Startling details about Ted Williams’s life unearthed
A monumental new biography reveals more about the Red Sox star’s last hours, and his son’s bizarre hope that Teddy Ballgame would one day live again
First of three articles adapted from “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” by Ben Bradlee Jr., to be published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Co.
The Kid appeared in the small room on the night of July 5th, 2002.
Video cameras rolled, and the flashbulbs popped — just as if he were making another star turn of the sort he had made so many times throughout his celebrated life. About 30 people were anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ted Williams — the great Teddy Ballgame himself: American icon, last of the .400 hitters, war hero, world-class fisherman, enfant terrible with the perfectionist persona. Yet, this was no press conference, no card show, no charity event or meet-and-greet where Ted would wave and say a few words to his faithful.
For he was dead, after all. Quite dead.
Williams had passed away some 12 hours earlier in Florida, at 83, and then been secretly flown on a small chartered jet to Scottsdale, Ariz., outside Phoenix. There his body had been loaded onto an ambulance and taken, in a motorcade, to where this small crowd awaited him, in an operating room at a company called the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, located just a mile from the Scottsdale airport.
Alcor was then, and remains today, the leading practitioner of cryonics, a fringe movement that freezes people after they die, in the hope that medical technology will someday advance to the point where it will be possible to stop or reverse the aging process and cure now-incurable diseases. At that point, cryonics aspires to thaw out its frozen charges and bring them back to life. Alcor froze its first “patient,” as it calls its customers, in 1976. By the time Ted arrived 26 years later, the group said it had frozen 49 people, and had 590 living “members” — those who had signed up to undergo the procedure when they die, and who paid $400 in annual dues in the meantime, while they waited.
On Alcor’s macabre menu, people have two basic options. The first is called a “whole body” procedure, where the entire body is frozen. The second is known as the “neuro,” where only the head is frozen and preserved after being severed from the torso, which is then cremated or buried. A third variation provides for freezing both the torso and the head separately. Alcor stores both the bodies and the heads in huge, thermos bottle-like tanks known as “Dewars,” which are filled with liquid nitrogen cooled to minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit.
In 2002, the whole body procedure cost $120,000, the neuro $50,000. Among cryonicists, the neuro was becoming the preferred option. It was cheaper, for one thing, though Alcor liked to say that both procedures were easily affordable through life insurance. Most importantly, for Alcorians, the head contained the brain, which they considered by far the most important organ in the body because it holds the memory. When the patient comes back to life, or is “reanimated” in cryospeak, he (the believers are overwhelmingly male) will want to remember from whence he came. Furthermore, the brain is the hardest organ to replace. With stem cell research and other advances on the horizon, it would be possible to regenerate tissue, and therefore simply grow a new body beneath your old head. Or so the hope went.
Inside the Alcor operating room, it took five or six people to lift Ted out of the Zigler Box — the airtight, metal container that airlines require for shipping bodies — in which he’d arrived. Under instructions from Alcor, a Florida mortician had filled the box with ice, a cryonics staple applied to the body immediately after death in order to keep it as cool as possible, and to help preserve vital organs. The following account is based on the author’s interviews with three people who were in the room during the procedure and shared their recollections for the first time.
Ted’s body was placed on the operating table, face up. Attendants quickly pressed fresh bags of ice against his skin, especially around the head, neck and groin. The table was surrounded by a custom made, six-inch-high, white plastic wall to contain the ice and to keep excess fluids from spilling onto the floor during the upcoming operation that would last about four hours. Technicians began connecting the major blood vessels to a perfusion machine that would replace the blood with so-called cryoprotectant solutions. These chemicals, similar to antifreeze, were designed to help prevent the formation of ice crystals which could cause further cell damage before the intense cooling process began.
The technicians then started to drain blood and water from Ted’s body in what Alcor called a “washout,” replacing them with glycerol and another cryoprotectant known as B2C, which was used for the head only. Then, using a perforator, a standard neurological tool that looks like an electric drill, a surgeon and his assistant bored two small holes on either side of Ted’s skull so that the surface of the brain could be examined during the perfusion process to guard against swelling. Small wire sensors were inserted into each hole to be used to detect cracking of the skull during the freezing process later.
Soon, the surgeon announced that he was ready to perform the “cephalic isolation.” This meant Ted Williams’s head was now ready to be cut off. The surgeon took out a carving knife and began to cut — starting below Ted’s neck, slicing through tissue and bone, working his way down through the sixth cervical vertebrae, at the top of the spine. At one point, the going slow, the surgeon remarked that he wished he had an electric knife. Finally, he switched to a bone saw to finish the job, and at 9:17 p.m., Mountain time, the head of the greatest hitter who ever lived had been sliced off.
* * *
After Ted’s head was severed, it was put into a small plastic container and taken to an adjoining room known as the “neuro cool-down area.” There it was placed into a small Dewar connected to a larger Dewar filled with liquid nitrogen. The larger Dewar then began pumping nitrogen gas cooled to minus 202 degrees at a high velocity into the smaller Dewar containing Ted’s head. This went on for about three hours. The goal was to cool all parts of the head below the glass transition temperature of minus 191 degrees as quickly as possible, after which it would be “vitrified,” or reach an ice-free state.
