Ted's tragedy unfolds

New details fuel controversy surrounding Williams' remains

Sports Illustrated/August 12, 2003

"Show me a hero," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "and I will write you a tragedy."

Hero is a word thrown around all too loosely these days. Middle infielders who slap singles in the ninth inning of a game in April are called heroes. Ted Williams was the real deal. He flew fighter jets in wartime and in peacetime gave baseball fans the sublime measure of what it means to be a hitter. The tragedy to befall this hero is something Fitzgerald could never have imagined. It has occurred during Williams' post-mortem days.

The fighting among his children, the deep controversy surrounding his wishes and the questions over what has happened to his remains is a 21st-century American tragedy, something unthinkable to the men and women of The Greatest Generation and to Williams' many fans.

On Aug. 1, while I was reporting the Williams story for this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, a wire service item appeared in many major news outlets. Ted Williams, it said, "is stored upside down" and has "been frozen with care." That had been the story for 13 months. I knew it wasn't true, thanks largely to Larry Johnson, the former chief operating officer of Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company in Scottsdale, Arizona.

What happened to Ted?

Hall of Famer Ted Williams' head and body are being stored in separate containers at an Arizona cryonics lab that is still trying to collect a $111,000 bill from Williams' son, according to a story by Tom Verducci in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

But contrary to recent news reports, Williams' body is not resting upside down in a liquid nitrogen tank at Alcor. Instead, reports Verducci, his head sits on a shelf in a liquid nitrogen-filled steel can, while his body is in the same room, stored upright in a liquid nitrogen-filled, nine-foot-tall cylindrical steel tank.

Johnson, who has no allegiance to either side of the fractured Williams family, saw major injustices, and the easy thing would have been to stay quiet, do nothing and keep his job. Johnson did the hard thing. He spoke up, which he knew would mean losing his job. [Johnson resigned from his position this week in advance of the publication of the SI article.] But his sense of responsibility was worth more than his job. With a background in paramedic emergency care, Johnson is, at heart, a caregiver who feels the urge to respond when help is needed.

The idea of Ted blissfully suspended intact upside down was a myth that has been perpetuated largely by the media since the former Red Sox great entered Alcor on July 5, 2002. I knew he was in two pieces, and I knew his head had been damaged. I wondered what John Henry Williams, Ted's son, knew.

Last Friday, I encountered John Henry in the grass parking lot of creaky, timeworn Goldsby Field, home of the Baton Rouge River Bats, an independent league baseball team. John Henry, 34, plays for the River Bats. The otherwise insignificant league -- players sometime change into their uniforms in vans -- has gained some publicity from having him there. John Henry has been able to play out a little fantasy, even with only 100 or so people watching in the stands. Nobody got hurt, except the poor stiff whose at-bats went to John Henry.

John Henry is tall like his father and has the dark, haunting looks of his mother, the former Dolores Wettach. She was once named Miss Vermont and was a model. According to Ted Williams: The Seasons of the Kid by Richard Ben Cramer, Ted saw her across the aisle on an international flight. He wrote something on a piece of paper, crumpled it up and threw it to her.

"Who are you?" it said.

She tossed a paper back of her own.

"Who are you?" it said.

Ted tossed back another.

"Mr. Williams, a fisherman."

The fisherman, of course, had himself a successful cast. They later married and had a son. Ted named him John Henry -- "because I thought a name like that conveyed strength," Williams once said, as if fortitude could be acquired on a birth certificate.

John Henry politely refused to answer my questions several times over two overtures, before and after last Friday's game. He also declined to call a phone number I left with him. He was cordial, but firm.

"I've got no comment," he said. "It's nobody's business."

John Henry is a non-prospect. His arm is awful. He is slow. His swing is too long and he lacks bat speed. He is not bad to the extent of being a complete embarrassment. He makes enough contact at the plate to earn a small measure of respect. He would not be playing, however, but for his famous name, a name that has become fodder for late-night jokes.

And so the questions linger, none more haunting than why and how this was done to an American icon. Cryonics is not the tragedy. If people choose that option for their remains, hoping science will someday bring them back to life in some shape or form, more power to them. Me, I'm not ordering off that side of the menu. But that's a personal choice and one of the blessings of being human is having the wherewithal to make choices. And personal choices that do not harm others should be respected.

No, the shame of this situation is the doubt about Ted's wishes and how his remains have been treated -- his head with the multiple cracks and his body used as a bargaining chip by Alcor to force John Henry to pay the $111,000 he still owes the company (from the original bill of $136,000) to put his father into cryonic suspension.

The only known documentation that links Ted and cryonic suspension is a piece of motor oil-stained scrap paper signed by Ted, John Henry and John Henry's sister Claudia Williams a paper stating their desire to be put in "Bio-Stasis after we die" on the chance that the three of them could "be together in the future", and a paper whose authenticity is contested by Ted's 24-hour attendants and his first-born child, Bobby-Jo Ferrell. The note is dated Nov. 2, 2000. Williams lived another 20 months. Twenty months went by and he never signed a more official document than that scrap paper, nothing witnessed, nothing filed, nothing notarized. He never signed an agreement with Alcor to be suspended. Alcor people came into his house -- the convenience of a house call! -- and he never even met them, never mind signed any documents. He simply hollered from a back room, according to a taped conversation between Johnson and an Alcor field representative.

And then, only after Ted died, was a consent form submitted to Alcor. The line for his signature -- the member's -- was blank, what with Ted being dead and all. John Henry filled out the rest of it.

Twenty months went by and John Henry and Claudia didn't bother signing up with Alcor, either; the scrap paper said they all wanted a chance to be together again, right? Why didn't John Henry pay the $111,000 he owed to have his father frozen? Why was Ted's body talked about as a gallows humor bargaining chip? Why was his head developing cracks?

Many questions remain. The last chapter of Ted Williams continues.

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