Baseball Immortal: Ted Williams And Cryonics

by David Pascal

When Ted Williams, the greatest hitter in American baseball history, entered cryonic suspension, it set in motion a tide of publicity that flew further than all the home runs struck in his long career. Sometimes the publicity surrounding a story is a bigger story than the story itself. In this case, the content was sometimes as distorted as the coverage was extensive. The Williams suspension became not the landmark step forward for cryonics that it might have been, but instead an object lesson in mistakes to avoid in the future.

The bare facts of the case were these. Ted Williams died; subsequently, a new patient, whose name remains confidential, was delivered to the Alcor facility in Arizona. Ted Williams' daughter, Barbara Joyce Ferrell, announced to the press that John Henry Williams, Ted's son, had had his father frozen against his father's wishes, intending to sell his father's DNA for money. She then announced her intention to legally acquire her father's remains for burial or cremation, even going so far as to call on President George Bush and Senator John Glenn to intervene.

Accusations flew thick and fast, and negative stories proliferated. Son John Henry Williams was said to have been manipulative, even abusive, in his handling of his father. Associates of Ted Williams crowded the papers and airwaves, contradicting one another as they expressed their rock-like certainty that Williams wanted both burial on land and cremation at sea.

Eventually, the facts emerged and the tide turned. Some charges -- such as that of selling Williams' DNA -- were absurd on the face of it. Why freeze an entire human being for $120,000 to preserve DNA when freezing a few hairs for barely $100 would work just as well? Then Ted Williams' other (and markedly calmer) daughter spoke to the press, confirming that Williams did in fact know what he was doing, and that he wanted to be suspended.

John Henry Williams produced paperwork with Ted Williams' signature confirming that wish. It was immediately counter-charged that the signature was faked. (It was not, according to a handwriting analyst).

Then it was said that Ted was unfit to decide for himself and/or unaware of what he was signing. But proof of mental debilitation was nowhere in evidence, and that charge fizzled too. Legal action continued, but uncertainty over whether Ted Williams will remain safely in cryostasis receded. The debate devolved into squabbles about which members of the family are most entitled to sell the late slugger's bats.

And then it was discovered that Ted Williams' son John Henry was suffering from acute leukemia. Criticism moderated somwhat as the slugger's son wasted and died in UCLA Medical Center. He then joined his father in suspension at Alcor.

Reports of the son's quiet later passage never matched the sensationalistic first flurry that attended his father's. In both cases the general public's already cloudy grasp of cryonics remained cloudy.

Was there a golden lining to this cloud? To an extent.

Jay Leno was not the only beneficiary of Ted Williams' decision for cryostasis. Cryonics was mentioned in virtually every major newspaper, on every major news channel, on every major news site in existence. And though John Henry Williams took the worst of the drubbing, cryonics as such was comparatively benignly treated. Spokespersons for Alcor and the Cryonics Institute took center stage in news interviews and in article after article. Web hits skyrocketed, and online links mushroomed.

One aspect of the coverage was especially heartening. In the interests of 'fairness,' positive press mention of cryonics has traditionally been followed by quotations from opponents of cryonics. Journalists would quote doctors and scientists to the effect that cryonics was unworkable or nonsense.

But this time, the qualifications of the opponents were generally reversed. Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Schermer observed that cryonics would not work because the strawberries Mr. Schermer freezes in his refrigerator do not come out good. Ethicist Arthur Caplan of the Bioethics Center at the University of Pennsylvania called cryonics organizations, "scam artists". Calling people scam artists without evidence is perhaps not the most ethical practice going either.

Still, residents at ethical centers are not cryobiologists, nor are magazine editors neurologists and scientists.

Who were the advocates of cryonics? Dr. Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC fame; Dr. Steve Harris of UCLA Med Center; Dr. Eric Drexler, father of nanotechnology; Dr. Marvin Minsky, father of American artificial intelligence research; Dr. Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute; Dr. Yuri Pichugin, fresh from collaboration at Harvard Medical Center, of the Kharkov Institute for Problems of Cryobiology and Cryomedicine and the Institute for Neural Cryobiology; mathematics and physics professor Robert Ettinger.

Cryonics may have its critics, but in the current round, the men of science were as much or more in the cryonics corner as among the opponents.

Did that matter? Not, initially, to the State of Michigan, which precipated the only really serious injury to cryonics by suspending important operations at the Cryonics Institute, the second largest provider of cryonics services in the United States.

