Terry was always on my ass about going back," Williams once recalled. "Said he wouldn't miss it for the world. Like a jackass, I didn't listen. I'd be off fishing somewhere."

Ted Williams
Teddy Ballgame lived to swing the bat.
But when Williams did go back to give the induction speech for Tom Yawkey in 1980, he had such a good time that he kept coming back, year after year. Once, in a room on the ground floor of the Otesaga Hotel, where the inductees stay, I saw Williams signing some official Hall of Fame memorabilia, all the while conducting a colloquy on hitting. "Now one hitter I really admired," he said, pausing for effect, "that would be Earl Averill." Just across the room, the seemingly ancient Averill beamed like a schoolboy.

When the older Hall of Famers were summoned onstage during the induction ceremonies, Williams always got up to greet them and make sure they found their seats. When he became a member of the Veterans Committee, he honed in on an oversight the way he would a hanging curve, or a salmon, or an enemy aircraft. His heart seemed to follow his eyes, and nobody had better eyes.

And he didn't just take care of his baseball peers. One early morning, he woke up to go fishing in Otsego Lake and saw all these people lined up outside the Otesaga. As he passed through the line, he asked someone, "How come you're all here?"

"Well, actually, Mr. Williams, we're here to get things signed at the Hall of Fame autograph session, and we thought you might be there."

So Williams went up and down the line, signing stuff, chatting up the autograph seekers. Only when he finished, did he go fishing.

Once upon a time, it seemed that Joe DiMaggio would get all the classy stuff: the movie starlet, the mention in The Old Man and the Sea, the line in "Mrs. Robinson." Ted Williams got a product line at Sears and a lot of fish on American Sportsman. It wasn't his fault; it was ours. We bought the bunk put out by writers Ted didn't have time for.

By opening up a little more, by taking those forays to Cooperstown, Williams helped to set things straight. It wasn't a calculated PR move on his part. (Heck, it once took me six weeks and a fruitless trip to the Bahamas to track him down for a story I was doing on the Hall of Fame.) He just found a place where his love for baseball could be consummated.

I can still see him, larger than life, holding court in the lobby of the Otesaga, passing out praise to his fellow Famers, bridging the generations from Bill Terry to Joe Morgan.

Nobody will ever have to write, "Where have you gone, Ted Williams?"

Steve Wulf is executive editor of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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