The Ted Williams Ball
New England was made for Fall – cool, comfortable days, crisp nights, brilliant foliage, corn stalks, pumpkins, and the smell of burning leaves.
The Fall of 1972 was an exciting time for me. I was 13 and at the height of my Red Sox obsession. I’d suffered through a strike-marred spring and followed the Sox’ progress toward the pennant each day. The Providence Evening Bulletin arrived late in the afternoon, and often my mother would find me sprawled over the landing at the front door pouring over the sports pages. I lived and died each day with the exploits of Marty Patten, Tommy Harper, Carl Yastrzemski and a kid from New Hampshire they called “Pudge.”
October that year was the first time the Red Sox broke my heart. It was so cruelly unfair. A labor strike shortened the season and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled no missed games would be made up. The schedule was what it was and even if that meant some teams played more or fewer games than others, so be it.
The Red Sox finished their season .5 games out of first place. They were second to the Detroit Tigers, but the Tigers had played 156 games to Boston’s 155. They played, and won, one more game than the Red Sox and claimed the divisional crown. So unfair. Crushing.
Later in October, as The Oakland A’s were claiming the first of their three consecutive World Series Championships, my father brought us all to a Republican fund-raising barbecue.
The guest of honor at the barbecue was John Chafee, decorated Korean War vet, former Governor of Rhode Island, Secretary of the Navy and candidate of the US Senate. Chaffee was the last of the liberal Republicans. He was to arrive via helicopter later in the day.
Smoke from grilling burgers, hot dogs and chicken wafted through an old barn that was lined with tables holding items up for auction.
I love old stuff. I love antique stores – the junkier, the better. This was an auction of infinitely appealing junk. As I wandered up and down the aisles, my eye spied a beige baseball. What 13-year-old boy can see a baseball and not involuntarily reach to pick it up?
I did and it was signed. There were names all over the ball. It was an official American League baseball. As I tried to read the names, I slowly turned the ball in my hand and… Ted Williams.
Even his signature was big and bold. Brash. The John Hancock of baseball.
Ted Williams is a baseball god. A legend. A player who gave up nearly five full seasons in the prime of his career to fight in both World War II and the Korean War and still finished with over 500 career home runs and a .344 career batting average. He was the last player to hit over .400 for a full season and, fittingly, homered in his final at bat.
I was holding a ball he had held in his hands. It was heady stuff for a young Red Sox fan.
The auction wasn’t for hours. I kept coming back to the ball. Holding it, trying to read the rest of the names. The owner was a man named Phil Kettle who was a big wig in Republican politics in my home town. He’d had the ball for a long time, but I’m unclear how he came to own it.
Getting to see and climb around on a helicopter was a pretty enticing reason for me to go to the barbecue, but everything changed when I saw that ball. Helicopter or no helicopter, I was captivated by the idea of owning that ball.
My dad gave me the okay to bid up to $10. In 1972, that was quite a bit of money. Gas was 36 cents a gallon and the minimum wage was just $1.60.
Finally, it was time. The auctioneer rattled off names, descriptions and bids. As item after item was sold, the crowd got more and more amped up. An auction is exciting whether or not you’re bidding – you just get caught up in the high-energy, atmosphere of the event.
I was sitting on the right side of the crowd on top of a shed with some other kids. My parents were nearer the middle of the crowd with their friends. Finally it was time…the bidding began.
“Do I hear five dollar?” the auctioneer asked. I raised my hand, shouted out my bid.
It was promptly countered, “five and a quarter.”
“Five-fifty,” I shouted.
Back and fourth we went. The bids spiraled up and up, closing in on my ceiling.
There was one man, a grownup, bidding against me. He may have been a fine man. Maybe he wanted the ball for his own kid. I don’t know, but at that moment, I hated him. He was all that stood between me and the ball. Every time I bid, he bid.
Seven, eight, nine dollars. I was running out of time. He had to stop, had to relent and let me win the ball.
“IhavenineseventyfivedoIheatendolla?tendollawho’sgonnagivemetendollar?” The auctioneer sang, “Tendolla?”
“Ten dollars,” the man shouted. I was done. I’d hit my limit.
The auctioneer looked my way, asking for a bid. Going over and over in that sing-song way auctioneers have.
I was silent, despondent. I looked for my parents but I’d lost track of where they were.
The crowd was with me.
“Give the kid the ball.”
“Let him have it!”
“Going once.” “Do I hea ten an a quarta? Ten an a quarta?” looking right at me, asking for my bid.
“He’s just a kid,” someone shouted.
“Going twice.” “Do I hea ten an a dime? Ten and an dime?”
“Going three times,” and just as he was about to finish with “Sold” I hear “Ten-Fifty,” from across the crowd. My head snapped to the left and there was my dad, arm in the air, bidding for my Ted Williams ball. My heart soared with an adrenaline rush.
And off to the races they went. Back and fourth.
My dad, like Ted Williams and John Chaffee, is a Marine and once he gets something in his teeth, he doesn’t let go for anything.
Eleven, twelve, back and fourth, up and up, thirteen, fourteen, man against man, fifteen, and then finally…
My father didn’t relent. He won the ball for me.
I still have that ball. I’ve sold off all the other hold-overs from my youth – my baseball cards, coin collection, Hot Wheels, GI Joe’s, comic books – but I’ve always held on to the Ted Williams ball.
It’s my line in the sand. No matter what has happened in my life, I’ve never let it go and I’m not going to sell it. It’s going to end up with one of my boys. It’s evidence that I was once a red-headed, freckle-faced, 13-year-old boy. It’s a tangible link to two of my heros – Ted Williams and my dad.
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Tags: 1972, antiques, Auction, ball, Baseball, Carl Yastrzemski, Dad, Father, Fathers and sons, John Chafee, Red Sox, Republican, Son, Ted Williams