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Death strikes early

John Henry Williams dies of leukemia at 35

John Henry Williams, the only son of late Red Sox Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, died of acute myelogenous leukemia Saturday night at UCLA Medical Center in California. He was 35. According to two family sources, John Henry Williams's remains already have been delivered to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Ever-controversial, John Henry Williams ran the business affairs of his father for almost 20 years until Ted Williams died July 5, 2002. A storm of protest ensued when John Henry had his father's remains frozen at the Alcor cryonics facility in the hours after Ted's death.

The younger Williams was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2003 and made no public statements in the final months of his life. According to Dave McCarthy, a family friend and director of the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla., John Henry Williams underwent a bone marrow transplant a week before Christmas (his sister, Claudia, was the donor), but it was unsuccessful. Family sources also said John Henry underwent brain surgery Friday.

Al Cassidy, executor of Ted Williams's estate, said John Henry's mother, Dolores, and his sister were with him when he died at 10:33 local time Saturday night. Another family source indicated longtime friend of the Williams family, Eric Abel, was also at John Henry's bedside.

Born Aug. 27, 1968, John Henry was apart from his famous father for most of his first two decades. Ted Williams divorced John Henry's mother in 1972 and John Henry and younger sister Claudia saw little of their father. They saw even less of Bobby-Jo Ferrell, their half-sister from Ted's first marriage (Ted was married three times).

John Henry Williams grew up in rural Putney, Vt. As an adolescent, he severely burned his arms and chest and spent considerable time at the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston. He graduated from Vermont Academy, then spent three semesters at Bates before enrolling at the University of Maine at Orono. He earned a marketing degree from Maine in December of 1991.

Williams bore a startling resemblance to his father but inherited little of the slugger's athleticism. He did not play baseball in college and failed at several minor league tryouts, including a last-ditch effort at the age of 33 with the Red Sox' Gulf Coast League team in the summer of 2002, shortly before his father died.

John Henry's business ventures often failed. Capitalizing on the celebrity of his father, he dove headfirst into the memorabilia market in the early 1990s. Several ventures went bankrupt and he seemed forever trailed by lawsuits, creditors, and red ink. Along the way, he alienated many of his father's friends and contemporaries. There was considerable backlash when John Henry put a cap bearing the logo of his own company on his father's head when Ted Williams made his farewell appearance at the All-Star Game at Fenway Park in the summer of 1999.

In the late years of Ted Williams's life, all roads to the slugger went through John Henry. The son was aware people thought he was capitalizing on his father's fame. "I can't worry about that," he said in January of 2001 after his father underwent a nine-hour surgery in New York. "Dad and I are the only people who know what our relationship is like. He knows I care more about him than anyone in the world."

All the same, the criticism stung and John Henry argued with many of his father's closest friends, including former Red Sox shortstop Johnny Pesky, who often opened his home to John Henry when Ted's son was a college student. In addition to fending off requests for his father's time and signature, Williams constantly complained about a marketplace flooded with fake Ted Williams autographs.

But it wasn't until his father's death that John Henry made the move that cut him off from virtually everyone in his father's circle.

Claiming it was his father's wish, John Henry Williams sent Ted Williams's body to the Alcor facility immediately after the elder Williams died. When Bobby-Jo Ferrell took the matter to court, John Henry produced a note in which Ted, John Henry, and Claudia agreed to have their remains frozen in hopes that they might someday be reunited. Ferrell eventually dropped her suit, and the slugger's body remains frozen at Alcor.

Ferrell issued a statement in which she said she "does not feel comfortable making a comment" on the death of her half-brother.

"On behalf of all of us with the Boston Red Sox, we extend our condolences to the John Henry Williams family," Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry said. "Perhaps no person meant more to the history of the Boston Red Sox than did his father, and it was clear that his father's life and legacy were the focal point of John Henry Williams's life." Pesky, Ted Williams's longtime teammate and friend, said, "I know he's done some things that I didn't like, but John Henry was his dad's pride and joy. Growing up, John Henry spent a lot of time with us. He loved his dad. It's just sad the way things turned out. I really feel bad. The [Alcor] thing practically destroyed me. Ted meant a lot to all of us. John Henry, I feel bad about."

John Henry Williams is not the first member of Ted Williams's family to be claimed by cancer. Ted's only sibling, Danny Williams, died of leukemia in 1960 at the age of 39. Ted Williams spent a great deal of time pioneering the fund-raising effort to wipe out children's cancers and was a friend of Dr. Sidney Farber, the godfather of modern chemotherapy. In his capacity as Ted Williams's primary caretaker, John Henry Williams spent considerable time promoting his father's efforts for the Jimmy Fund.

"John Henry was a little brash, but he was a chip off the old block," said Mike Andrews, executive director of the Jimmy Fund. "I watched him grow up over the years. He called many times over the last year, asking if there was anything he could do. When his father died, he was adamant about continuing the tradition. That was his wish, as well as Claudia's."

"It is particularly sad that leukemia claimed his life, for his father was a pioneer in the development of the Jimmy Fund, which has made such remarkable progress in the fight against cancer," Sox owner Henry said in the team's statement.

McCarthy, executive director of the Williams Museum, said, "I first met John Henry in 1986 when he was at the World Series with his dad. There's no question he worshiped his dad and the father loved his son. Everybody knows John Henry had some issues later in life, but let me tell you this. He used to stay with my family sometimes and we had a German shepherd who got hit by a car and I was going to put the dog down. John Henry found out about it, and the next day we had an overnight delivery from him -- 20 signed pictures of Ted Williams. He told me to sell the pictures and take care of the dog. That's the kind of kid I'll remember. There were some great sides to him."

And now he's reunited with his father. In a cryonics facility in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Nick Cafardo of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

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