Ted Williams, hitter's hitter, connects with Florida museum

March 29, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

CITRUS HILLS, Fla. - It's where Ted Williams - colorful, controversial, confident and so almighty competent - reveals his treasures and memories for all to see and even to hear in his own personal museum. Pictures, the player contracts he signed and equipment he used are on display. And, via video, he announces his selected lineup of the 20 greatest hitters of all time-a subject he knows so much about that it's akin to listening to a replay of Thomas Edison explaining electricity.

The voice of the speaker is so authoritative that no mere mortal. not even Moses, would dare contradict him. He is, indeed, the highest authority on how to put bat against ball and can articulate its mechanics and nuances in language that sounds so relatively simple you wonder why Flea Clifton or Willy Miranda never hit .406.

This trip to Citrus Hills was not to intrude on Williams (because he hasn't been in the most robust of health), but rather to visit his museum and hitters hall of fame, located on a nob of a hill where commercial watermelons used to grow. It has evolved into an attractive, quiet village of individual homesites across rolling countryside where tourists come to visit, drawn by the allure of Williams' name.

Williams is the reason for Citrus Hills, in the main an upper-middle-class retirement community along state Route 486 between Crystal River and Hernando. He much prefers the rural setting, where he can savor his privacy, pull away from the aggravations of the city and enjoy solidarity with either a fishing rod or the kinds of friends he especially wants to be around those perceived by him as genuine, be they a clerk he met in the hardware store, a pilot he flew with in the Marines, a visiting fireman or a president.

This is where Ted, still the highly opinionated and proverbially animated kid, even though he is beyond his 79th birthday and can't round the bases anymore, decided to open his past for all to see and enjoy. Thus, the museum.

There's a photo over there of Ted in 1942 climbing the backstop at Fen way Park after he became angered by a fan's comment regarding his personal life and heaved a bat onto the screen in disgust. What went up didn't come down, so he had to go get it.

And over there is a pictorial throwback of when he came to the plate for the last time, in 1960 at age 42, and hit a home run off Jack Fisher and the Orioles. An epic farewell, so typical of Williams in recognizing the moment and, with bat in hand, creating a dramatic event in the grand theater of baseball. And a picture, too, going back, to 1939, of his New England debut, playing against Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., at Fitton Field and, yes, hitting a home run.

And don't forget the inside-the-park home run to give the Boston Red Sox the pennant, 1-0, over the Cleveland Indians in his first season after World War II. The Marines, in all, took 4 1/2 years of his baseball life, but Williams was a patriot, even though he knew and others agreed that he was activated at age 34 to serve in Korea for what was generally considered a publicity stunt.

It was far from a frolic since he flew 38 combat missions and on one trip returned with his only means of transportation, the Grumman F9F Panther that was under him, on fire and struggling to stay airborne. Maybe another tick of the clock and it would have all been over. His love of the Marines and his one-time comrades, living and dead, mean much to Ted, as exemplified by the exhibits that concentrate on a part of his life with the flying corps, which was then separate from the Air Force.

His museum brings back for us so many personal moments, highlighted by a 7 1/2-hour interview with him in the mid- 1960s on a windy Saturday afternoon at Islamorada in the Florida Keys and later another lengthy session with him and writer Jim Henneman in Cooperstown .

It wasn't so much that he especially wanted a sportswriter bothering him on that earlier day at his home on the Gulf of Mexico. In truth, he acted somewhat bored talking to his wife, pretty enough to be a Miss Vermont, which she was, but the overriding reason to be invited was that small-craft warnings had been posted. Otherwise, he would have been in the shallows, delicately tracking bonefish. With nothing else to do, talking to a Baltimore reporter at least would fill in the blanks.

Regarding his philosophy of hitting, he said the first precept is to "get a good pitch." He always starts with that specific point. As to the movement of the bat, he explains it this way:

"I believe hitting is the rotation of the body with a push with the arms rather than wrist action. I think your wrists certainly play a part in it, at the tail end, where you make that little adjustment as you're hitting the ball. But the main work is the rotation of your body and your pulling through with your arms....

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