Boatload of talent extended to another sport
By Tony Chamberlain, Globe Staff, 07/05/02
o anyone who wandered into the old Boston Sportsmen’s Shows at Mechanics Hall in the 1950s, Ted Williams was much more than a lefthanded slugger. One of the most crowded demonstration areas at the show was always Williams casting a fly at a small target in a pool about 25 yards away.
Hunters and fishermen came to know Williams as much for his outdoors adventures as those in baseball. His elk hunting trips were well-documented, as were his salmon fishing forays to the Black Pool at his beloved Mirimachi River in Canada.
Hunting trips took him from the local marshlands to the Western mountains, on big game safaris and deer hunting trips to the forests of the Northeast. But the commercialism of salmon fishing eventually drove Williams south, and The Kid began a love affair with bone and tarpon fishing among the Florida Keys.
He told many friends that when he no longer could hit .300, he would leave baseball for fishing. But at age 42 he was still batting .316 and still fishing whenever he could, whether for bonefish in the shallows or tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Kid especially loved the bonefishing on Islamorada, one of the keys about 70 miles south of Miami. This required sharp eyesight, so Williams could show off his legendary vision.
But when he tired of fishing the inland surf, Williams began taking more trips offshore. In the ’60s he worked with the Isla Fishing Guides Association to establish the Gold Cup, a highly selective tarpon fishing tournament that became one of the most famous — and most gambled on — fishing derbies in the world.
Many writers fished with Williams, most reporting him to be a perfectionist who, when they showed various degrees of incompetence, mocked them with a brand of humor he reserved especially for journalists.
But to be granted a fishing trip with The Kid was a highly prized assignment, and writers such as John Underwood came back in awe of how much they learned from him, and his ability to analyze and find fish. Though the success rate of tarpon anglers is about 10-1, as Williams figured it, at the Islamorada marina where he kept his boat, he had a standing bet of 50 cents for any day he returned to the dock without a fish. He rarely lost money.
Underwood, a Sports Illustrated writer, assessed a 1967 trip: ‘‘To fish with Williams and emerge with your sensitivities intact is to undertake the voyage between Scylla and Charybdis. It is delicate work, but it can be done, and it can be enjoyable. It most certainly will be educational. An open boat with The Kid just does not happen to be the place for one with the heart of a fawn or the ear of a rabbit.
‘‘There are four things to remember: 1) He is a perfectionist; 2) he is better at it than you are; 3) he is a consummate needler; and 4) he is in charge.’’
One journalist with whom Williams had a genuine friendship was the late Bud Leavitt, former sports editor and outdoor writer for the Bangor Daily News. Leavitt fished often with Williams in the lakes and streams of Maine and Canada.
Most of their fishing up north was for salmon, and Williams fished with Leavitt near the writer’s home along the Penobscot River. Williams wrote a book about what he called ‘‘the big three of flyfishing.’’ In it, Williams wrote: ‘‘The three greatest gamefish are tarpon, bonefish, and Atlantic salmon, but I’ll take the Atlantic salmon over all of them.’’
The warm climate drew him south, however, as did the fishing tales of another outdoors writer, Ernest Hemingway, who also fished for tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico. A meeting of the two on the high seas might have been a monumental clash of egos, but never materialized because of the Communist revolution in Cuba.
‘‘I had a fishing date with Hemingway in Cuba,’’ Williams told a friend. ‘‘But I never got to keep it. [Fidel] Castro broke it up.’’
To baseball fans, The Kid was the greatest hitter in the game. To his Marine colleagues, he was the best fighter pilot they had known. And Roy Curtis, another confidant and fishing guide, said of him: ‘‘He is the best angler of my time. The man can stand in the pool all day long throwing 75, 80, 85 feet and he never gets tired. I’ve never fished with a man so demanding of himself.’’