When the door opened and Ted Williams walked in, there was a look of astonishment on the faces of the clientele. Instantly recognizable, he was as famous as any movie star in America and just as handsome.
In June of 1990, a book written by Dom DiMaggio, "Real Grass, Real Heroes," about the 1941 season, when his brother Joe hit in 56 consecutive games and his friend and outfield mate, Ted Williams, became the last man to hit .400, was released. To mark the occasion, a book party took place at Tavern on the Green Restaurant in New York City's Central Park. I happened to be in New York at the time, so I was invited to join in the festivities.
As Dom signed books in the restaurant's famous Crystal Room and the jaded New York media gobbled up shrimp cocktails and knocked back glasses of chardonnay, there was suddenly the sound of applause in the room. I looked around to see what had caused such a reaction among that world-weary crowd, and there, standing in the doorway, looking like he was 10 feet tall, was Ted Williams.
He wore a sports jacket over a white, buttoned up, polo shirt -- as close to formal attire as he ever got -- and stood with his arms folded across his chest. "Where is he?" he asked, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Where's Dommy?" When he spotted Dom at the far end of the room, he headed to greet him and the media sophisticates parted like the Red Sea, allowing him passage. The room came alive and reporters gathered around to ask him questions, but all Ted, who had written the introduction for the book, wanted to talk about was Dom and what a great player he'd been. He had told Dom the week before that he was going to be in New York the day of the book party and that he might stop by, but Dom, not wanting to pin him down, had never mentioned it to anybody.
Soon, Ted was approached by the book's publisher, a man named Walter Zacharius, who said, "After the party Dom and a group of us have dinner reservations at the 21 Club (21 was an iconic celebrity hangout dating back to prohibition days) we'd be thrilled if you'd join us." Ted replied, "Thanks, but I'm going to eat at a place called Pino's in Murray Hill. It's run by Jerry Casale, an old teammate of mine." Whereupon the publisher, being nobody's fool, immediately responded, "Well then, why don't we all go to Pino's?"
Some phone calls were made, reservations were changed, and at the book party's conclusion, we piled into a couple of limousines provided by the publisher and headed for East 34th Street and Pino's Restaurant. I was in the first limo to arrive. Ted and Dom were in the one a few minutes behind. Pino's, an Italian restaurant, was not one of those fancy, expense account places. It had more of a neighborhood vibe, where people in the area went for a good plate of pasta after work. It occupied the first floor of a brownstone townhouse, so the seating capacity was not especially large.
When the door opened and Ted Williams walked in, there was a look of astonishment on the faces of the clientele. Instantly recognizable, he was as famous as any movie star in America and just as handsome. No longer the Splendid Splinter, he had developed a bit of a paunch over the years, but was in good shape for someone in his early 70s. He still played a lot of tennis and practiced a fisherman's lifestyle of early to bed and early to rise. It would be another year and half before the strokes started to hit and eat away at his health and physical dexterity.
Customers in the restaurant rushed up to him with menus and napkins and whatever else they could find for him to sign. In a good mood, he signed them all. "My God," I thought to myself, "it must be like this wherever he goes." It probably accounted for why he usually ate at home or in places where his buddies, the fishing guides, hung out, where he was better known for casting flies than for thumping baseballs and nobody made a fuss over him.
Casale, a pitcher in his playing days, had a record of 13 and eight for the Red Sox in 1959 before his arm went bad. He had pushed a couple of tables together for our party of a dozen or so. We ate family style, passing around huge platters of pasta, saltimbocca, and veal cutlets swimming in marinara sauce. There were copious amounts of chianti to wash it all down. I noted that Ted, never much of a drinker, drank his wine the way other people drink a coke, gulping rather than sipping. But he limited himself to only a glass or two of it.
Casale had once homered at Fenway Park off of Bullet Bob Turley of the Yankees. He had a tape of Phil Rizzuto's radio call of it, and Ted had him play it over and over on the loudspeaker system (Casale did not need to be goaded very much to play it): "Turley goes into his windup and here's the pitch. Holy cow!" came Rizzuto's high-pitched voice, "That's out of here. A long home run over the left field wall. Holy cow!" Ted clapped his hands in delight each time he heard it.
It was Dom DiMaggio's party, but Ted Williams was the star attraction. By this time Dom had been reduced to just another member of the supporting cast. Yet I can't remember a time when he seemed quite so happy. He was delighted to see that his old friend still possessed the old magic; that he still had his charismatic power in all of its glory. Halfway through the meal, Dom called across the table to his friend, "Teddy. Teddy. This is just like the trains used to be," harkening back to the days when baseball teams traveled by rail and felt like families.
At one point, Ted announced to everyone at the table, and loud enough for everyone in the place to hear -- they were all hanging on his every word, anyhow -- "I was the smartest left fielder in baseball. Every time a ball was hit to left center I hollered, 'You take it, Dommy.' And he always did."
What a night. Dom loved it. Ted did, too.
And I will never forget it.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
Recent articles in the Culture & Events section
The best statistic of allMichael Reardon
The Catholic Union of BostonThomas Lester
The will of the peopleJohn Garvey
Report card timeDick Flavin