In 2003 an article was published in Sports Illustrated magazine claimed that the cryonics organization Alcor had mishandled the Ted Williams' cryopreservation. Despite the fact that the Cryonics Institute was not involved in the case in any way, the media outcry inspired officials of the State of Michigan to place CI under a "Cease and Desist" order for six months. The order, feared by many at the time as heralding a possible wave of anti-cryonics legislation, finally ended when, after months of legal review and inspection, the Michigan government decided to license and regulate the Cryonics Institute -- as a cemetery.

Since then the cryonics news -- except when Ted Williams is mentioned -- has been markedly positive. Advances in research, breakthroughs in technique, and rising numbers of members and interest have been the rule.

But the awareness of the deadly potential of negative press coverage and media misrepresentation remains among supporters of the cryonics effort. In ways ranging from Alcor's hiring of the public relations firm of WalshCOMM to handle its media dealings, to the creation of the nonprofit advocacy and education group, the Cryonics Society, supporters of cryonics emerged with a new sense of the need for cryonics to present a better image.

Have cryonics organizations and their supporters learned anything, then? Perhaps.

"The rich are different," said F. Scott Fitzgerald. In a human sense that is debatable, but it is certainly true that the rich, and especially the famous, are treated differently. Particularly by contemporary media which seem to know no bounds when it comes to reporting rumor, innuendo, and outright error.

Socially prominent individuals interested in cryonics should recognize this, and abandon the notion that they will be suspended without the public knowing about it. We no longer live in a world where privacy is an absolute; not, at least, if one is so famous as to attract the attention of the mass media. If a genuinely famous person is suspended, the press will descend in force and en masse to gather what information they can. And if they haven't any, they will report gossip, speculation, and nonsense, the more sensational the better. Serious journalists will check their facts. But there are enough who aren't to start a firestorm.

When dealing with famous members, cryonics organizations should remind them of this, flatly and bluntly. Needless to say, cryonics organizations must maintain secrecy if that is the member's request. But in some cases, the attempt at anonymity can actually endanger the patient's chances. Ted Williams was helped by the emerging facts; he was not helped by the rumors. Members likely to draw media attention should be aware of the potential risks, and have the option to authorize the provider to make the patient's name and suspension circumstances public, if doing so will increase the patient's chances of survival.

Indeed if at all possible, and with the famous member's prior understanding and agreement, cryonics organizations should have on hand, and be ready to present to the press, clear, certain, and undeniable proof that the member did indeed consciously and legally choose to be suspended.

If, at the moment the Williams story broke, there had been a videotape of Ted Williams saying, in an alert and clear-minded manner, that he believed in cryonics, advocated it, that he had chosen to be treated willingly and gladly, and that he asked all his fans to support him and the new technology which, he hoped, would restore him to them one day, the Ted Williams case might have been completely different.

And organizations should be prepared to deal with misinformation from the start. Alcor had nothing to say to the press, which therefore went on to print rumors, errors, and innuendo. The Cryonics Institute, intending to correct some of the misapprehensions of journalists and others in this case, responded quickly enough with a brief informational page on the Ted Williams matter early on, but it was too little to forestall the State of Michigan. A separate, more general and unbiased source of accurate cryonics information would seem a necessary element in helping press and government react reasonably. The existence of the Cryonics Society now fills something of that gap, by serving as an unaffiliated organization standing by to help provide accurate information to the media in future such incidents.

Overall, should we be pleased or not at the Ted Williams case? Overall, we should be pleased. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people to whom 'cryonics' remained a plot device out of science fiction are now aware of it as an available reality. They're now aware that there are actual organizations providing actual services. And that matters.

In marketing there is a rule of thumb called the "Rule Of Seven." It states that a message has to be brought forcibly to a member of the public at least seven times before the message begins to penetrate. Rumors about Walt Disney are one statement; fictions like Vanilla Sky are a second; incidents like the Ted Williams is a third - and neither rumor nor fiction, but reality.

A few more such incidents, and perhaps a true historic corner will have finally be turned, and a transfiguring moment reached, of which the Ted Williams case will be seen as a genuine harbinger.

And we should be pleased, too, for Ted Williams. To be more of a hero in death than in life is exceptional, but what is more appropriate for an exceptional and valiant figure than an exceptional and valiant fate? Ted Williams took on the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Orioles, the Redskins; now he's taking on death itself. If he wins this one, the human race will have won right alongside him.

And so the cheers that surrounded him during his long career will continue to ring on. Because for Ted Williams, the game is not over.

Copyright 2006 by The Cryonics Society

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