Ted Williams legacy lives on in the Keys

Street sign marks the lane where baseball legend Ted Williams once owned a home on the bayside of Islamorada.
Street sign marks the lane where baseball legend Ted Williams once owned a home on the bayside of Islamorada. Special to The Reporter

Part 2 of 2

The greatness of Ted Williams did not appear from thin air; the legend believed in determination, fortitude, and practice, practice, practice. Doug Kelly illustrates this point in his book, "Florida's Fishing Legends and Pioneers," when he recalls watching Williams at a fishing seminar at Homestead Air Force Base in 1965. Williams walked out and placed a trash can in the middle of the sporting goods aisle at the exchange, picked up his fishing pole, and then put on a casting skills display like only Ted Williams could.

Williams stepped 15 feet away and cast "a hookless jig into the trash can 10 times in a row." When he was done, he stepped back another 10 feet and repeated the feat-10 times in a row. Each time he sank the jig into a trashcan with a "two-foot diameter."

Williams did it again, stepping back until he was 40 feet away before casting his jig and sinking it into the trashcan seven, eight, nine times. On the tenth attempt, the jig struck the rim and bounced out. "Not my fault," Williams said. "The wind caused it." Then, and clearly to prove some kind of point, while still standing 40 feet away, he cast the jig into the trashcan 20 times in a row.

It was this tenacity, this absolute attention to detail and devotion that made him so good at playing baseball, fishing, or cussing because the man could cuss like the wind. Of course he had other sides, like the one John Underwood revealed when he ventured to Islamorada to research his 1967 Sports Illustrated article, "Going Fishing with The Kid."

Underwood captured an encounter Williams had while being served lunch at one his favorite island restaurants, Manny and Isa's. After a day on the seagrass flats, Williams liked to go to Manny and Isa's for a cold beer and a Cuban sandwich. Despite his occasional antics, Williams was reported to be a favorite guest of the establishment. In Underwood's story, Williams was giving Isa a hard time.

"Veal," he said loudly so as to attract the attention of other patrons. "People tell me there are a lot of restaurants on the Keys selling veal and saying it's turtle steak. This looks like veal to me, Isa."

"Oh, no, Ted," says Isa with a Spanish accent, pouting and shaking her finger at him. She runs off to the kitchen and returns with a great slab of meat, which is unmistakingly turtle.

"You see?" says Isa.

"Well I don't know," says Ted making that wry face.

"Oh, Ted, you are fooling with me," says Isa jabbing him on the shoulder.

Mr. Williams moved from Islamorada in 1988 and died at the age of 83, July 5, 2002. Without referring to anything ghostly in nature, a great deal of him can still be spotted around Islamorada, mostly on Upper Matecumbe Key where his pictures adorn the walls of several local businesses like the Green Turtle and Mangrove Mike's.

There is also the house Herb Gordon bought from Williams in 1961. Like Williams, Gordon loved to fish and had been coming to the Keys since the 1950s. While the two men fished together from time to time, Gordon would be the first to admit he was not the fishermen Williams was.

In terms of the sale of his first house, Ted wanted to take the refrigerator with him. Williams had bought a new house at the end of the street that is now called Ted Williams Way, on the bayside of the island. He told Gordon that he needed the appliance for the new place. Gordon had been warned the Williams could be difficult to deal with, but Gordon responded, "Ted, you can't expect to rent a furnished house and then remove the refrigerator."

"You're right," Williams said. "The refrigerator stays."

Gordon would spend the ensuing years listening to the bellowing tones of Williams drifting across the highway from another of his favorite haunts, the Lor-e-lie where Williams could swap fish tales like just another fisherman. One day, Williams stopped by Gordon's new house, knocked on the door, and asked to speak to Gordon's son, Larry, who was 11 or 12 at the time. "Come on, Larry," he said. "I'll take you fishing."

According to his father, Larry was a real baseball fan who had spent time at Dodgertown, but he told Williams, "No, I got homework to do."

Williams said to Herb Gordon, "Ok, I'll take you."

Gordon spent the day fishing with Williams and, when he came home, Gordon asked his son, "Larry, it's a kid's dream to fish with Ted Williams. I don't understand why you didn't want to go fishing with him."

Larry said, "Oh Dad, he gives me a headache."