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Williams' sad lesson: Heroes are human too

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

So, this is what happens to a legend when he dies. A family feud erupts centered on an outlandish choice: Fire or ice?

The recent death of Ted Williams, baseball player extraordinaire, brought out the expected sorrow and sympathy, followed quickly by shock as word spread that his son had Ted's remains frozen, despite the belief by other family members that Ted wanted to be cremated.

If you've been following this incredible tale, you no doubt have your own thoughts about the ugly dispute between the siblings over their father's remains.

You may even have taken the opportunity to reiterate to loved ones how you would like your remains to be handled. Maybe you added a quiet prayer of thanks that you're not rich and famous enough to have your heirs wrestle over your body while the whole nation watches and Jay Leno makes jokes about you.

As the stories of behind-the-door events at the home of Citrus County's most famous resident come to light, a disturbing image emerges of a father who, in his golden years, seems to have been exploited by his son for financial gain.

It reminds us that while Ted Williams was a baseball icon, he was also a human being, a father who had issues when it came to his children. Many of us can relate, I'm sure.

Those revelations also raise this question: Was Ted Williams the victim of elderly abuse?

It's hard to imagine that someone like Williams, as hard-nosed and ornery as they come, could ever be anyone's victim. This is a man who, as a world-class athlete, ate rookie and Hall of Fame pitchers alike for lunch. He served in two wars, defeating enemies from two nations. He was nobody's pushover.

Yet, here we have people who worked in the Williams household describing how John Henry pressured his father to autograph memorabilia at a breakneck pace better suited to one of Kathy Lee Gifford's sweatshops.

Jack Gard, hired as Ted Williams' aide in 1998, told the Times that while he and Ted were on a trip to San Diego in August 2000, John Henry shipped his father dozens of photographs to sign. "He would call me every hour to check the progress," Gard said.

When Gard returned, he "had it out" with John Henry. For showing concern about Ted Williams, Gard was fired.

His experience mirrored that of Robert Hogerheide, Ted Williams' chef from 1998 to 2000. He recalled that every day, John Henry would bring dozens of items for his father to autograph. "By the end, the poor guy was completely whipped," Hogerheide recalled.

Another worker said John Henry had cameras installed in every room of his father's house to ensure the authenticity of the signatures. Anyone who watched the 1999 All-Star game cringed as John Henry turned his father into a walking billboard, sporting a T-shirt and a hat with the logo of the son's fledgling Internet service rather than his familiar Boston Red Sox logo.

Disgusted by the treatment of the old man, many employees left the household because of what they viewed as mistreatment of Williams by his son.

At least one worker took it a step further. The Times reported on Friday that a former employee complained in 1998 to the state Department of Children and Families about how Ted was being treated. A DCF investigator, accompanied by a sheriff's detective, checked out the accusation and after visiting with Williams at his home ruled the complaint unfounded. Williams told the investigators that he liked doing the work for his son, that it gave him a reason to get up in the morning.

Perhaps that's true. After all, Ted didn't pass up too many opportunities during his lifetime to turn a quick buck.

But maybe Ted was showing himself to be human once again. He wouldn't be the first person in an abusive situation to defend the abuser. Battered wives and children do it all the time. And what parent wants to see their child led away in handcuffs?

There are many more elements about to come to light as this sorry saga unfolds before the nation's prying eyes. It demonstrates the axiom that the more famous you are, the less privacy you are afforded.

It also shows that Ted Williams was a lot of things in his life: athlete, warrior, world-class fisherman, and pitchman for everything from washers and dryers to upscale homes and Internet sites.

But, in the end, he was a father. He excelled at so many things in his life, but perhaps he didn't quite hit a home run in that role.

His sad ending has left us with a final lesson: Heroes are human, too.

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