The day I almost had dinner with Ted Williams

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Jan 042017

An article yesterday in the Chattanooga Times Free Press told the story of a retired English professor’s opportunity to spend a day with Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter who ever played major league baseball. Williams, a “top gun” Marine fighter pilot during WWII, had been recalled to service during the Korean War and met the professor, at the time a Navy aviation photographer, for a photo shoot at a Navy base in Hawaii.

The article reminded me of two things: first, that I had not yet watched the MLB Network’s special documentary of Williams’s quest to hit over .400 during the 1941 season; second, it rekindled some bittersweet memories of the day I almost had dinner with Williams in his home in the Florida Keys.

Last night I watched the documentary “.406″ which I had recorded some time ago. If you are a baseball fan and you have access to the MLB Network, be sure to watch it the next time the network airs it. The show dramatically details both Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak as well as Williams’s trek toward .406. The Red Sox were scheduled to play a meaningless double-header with the Philadelphia Athletics on the last day of the 1941 season, and Williams’s average stood at .3996. Everyone assumed it would be rounded up, so the Boston manager gave Williams the opportunity to sit out both games. Williams would have none of that. He played both games, went six-for-eight, and finished at .406; it was the last time anyone has eclipsed the magical .400 figure. And that was 75 years ago.

For twenty years Lewis Rush and I spent our spring breaks at the Rainbow Bend Fishing Resort near Marathon in the Florida Keys. One night early in our first visit we were enjoying pre-dinner martinis on a veranda overlooking the ocean. A couple at the table next to us were also drinking martinis, and suddenly the gentleman said, “Come on over here and join us. People who drink martinis must be good people.” We joined Dr. Ray Zeiner and his wife Clara, and a beautiful friendship was born. Ray was a dentist in Windsor, Conn., and was enjoying a happy second marriage with his high school sweetheart. For the next 20 years Ray planned his time at Rainbow Bend to coincide with Baylor’s spring break. He and I fished every day, either for barracuda using the resort’s 16-foot Boston Whalers or hiring a captain to take us in quest of tarpon. Thank goodness there was a dentist there to extricate the hook from the tooth-filled mouth of those ‘cudas.

Ray was an expert fly-fisherman, often renting a cabin in New Brunswick to go after salmon or flying to Wyoming for trout. But he had never been deep sea fishing until the day after we first met the Zeiners. Ray had hired a boat and asked Lewis and me to go along. The result was true beginner’s luck. The captain spotted two wooden planks floating over a huge accumulation of seaweed. He circled it and instructed the mate to put two lines in the water. “I think I spotted some dolphin,” he said. Some dolphin? We filled the boat with about 50 dolphin, six weighing over 40 pounds. There were a couple of sharks and a good many assorted bottom fish, including some yellowtail. We were ecstatic! A photographer from the local paper the Keynoter was there to take a picture of the largest catch of the season so far. We never came close to anything like that again. I really am telling the truth! Check out the photo below.

Others with whom we made friends at Rainbow Bend were Bob and Trudy Cole from up-state New York. Bob was the attorney for the Taylor Winery and was an avid salmon fisherman. It turned out that he had fished in the same camp in New Brunswick as Ray. It was at that camp that Bob had met Ted Williams and the two of them had become friends. Williams, as you probably know, was also an expert fisherman and had a line of fishing equipment for many years at Sears. I remember quizzing Bob about what it was like to spend time with Williams. I told him that Williams and Mickey Mantle were my all-time favorite players. I was so fortunate to watch Williams play twice; once in Baltimore and once in Cleveland. He hit a home run for me in both games. (At least I take credit for that!)

One night while were were enjoying our nightly cocktail hour, Bob told us that he had received a call from Williams inviting him and his wife to dinner at Ted’s residence about 30 miles away. Bob told Williams about his friendship with  the Zeiners and Lewis and me and asked if all of us could come to dinner. Williams said, “of course.” I almost fell out of my chair. Me, having dinner with the “Splendid Splinter?” Oh my gosh. Then when Bob told us the date for the dinner, my dreams evanesced into the salty air. It was the night AFTER Lewis and I had to fly back to Chattanooga. I think I almost cried. Of course, I could have quit my job, stayed in the Keys and become a hermit. But that didn’t sound very attractive, so I pouted all the way back home, pondering what a dinner with Williams would have been like.

Now here comes the bittersweet part. Ray called me the next day to describe the visit with Ted and his wife. The evening began something like this. Williams greeted them and took drink orders. Ray and Clara, of course, asked for martinis, which Ted delivered. “How do you like the martinis?” Ted asked. Ray, being his usual opinionated self, responded, “They are terrible.”

Williams laughed. “I really like a man not afraid to tell me the truth,” he answered. “Go pour them out and make your own damn martini.” Then he said the words that would have crushed my heart.

“I want all of you to know one thing,” Williams said. “I never talk about baseball in this house. We can talk about fishing all you want, and I’ll show you how to tie some flies. But do not mention baseball.”

I would have been devastated. I wanted so badly to ask the greatest hitter who ever lived whether his eyes were really so sharp that  he could actually see the bat make contact with the ball as he often claimed. I wanted to ask him what it was like to hit a home run in his last at-bat. I wanted to ask him so many more things.

But just to have been in his presence would have been enough, I guess.

Lewis and I showing off our first deep sea fishing trip ever with Ray and Clara Zeiner

Lewis and I showing off our first deep sea fishing trip ever with Ray and Clara Zeiner