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Bambino Road: Day Seven

Day Seven: March 11, 2003

I’ve been wanting to visit the Ted Williams Museum for years. In 2000, when I came to Spring Training for the first time, I had heard about the museum, but didn’t quite figure out where it was. On that trip, we didn’t have time, having packed our trip with games in Winter Haven and Dunedin and Sarasota. The next year we went further afield, adding a trip to see the Braves at Disney’s Wide World of Sports (and also ride the roller coasters at Universal Studios), but again there was no time to visit the museum. Last year the trip itself was too short for anything for this baseball starved family but games, games, games.

But my interest in Ted Williams had grown with every passing year. When I moved to New England in the 1980s, I knew almost nothing of Red Sox history except that they had sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and hadn’t won a World Series since 1918. In the mid-90s, when they announced they were building the Ted Williams Tunnel, I had to ask… who? It was like I had never even heard the name, which maybe I hadn’t. If you asked me to name the greatest ballplayers of all time I could have given you a long list, but it’s probably no coincidence that they were all Yankees: Ruth, Mantle, Berra, Dimaggio… that was before I knew that Dimaggio had Major League brothers. I could have put a few non-Yankees on the list: Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, but as afterthoughts. As in “I hear these other guys were pretty good, too.”

This state of affairs was partly brought on by my New York upbringing–when you grow up in the center of the universe, you don’t realize where the gaps in your knowledge are. And it was partly that my focus as a kid was so Yankee-centric that I never bothered to learn the names of any players on opposing teams. I knew a few: George Brett, Davey Lopes, that was about it. I’m not even sure I learned any of the names of the Red Sox. I suppose I knew about the rivalry between Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk, but in my mind he might have just been “Red Sox catcher.”

So I did not know Ted Williams until I became a baseball fan a second time, as an adult, and my interest in baseball history became keen. I can’t tell you what book or film it was that first kindled my interest in The Splendid Splinter in particular–the winter after the “Subway Series” I devoured every book on baseball I could find. I watched the Ken Burns documentary series. I read biographies of Babe Ruth, books on women in baseball, a book on the independent Northern league. I bought a lot of my books used and tossed them all into the wood chipper of my brain. I felt a bit like I did when I went to college, like my mental capacity was expanding to accommodate all the new information. Ted Williams was one of the facts that was startling and new to me. What, the greatest hitter that ever lived was a Red Sock? (sic) And you tell me he’s still alive? Holy schlomoley!

Sadly, I never got to meet Ted while he was alive. Fortunately for Johnny-come-latelies like me, there is still his museum in Hernando, FL.

I arrived at the museum on a perfect Florida spring day, the sun bright and warm. Around the parking lot, colorful flags for every Major League team flapped in the breeze. The walkway to the museum entrance is lined with etched slabs and stones, one with the text of Ted’s Hall of Fame induction speech, another listing his career milestones and accolades.

Once inside the museum, one is encouraged to travel around the baseball-diamond shaped building, following the chronology of Ted’s life and career around the bases. But as time has gone on, and the museum has begun to outgrow its walls a bit, the organization of the displays has gotten a bit more chaotic. The Hitters Hall of Fame, a museum all its own, has spilled out of its adjoining annex and encroached on the TWM.

There is Ted’s high school year book photo, memorabilia from his days playing ball in San Diego, photos of his first appearance in a Red Sox uniform in an exhibition game. There is his Silver Slugger award, a feature from Life magazine, and photos, photos, photos. One case features Ted’s Korean War years, including models of the airplanes he flew, a photo of the plane he crash landed, and a letter from his wingman, Sen. John Glenn. (It seems the thought of war follows me everywhere.)

Ted not only wrote “The Science of Hitting,” but several books on fishing, at which he also excelled. The museum features some of the fish he caught, including a tarpon as long as Ted was tall, and a marlin–the eighth largest ever caught at almost 1300 pounds! It makes me think of Hemingway’s old man, who revered the great Dimaggio–what would he have thought about this ballplayer who bagged a half ton fish?

If the museum has one drawback, it is that there is so much interesting stuff to know about Ted’s life which is not explained by the museum’s displays. The artifacts are there, but very few explanatory plaques or cards accompany them. I had the benefit of touring the museum with fellow SABR member Bob Schaefer, who knew Ted, and who was familiar with the museum, and I had already learned quite a bit about Ted before my visit. I wonder if a more casual fan might not find the displays confusing or obscure. At the very least, I think someone who didn’t know as much about Ted’s life would miss a lot. Bob had a chat with the museum’s new director, so who knows, perhaps they’ll have him write up some exhibit cards or a self-guided tour in the future.

The Hitters Hall of Fame, on the other hand, didn’t need much explanation. Each locker-size display featured a single player inducted into the Hitters Hall. There is, of course, some overlap between the Hitters Hall of Fame and Cooperstown, but there are also those who are only in Hernando. Some would say it was Ted’s ego that made him start his own Hall of Fame, but I disagree. I think it was his certainty that he was right about some things. But so it is with so many of the truly high acheivers. Their surety seems like haughtiness to lesser men. But you know what? “There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.”

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