NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

Baseball great Ted Williams brought his perfectionism to Islamorada backcountry

Part 1 of 2

March 7, 2013 

Ted Williams presents an unidentified man an award during a ceremony in Islamorada. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Upper Keys Historical Preservation Society)

It was the year 2000 when the Islamorada Village Council proclaimed an otherwise nondescript road Ted Williams Way. Williams used to live at the end of the street, in the second of two houses he once owned on Upper Matecumbe Key. His first house borders the property lines of The Islander Resort; in fact, it practically overlaps them.

He sold the first house after Hurricane Donna deluged the island and, in 1961, Herb Gordon bought it. Gordon has lived there ever since, part time, and two of Williams’ trophies, a tarpon and a sailfish, still hang from the living room walls.

Williams remains, arguably, one of the greatest hitters to ever pick up a baseball bat. It is alleged that while he stood up at home plate, his fingers wrapped tight around the hard neck of the bat, he could see the red stitching on the baseball as it came hurtling, twisting and turning, down from the pitcher’s mound.

Beyond baseball, his notoriously keen eyesight served him well on other fronts as well. Williams was also a pretty good fisherman who could spot a bonefish tailing before anyone else fishing with him had the chance to. It was not uncommon to see the baseball great, standing on a skiff, intently casting across a seagrass flat or into a backcountry channel. Two out of his three all time favorite fish to catch live in the shallows surrounding the archipelago.

Ted Williams was an Islamorada fixture for more than three decades, long before the chamber of commerce started billing Islamorada as the Sports Fishing Capital of the World. It was also no secret he liked to be left alone when he was fishing.

Williams approached fishing the way he approached baseball, with serious intent, and he appreciated being left alone so he could focus. Sometimes he fished alone and sometimes he would go out with one of the local guides, Jimmie Albright, Gary Ellis, Jack Brothers, or any of a handful of others. While Williams frequented many, he referred to them all by the same name, Bush. It was a derivative of bush-league, referring to something amateurish in nature.

The smattering of observations and anecdotes to follow have been culled from Gaspar Gonzalez’s excellent 2001 article on Mr. Williams, published in the Miami New Times, “America’s Past Time.” The intent is to shine a brighter light on a national hero that became a local legend. The first involves Stu Apte. Apte was a teenager the first time he met Williams and did not recognize the baseball hero for who he was. Williams had been just another man trying to figure out the best way to catch a snook.

Apte went on to become a fishing legend in these parts and the two men would fish together for years. It was not until Williams began calling him Stu, however, that Apte understood he was being respected as a fisherman. However, Apte shared something in common with Williams besides fishing; both served as fighter pilots during the Korean War.

According to Apte, “Ted was one of the top 10 overall anglers in the world. He was a perfectionist. People say he was difficult, but then, so am I. If you’re a fighter pilot and you’re not a perfectionist, you’re dead.”

In addition to Williams’ baseball and fishing prowess, Williams was legendary for his mood swings as local hero in his own right, Gary Ellis, elucidated on: “Ted could string expletives together to the point of poetry. He could manage to insult your mother, his mother, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost all in one fell swoop.”

Of course, he had other sides. When fishing guide and friend, Jimmie Albright, needed a roof for his house, Williams arranged it without telling Albright what he was up to. But of course it was his temper he is most remembered for as is highlighted by this George Hommell recollection. Hommell had been fishing with a female client from England who hooked into a tarpon; the fish ran, jumped, and slipped the hook.

Williams had been fishing with Jack Brothers and the two watched Hommell’s client fight the fish. After she lost it, Williams and Brothers moved their skiff closer. When they were close enough to talk, Williams said, “Miss, I think you let that fish get out a little too far.”

Shortly thereafter Williams hooked into a tarpon of his own, but lost it. Hommell, likely prodded by his client, moved closer to Williams and Brothers’ skiff. The lady commented, “Mr. Williams, I think you let that fish get out a little too far.”

According to Hommell, “He broke the rod over his leg, cranked the motor, and went home. He got out of there so fast he almost threw Brothers overboard!”

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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