SPECIAL AND MEMORABLE PATIENTS A Urologist’s Perspective: A Window Into Baseball

By: Thomas Stringer, MD, FACS, University of Florida Health System, Gainesville | Posted on: 07 Sep 2023

The concept for an article recognizing unique and famous patients from a urologist’s perspective grew out of a conversation I had at the recent AUA meeting in Chicago. Kevin Loughlin, a longtime friend and former co-AUA Board Member, as well as a lifetime Boston Red Sox fan, knew of my friendship with former star player Ted Williams that grew out of a doctor-patient relationship. He suggested that I write an article about that experience and also suggested that many urologists have had unique and special relationships with well-known and in some cases famous patients. Joe Kaufman was known as the urologist to the Hollywood stars. Former AUA President Bill Bohnert once told me about an insightful and hilarious patient encounter with former US presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. My forever friend and coresident, Mike Wehle, befriended the Reverend Billy Graham as a result of a patient relationship. Hopefully, this will mark the beginning of many similar shared stories about those special relationships. Of note in this case, the first time I met our current AUA Secretary, Dave Penson, the majority of our conversation was about our shared reverence for Ted Williams. I think it is the main reason he still likes me.

I have a friend who refers to me as a raconteur, a storyteller. I want to share with you the story of a special, meaningful, and privileged doctor-patient relationship with another storyteller.

The signed Sports Illustrated cover on my office wall states, “To my doctor and friend, signed Ted Williams.” For those who might not know, either because it was too long ago or because they are not baseball or sports fanatics, Ted Williams of Boston Red Sox fame is widely regarded as the best hitter in the history of baseball. Certainly, he is remembered as the last hitter to hit over .400 in a single season. His on-base percentage of .482 is the highest of all time. By the way, Ted was one of a handful of athletes to be inducted into 2 sports Halls of Fame: baseball and fishing. He was also inducted into the Marine Corps Hall of Fame, so really 3 in total.

Ted Williams, also known as “Teddy Ballgame,” “The Kid,” and “The Splendid Splinter,” graced me as my patient and friend for over a decade. He was my window into a bygone era of a sport that captured the imagination of both the young and the old for generations. Much has been written about his career, his teammates, his relationship with the press, and his time in proud service to his country as a Marine pilot.

I want to share some personal insights and memories that made my relationship with Ted Williams very special to me. In so doing, I want to emphasize the special opportunity and privilege that we have, as urologists, to be part of our patients’ lives and how those relationships, in turn, impact us.

I clearly remember the first time I was face to face with Ted Williams. He was very recognizable: tall, broad-shouldered, and imposing. He seemed a little suspicious and certainly not initially friendly. I shared with him my medical opinion and carefully described the pending procedure, including the associated discomfort, after which he said, “It was exactly what you told me it would be.” I had earned his trust, which became an important part of our friendship.

Initially, Ted and I maintained in-office visits that produced some understandable fanfare. To that point, we quickly morphed to home visits. Those home visits then became routine multi-hour conversations sitting across from him at his kitchen table. Ted was, as far as I am concerned, the ultimate storyteller. It was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain access to a special era of baseball and really to life in general through the eyes of my new friend.

My children knew something about my famous patient but did not truly understand altogether why he was famous. Regardless, when Ted called and asked me to come over to execute some legal documents one Christmas Eve, they were curious enough to want to come along with me to meet him. I think they struggled to discern the famous part from the old guy sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear. Maybe it sunk in some when the sitting President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, called to personally wish Ted a Merry Christmas. President Bush subsequently presented Ted with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian award bestowed by the United States government.

The hospital used an alias to respect Ted’s privacy. It was Ted Rivers. On Christmas Day, the hospital operator called to inform me that Ted Rivers was in the hospital and was asking to see me. Ted Rivers? “I don’t know Ted Rivers,” I said. After multiple failed attempts to make me understand, the operator finally blurted, “It’s Ted Williams.” “Oh. Ok. I will be right there.” It was the day after visiting him with the kids. He had fallen and broken his hip. When I got to his room, he was squinting, eyes closed in pain. I quietly spoke his name. He opened his eyes and the first thing he said to me was, “Oh, Doc, you’re here. How are the kids?” Don’t ever tell me Ted Williams didn’t have a big heart.