Ted’s torso was taken to what Alcor called its “whole body cooling bath,” a large, thermally insulated, rectangular box filled with silicone oil cooled by dry ice. The torso was wrapped in protective plastic and strapped to a wire-mesh stretcher before being lowered into the oil bath. A lid was placed over the bath, and a pump circulated the oil amidst chunks of dry ice, cooling the torso to minus 110 degrees, at a rate of 32 degrees per minute. Then Ted’s body was removed and deposited in a large Dewar where, like his head, it would be cooled further over a period of two weeks.
Each Dewar was 10 feet tall, a little over three feet in diameter, and weighed about 5,400 pounds when full. The capacity was four bodies and five heads. The bodies were wrapped in low-temperature sleeping bags and put inside an aluminum container called a pod. Four pods ringed the sides of a Dewar, and in the middle was the “Neuro Column,” which consisted of five large cans about the size of lobster pots, each resting on a shelf, one on top of the other. Each can contained a head.
An eye bolt was screwed into the bone below the neck to make it easier to handle the head when necessary. The heads lay upside down, resting on a can of Bumble Bee tuna fish, or if a head was larger than normal, perhaps a can of Dinty Moore beef stew. “They want the heads resting on something, not just setting at the bottom of the stockpot,” said Cindy Felix, a former facilities operations manager at Alcor. “It’s amazing some of the things they do. They can be so high tech in some areas, but they’re almost medieval in others — like the tuna can.”
After Ted’s long procedure was over, the Alcorians were tired but jubilant. Here was the celebrity who could transform cryonics and give it some legitimacy.
Of course, for the moment at least, the company couldn’t say anything because of patient confidentiality rules. And John-Henry Williams, Ted’s son, was holding them to that. Holding a sweeping power of attorney and health proxy for his father, John-Henry, 33, had become a cryonics disciple. He’d been in secret talks with Alcor for more than a year about freezing Ted when the time came, and given the company strict instructions not to tell anyone his father was there. Alcor executives hoped they could eventually persuade John-Henry to let them go public — perhaps in return for a price concession. Meanwhile, Ted — his head now in a pot, his torso in a pod — settled in to await what would be his greatest comeback ever.
* * *
The fundamental question of whether Williams wanted his body to be in the place it now was — decapitated in an Arizona cryonics facility — was in doubt. He had never submitted an application to Alcor, or signed up for the cryonics procedure himself, as was standard practice. John-Henry had only faxed Alcor a completed application on his father’s behalf about six hours after Ted was pronounced dead. Moreover, Ted’s will, last revised in 1996, had specified that he wanted to be cremated, not frozen, and he had told scores of friends and associates over the years, at least one as late as 2002, that his wishes were to have his ashes scattered off the Florida Keys, where he had fished for years, along with the ashes of his beloved dog, a Dalmatian named Slugger who had died in 1999.
John-Henry knew that Ted’s will specified he wished to be cremated, and he also knew that his half-sister, Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell, was vehemently against the idea of her father being frozen. She had told John-Henry so directly when he asked her to consider cryonics for Ted a year before. Bobby-Jo had also notified Alcor by email on the day Williams died, when his body was still in Florida, that she opposed the procedure.
Besides facing opposition from Bobby-Jo on freezing Ted, John-Henry also encountered resistance from his younger sister, Claudia Williams. But Claudia said that she gradually came around to the idea, and that while their father was initially dismissive of cryonics, she and John-Henry were able to convince him and gain his approval in November of 2000 during a private meeting in Ted’s hospital room, shortly before he had a pacemaker installed to boost his failing heart.
Claudia and her brother also felt they could dispose of Ted’s body as they saw fit. “As far as I was concerned, our father had died, and John-Henry and I could do whatever we wanted with our father,” she said.
* * *
John-Henry had been interested in cryonics — which operates under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, allowing people to donate their bodies to medical schools or laboratories for research — since 1997. He had watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel, conducted some research on his own and was mindful that cryonics, while still widely viewed as a highly improbable theory subscribed to by several hundred eccentrics, had nonetheless seeped into popular culture through numerous science fiction stories and movies like Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” and “Forever Young,” starring Mel Gibson.
Eric Abel, a Williams family attorney, was one of the first to whom John-Henry confided his interest. They were at Ted’s house, fooling around online and John-Henry looked at various cryonics websites.
“They freeze you on the chance they can bring you back,” John-Henry explained.
Abel told him he was out of his mind. He would be ridiculed and subjected to a level of scrutiny he couldn’t begin to fathom. But John-Henry was undeterred, and as he grew more interested in the subject, he asked various family friends, including Dominic DiMaggio, Ted’s longtime Red Sox teammate, what they thought of cryonics.
