Locals remember Ted Williams on 100th birthday

Staff photo by TOM KING Nashua businessman George Katis says that Sox legend Ted Williams should be remembered as much for his miliatary career as his great baseball accomplishments.

NASHUA – Local businessman George Katis knew exactly what he would be doing today.

“I’ll be celebrating,” he said. “It’s a very big event around the country.”

Why? Well, today marks the 100th birthday of late Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams. Katis is one of millions of people on whom Williams left an impression once they got to know him. Katis did so extensively after befriending Williams in the late 1980s.

Williams passed away in July 2002.

Di Lothrop, a former employee of The Telegraph, also remembers when she first met Williams. The Liverpool, England, native had just moved to the Nashua area from the West Coast. Williams was in the area to visit his friend, the late Herman Pouliot, former publisher of The Telegraph. The Telegraph offices at the time were in Hudson.

Courtesy photo Former Telegraph employee Di Lothrop cherishes a photo taken with Red Sox legend Ted Williams, plus the autograph he gave her during a visit to the newspaper's offices over 30 years ago.

“I had just moved from the West Coast the year before, and didn’t know anything about the Red Sox,” she said. “So the buzz was, ‘Ted Williams is here, Ted Williams is here.’ I said, ‘Who is Ted Williams?’ I got all sorts of grief.”

But, she ended up with an autograph and photo of herself and the late Hall of Famer, which she cherishes to this day, more three decades later.

Many likely have similar stories if they ever encountered the Red Sox hero. Late broadcaster Dick Enberg wrote a book about Williams, whom he is said to have idolized.

Katis went to a discussion about the book recently.

Katis got to know Williams when the Red Sox star’s late son, John Henry, saw some of Katis’ company’s decorative wall panting work while in town dining at a Nashua Main Street restaurant. Next thing you know, Katis was down at Ted Williams’ Brookline, Massachusetts apartment with his designer doing decorative work.

Obviously, there was a great impression made on Katis by Williams. But if one wants to know the defining moment, he or she should look to a time in 1993 when Katis was helping to run a press conference at the famed Citrus Hills development in Hernando, Florida.

Williams had just released a new book, “Ted Williams’ Hit List,” about Williams’ choice for the 20 greatest hitters. Williams was at an event celebrating the book and a new phone card featuring the Red Sox legend.

“Besides the 20 greatest hitters (or/plus family and friends), there were probably another 20 Hall of Famers there, and some of the biggest current players of the time,” Katis said, adding the event was hosted by broadcaster Bob Costas.

Williams was recovering from a stroke, and Katis was helping Williams get through the crowd of what he termed “thousands” outside the museum.

“He was suffering from what we called ‘tunnel vision’,” Katis said. “I’m holding him and we’re walking out to the car. Mobs of people yelling, screaming. Ted, don’t ask me how – there was an older gentleman in the crowd who was also suffering from a stroke – and Ted saw him. And he said, ‘George, bring me over to that gentleman.’ He picked him out of the crowd.

“I brought him over, and he gave the man words of encouragement, told him to ‘Hang in there.’ The gentleman’s face, it looked like he had just seen the Messiah. That was his lifelong greatest experience, was Ted Williams coming over to him, and addressed the stroke the poor gentleman was suffering from.

“To me, it was one of the most heartwarming things I’ve ever seen,” Katis said.

That moment, in Katis’ mind, summed up Ted Williams.

“That’s not new for Ted,” Katis said. “If you knew all the things he did to help sick children his whole life, that he never wanted any publicity about. If you were a sportswriter and you wrote anything about him with sick kids and the Jimmy Fund, he blackballed you. And (the writers) knew it, and no one ever said anything.”

Williams, according to Katis, was moved by early meetings discussing the Jimmy Fund and got Red Sox ownership involved. The Jimmy Fund became the team’s top charity, and remains so to this day.

“The Jimmy Fund was born,” Katis said. “Ted devoted his life to raising money for all those sick kids. People have no idea. Even people who think they have an idea, have no idea.”

Katis knows Williams was a complicated person, but said he was often misunderstood as well.

“I’ll tell you, you had to know how to handle Ted,” Katis said. “You couldn’t tell him what to do. But I’ll tell you, I used to hear all this crap about John Henry (who died of cancer two years after his father passed) was taking advantage of him. That’s the biggest (expletive) I’ve ever heard. John Henry and Ted were connected at the hip. You never saw such love between a father and his son. … Take it from someone who was there and was part of it.”

Katis remembers kidding Williams that Katis wore No. 7 as a Little Leaguer – a number also worn by slugger Mickey Mantle of the rival New York Yankees.

“But by the way, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle were the best of friends,” Katis said, adding he got to meet a lot of baseball legends through Williams. “If you were Ted’s friend, all these guys were instantly your friend. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Meanwhile, three decades ago, Lothrop made a new friend. She got out a pen and some paper Williams could use to sign autographs for employees who were gathering in the area around her desk.

“I figured everyone else was getting his autograph, so I might as well get one too,” she said. “So he signed it, ‘To Di, with all my love, Ted Williams.’ That’s really what he wrote.”

And Lothrop from that day on became a Red Sox fan.

“He was,” she said, “such a wonderful man.”

Will there ever be anyone as legendary and polarizing in Red Sox lore as Ted Williams? This remains to be seen.

Katis said Williams should stand out not just for his legendary baseball career, but for the fact it was interrupted not once, but twice by military stints in World War II and the Korean War, for him to be a superb pilot and pilot instructor.

“He told me more than once that the greatest thing he wants to be called is a Marine,” Katis said. “Not baseball, a Marine. …

“Ted Williams was more than a baseball player. Ted Williams was the greatest American of the 20th century.”

And now, in the 21st century, many celebrate the 100th birthday of the Red Sox legend.

“I’m celebrating the great life, my great friend,” Katis said. “It’s a celebration.”