Through Ted, I met many other famous people. Ted had a baseball museum in the community where we lived. There was an annual induction into his hitter’s hall of fame. Every baseball legend you could imagine clamored to be present. Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, among others. The master of ceremonies for years was Bob Costas and later Tommy Lasorda. One year I sat with my son as guests of Ted in the front row with Michael Bolton singing the national anthem and George and Barbara Bush sitting directly in front of us. As we exited, I lost track of my young son for an instant only to find him in a conversation with Micky Mantle. Ted was very proud of his relationships within baseball, including his teammates and the other stars of his era. I remember clearly the 1999 Major League Baseball All-Star Game held in Boston. Ted was to be individually honored. He was in a wheelchair by that time. All-Star players from both leagues hovered to be close to him. No one wanted to leave his side. The actual start of the game was delayed 15-20 minutes because of that spontaneous tribute. However, I think the accomplishment that Ted was most proud of was his 5-year military service in both World War II and the Korean War as a Marine pilot. He served as John Glenn’s wingman in Korea. John frequently visited Ted at his home, which provided me with an opportunity to meet him as well.

My wife, Leah, is a big tennis fan (Ted secured tickets for us to center court Wimbledon in 1997) but not a big sports fan in general. However, she does have a connection to baseball. Her uncle was Augie Donatelli, a famous National League umpire who, by the way, was on the front cover of the original edition of Sports Illustrated. I asked Ted if he knew him. As it turned out, Augie called a third strike on Ted in a Chicago All-Star Game. Ted knew the strike zone probably better than anyone. Two inches up and off the plate he said. That was no damn strike he exclaimed. Unlike the press, Ted prioritized his relationships with the players, which included the umpires. Regardless, he reiterated, “Worst strike ever called on me.” He told me he harbored that thought for years. Then one day, during spring ball in Arizona decades later and when he was the Texas Rangers manager, he ran into Augie and several other former umpires in a bar in Phoenix. They invited him to join, and after a pregnant silence Augie admitted to Ted that he had also harbored a similar thought for decades about that All-Star Game called strike, knowing that it was “the worst strike I ever called.” Ted was vindicated and they shared a laugh and a beer.

Ted struggled throughout his career with the press and, in general, did not trust them. That strained relationship surfaced late in his life as well. When Joe DiMaggio died in Florida the press asked Ted who was the better player. Joe had prevailed several times over Ted for the American League MVP award, which Ted also won twice. Ted answered honestly that Joe was the better player but that he was the better hitter. True. However, the press roasted him for that comment.

Figure. Sports Illustrated cover signed by Ted Williams to Dr Stringer.

I dealt with the press as well after Ted’s death. The well-publicized controversy at his death was over a family decision to permanently preserve his body. Television station WBZ from Boston did a live interview with me a week after his death. What I thought was going to be a tribute to Ted and his life, including his humanitarian impact through the Jimmy Fund, turned out be a sensational inquisition about the status of his body. I terminated the interview.

Near the end of Ted’s life, I was standing at the hospital elevator when a nurse from the emergency room saw me and stated, “I hear you know Ted Williams.” I said yes, and why did she ask? She said that her mom cleaned his house, and when she picked her up the other day, Mr Williams asked her if she knew me. Of course, she answered, everyone knows Dr Stringer. She hesitated to tell me what Ted then said. Eventually she shared, “He said that you were a great (expletive) guy.” A high compliment and one that I cherish.

Ted Williams and I started our relationship as doctor to patient, which included over time his signature to me on the front page of a Sports Illustrated issue (see Figure). Our relationship endured as a friendship and ended with my signature on his death certificate. Without a doubt, the cherished memories of our friendship live on.