“I remember him talking about it in Ted’s kitchen,” DiMaggio said. “ I didn’t pay much attention to it. Then he said to me, ‘What do you think of it?’ I said something like, ‘That’s way off. Only a dream.’ I never dreamed he was thinking of that for Ted.”
But he was, and seriously, as Abel realized after sitting with John-Henry in his car for two hours in the early morning of November 1, 2000, near Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. In a few days, Shands doctors would be performing a catheter procedure on Ted’s heart, a precursor to installing a pacemaker several days later. Williams was then 82. No surgery for a man that age was routine, and so John-Henry began discussing cryonics for his father more seriously with Abel.
The pacemaker was installed on November 6. Williams stayed in the hospital for another two weeks, trying to get his strength back, and made friends with various nurses. One, Debbie Erb, had a house in the Keys and liked to fish. One day, in mid-November, she brought in some pictures of herself fishing there. That prompted Ted and one of his aides, Frank Brothers, to discuss their adventures in Islamorada, where the Kid had lived for many years. Frank noted that his late father, the famous guide and Williams pal Jack Brothers, had been cremated and they’d sprinkled his ashes in what the locals called The Pocket, off Islamorada.
“Then Ted said he wanted to do what his friend did, and that is be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the Keys,” Erb said.
John-Henry knew he was going to need some extra help for his father when he returned to his home in remote Hernando, located between Tampa and Orlando. So on November 19, the day before Ted checked out of Shands, John-Henry arranged for a critical care nurse named Becky Vaughn to come to the hospital.
Vaughn had taken care of Ted in Hernando after he fell and broke his hip in 1997. John-Henry remembered that Ted had liked Vaughn, so he called her and asked if she could visit Ted on the 19th to get reacquainted, and they could discuss if she’d be able to provide some care for him when he got home.
“When I was up at Shands, Ted was out of it,” Vaughn recalled. “He was having apnea episodes. Apnea is when you stop breathing and then you grope for air. CO2 builds up in your brain. He wasn’t right. But Ted remembered me. He said ‘Hiya, sweetheart,’ and then pretty soon he’d fall asleep.” Vaughn said she’d be happy to help care for Ted when he got home.
She set up a medical area at the house, designed a rehab program and put him on an herbal and vitamin regimen which she and John-Henry both thought was beneficial. She would come over three or four days a week, take his blood pressure, check his medication, and they would talk. “Ted was kind of scared, and he’d get loud. He was cantankerous. You could see that at that stage of his life, he was just tired of it all,” Vaughan said.
She got to know John-Henry well. She thought he looked like John F. Kennedy Jr. and was charismatic, but that he was also extravagant, wasteful, entitled and behaved oddly. She noticed that he would stay up most of the night playing video games online, then sleep most of the day. He also had a child-like quality, Vaughn felt. Once, at night, when they went outside to get something from her car, John-Henry stopped in his tracks. “He said, ‘Look at those stars! Don’t you wish you could travel to those stars?’ He was like a kid.”
One day in late December, Vaughn was sitting with Ted in his bedroom when John-Henry came in and asked her if she had ever heard of cryonics. She had, and mentioned a lab in Orlando where he could get more information about it.
“Then John-Henry, in his Peter Pan way, said, ‘Just think of it, 1,000 years from now, people could say their child could have a piece of Ted Williams.’ He said, ‘They could clone my father’s eyes, and a child could have Ted Williams’ eyesight. And they could bring him back to life and he could feel great.’ ”
“What makes you think Ted would want that?” Vaughn asked.
Ted stirred in bed, having heard the conversation. “John-Henry!” he said. “Stop talking about that bull— —!”
But John-Henry now felt free to talk in front of his father about sensitive issues, knowing that he drifted in and out, and would have forgotten what they were talking about the next day anyway.
“What does your father want?” Vaughn asked John-Henry again.
“In his will he doesn’t want a funeral. He wants to be cremated and sprinkled over where he used to fish in the Keys.”
“If that’s what his will says, then that’s what he wants.”
“There are ways to get around things like that,” John-Henry said.
In the end, Vaughn thought, John-Henry’s cryonics notion was more fantastical than exploitive.
“I felt he was this little boy who wanted to make his dad happy, but never dealt in reality. A little boy in a man’s body. He was going to make people happy by cloning his dad’s eyes. Who thinks like that? I think he felt this was how they’d make their money in the future. I don’t know if he was thinking, ‘Hey I can take advantage of this old guy.’ I thought it was more: ‘I’m gonna do this for my dad and we’ll live forever.’ It was Peter Pan.”
* * *
On March 6, 2004, less than two years after his father’s death, John-Henry died suddenly of leukemia in Los Angeles. He was thirty-five years old. His body was driven by ambulance to Alcor headquarters in Scottsdale, where he was admitted as patient A-2063. Like Ted, John-Henry underwent both the “whole-body” and the “neuro” procedures.
Finally, his remains were placed in the same tank, or Dewar, as those of his father.
This article was adapted from “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” to be published Tuesday by Little, Brown and Company. Ben Bradlee Jr. is a former Globe editor and reporter.