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Original Issue

A Whole New Ball Game for Teddy

Could that have been Ted Williams you saw hustling baseball memorabilia on cable TV? The answer, sad to say, is yes

Ted Williams was on the home shopping network. This is true. He sat next to a fast-talk announcer named Brian last Thursday night. He was on the cable, in the home. The Splendid Splinter. Teddy Ballgame. The Kid. Ted. Not even the 24-hour evangelical channels a few clicks down the dial have ever conjured up a more startling vision, no matter how hard they tried. Not even MTV is more outrageous. Ted in the land of the cubic zirconia ring. Ted among the porcelain dolls. There is a routine on this channel in which somebody honks a horn called Tootie during the best buys. Ted on the Tootie channel.

He looked about as happy as a trained bear in a traveling carnival. A plug was stuck in his left ear so he could hear the callers, he was wearing a light blue polo shirt, and his glasses hung against his chest from a cord around his neck. He had a pen in his right hand, and at times he seemed to be doodling. The rest of his body could not be seen. There was the thought that maybe five seat belts were keeping him locked in his place.

"The first item is a complete set of the 1989 Classic Purple Series baseball cards," Brian the fast-talk announcer said. "Ted, the appreciation on baseball cards these days is tremendous."

"Better than a bank," Ted said.

There have been other famous baseball players on the show, flogging the latest in collectible gewgaws. Mickey Mantle has done the show. Pete Rose. Reggie Jackson. A number of players. Ted somehow was different. It was as if John Hancock were selling commemorative copies of the Declaration of Independence, as if Ernest Hemingway were hawking signed copies of A Farewell to Arms, as if Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy were peddling plastic replicas of Oscar. The eye had trouble convincing the mind about what it was seeing.

"Now is the time to dial on these cards. Right, Ted?" Brian said.

"You betcha," Ted said.

The bulk of the time, of course, was spent making the items as desirable as possible. Brian went into rapturous detail about the virtues of collecting cards and memorabilia. The items dominated the screen, while a woman's perfectly manicured hand fondled—and there is no other verb to use—each of them. She touched the cards and the autographed baseballs and the commemorative plaques as if they were gifts from Zeus to an appreciative citizenry. She wore pink nail polish.

Ted mostly appeared in little cutaway shots in a corner of the picture. When the callers phoned in to purchase items, Brian told them that they could talk to the greatest hitter of all time. Sometimes they took Brian up on the offer, telling Ted that their father or somebody else once had seen him hit a ball on a cloudy day in Cleveland in 1948. More often they simply barreled along about how thrilled they were to add this newest piece to their wonderful collection at home and about how excited they were that it was going to be worth so much in the future.

"I'm so happy," a caller named Pam said. "I bought the Nolan Ryan ball last week. Now I have Ted."

The $14.75 baseball cards were replaced on the screen by the official replica of a 1946 Red Sox World Series press pin at $99.75, which was followed by the $89.75 ball autographed by Ted and the $129.75 Splendid Splinter Autographed Plaque. A replica of the official 1941 Red Sox jersey was offered at, said Brian, "not $850, not $750, not even $650, but $498.75." Each shirt was signed by Ted and backed by a certificate of authenticity. Only 406 shirts had been made, commemorating Ted's .406 average, 50 years ago, the last time a big leaguer had hit better than .400. This was followed by a plaque featuring Ted and Mickey Mantle for $159.75 and yet another plaque featuring Ted and the Mick and Stan the Man for $189.75. Everything seemed to sell just fine.

Ted's part of the show lasted for 2½ hours, and every now and then an interesting question came along and he had an interesting answer. He ticked off the circumstances of various at bats during his career as if the at bats had happened last Tuesday. He talked of the aroma of burning wood that he sometimes smelled when he hit a baseball solidly. He talked about weighing his bats at the local post office, checking for imperfections. There were moments when he got going—rolling, 72 years old and excited—talking about dead men's deeds in ballparks that no longer exist. The moments ended quickly. Business had to be done.

"Ted," a caller said near the end, "I want to congratulate you on staying out of trouble and being an outstanding individual."

"Yeah," Ted said. "It ain't easy, either."

He smiled a little bit at what he had said, and then the smile faded. He stared into the unfamiliar camera. The pink fingernails pointed at the latest item beneath his face. Brian began to babble about how time was running out. These were items that might never be seen again. Never. An 800 number was stretched across the screen.

Somewhere, no doubt, the Simon and Garfunkel song was playing, asking the question "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." There was no question here, no question about Ted. The lonely eyes had found their man.