Ted Williams' climb from San Diego to Boston

Out of North Park

Ted Williams, 1941. "In 1939 my mother and father separated and there was more grief, so I just stayed away from San Diego."
  • Ted Williams, 1941. "In 1939 my mother and father separated and there was more grief, so I just stayed away from San Diego."

"There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived!" That was the goal — the constant wish — of The Kid as expressed not only in his autobiography My Turn at Bat (1969) but the burning desire, long before that, of a young boy growing up in San Diego, long before he became the great left fielder of the Boston Red Sox and the last of the .400 hitters, destined for the Hall of Fame. It was a dream, an abiding and continual hope, a virtual need to get something of his own back in life, after a lonely and somewhat Dickensian childhood, much of it spent alone.

When Ted did come back to San Diego on July 12, 1992 for the dedication of the Ted Williams Parkway — the stretch of State Highway 56 off of I-15 near Rancho Penasquitos — he showed his old Red Sox teammate Bobby Doerr where his father's old photo shop once stood.

When Ted did come back to San Diego on July 12, 1992 for the dedication of the Ted Williams Parkway — the stretch of State Highway 56 off of I-15 near Rancho Penasquitos — he showed his old Red Sox teammate Bobby Doerr where his father's old photo shop once stood.

Ted Williams was born in San Diego on August 30, 1918. It was a comparatively small town then, population 150,000, "little more than a naval base down in the boondocks," as Ed Linn, his biographer, puts it, who goes on to point out that not only was it not a baseball area but that there were no games to hear on the radio, and the Pacific Coast League, spanning only Seattle and Los Angeles, was little more than a dream away. It was a long way from the East, where baseball predominated and ruled the lives of boys.

He lived and grew up at 4121 Utah Street. The North Park playground was a block and a half from his house — "It had lights and we could play until nine o'clock at night" — and would become a refuge in what it offered of play for a kid who had few alternatives for fun. There was no television, were no videogames, no malls, nothing to take his attention away from what would lead, not so much to an interest in sports, but to an almost monomaniacal fascination with baseball — and particularly hitting. When asked over the years if any modern player would ever hit over .400, Williams always said there were too many diversions for kids today to practice hitting day in and day out, relentlessly, the way he did. The Williams family was not well off, and in his autobiography he mentions that even the $4000 house, bought in 1923, had been "gotten through the kindness of the Spreckels family, a prominent family in San Diego. My mother was going to pay them back, but I don't think she ever did." As a ballplayer, Ted spent much of his life in hotels. But I don't think he ever trusted houses again — homes, with all the connotations — and he never owned a house until he bought one in Miami, in 1950.

Ted's parents had come to San Diego in 1915. His father, Sam, was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, and had served in the Army Cavalry in the Philippines. He had met 18-year-old May Venzer in Honolulu — a girl part Mexican, part French — where she was stationed as a Salvation Army lieutenant, a commission she lost by marrying someone not of her own belief. They decided to settle in California. It was an odd and unlikely alliance. A smoker and a drinker, Sam Williams ran a small impecunious photography shop downtown on Fifth Avenue, taking passport photos of sailors with their girls. "He wouldn't get home until nine, ten o'clock," Ted later said. Nor would his mother, "Salvation May" or "the Angel of Tijuana," as she was called, who, pursuing her lifetime work, was also "gone all day and half the night, working the streets for the Salvation Army." To young Ted this seemed parochial, and later he would even call her "narrow-minded." She was a zealot, to be sure, and in her idealist, neglectful way she was not unlike the paradoxically inept Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens's novel Bleak House, whose religious convictions were all high-mindedly attuned to outreach work in faraway missions while she badly stinted her family back home, leaving them almost destitute and forced to cope for themselves in squalor and misery. A brother Danny was born two years after Ted, a scapegrace who grew up to lead a vexed and delinquent life, arguably traceable to the same neglect Ted felt. Ted once said, "When you don't have much of a home life, and you're a kid, you just naturally search for things to do."

There was much dissatisfaction in those early depression years. Even as a boy, Ted was a tall, rangy, awkward, remarkably thin lad. He was a nail-biter ("right down to the quick") and highly strung. He confesses in My Turn at Bat to having a "large inferiority complex." Loud, he was also shy — one can cause the other. "Even later, when I first started signing autographs," he later wrote, "I'd hold my head down." At about 12 years old, when Ted's interest in baseball really began and he started staying at the park all day, coming home at noon only for fried potatoes ("That was my lunch"), he saw opportunity for little else to make him happy.

"I never had quite as good clothes as some of the kids, embarrassed that my mother was out in the middle of the damn street all the time," he said, "and it always embarrassed me." At one point his mother did give him "a Bill Doak fielder's glove, the glove for kids in San Diego those days — I think it was named for some old third baseman" — and she even gave him a Model 12 Winchester shotgun. But what she didn't give him was her time, her attention, and if she gave him her love, although it was real, it was limited and abstract. There was no household, as such. "The only decent chair we had" — this was on Ted's reflection on the occasion of Red Sox scout Eddie Collins visiting Utah Street — "was an old mohair thing that had a big hole you could see the springs through." It all created part of his inferiority complex. "I remember being ashamed of how dirty the house was all the time," said Ted, years later.

Young Ted found his sole joy at the park. "I was there all the time. Play, Play, Play, Play. Horseshoes, handball, a game called 'Big League'" — softball played against the backstop with singles, doubles measured off for points by the grid — and all sorts of competition. "Almost always the first at the ballpark, almost always the last to leave," he wrote. "I'm talking from a kid on." He used to walk along swinging his bat at Eugenia bushes, swatting the purple berries. Deprivation concentrates the mind wonderfully. "I was fortunate to grow up in Southern California, where it is always warm and a boy can stretch the baseball season to his own dimensions." He would stay there, hitting baseballs all day, working his wrists, honing his eyesight. (He had 20/10 eyesight, and one of the great TW stories, constantly repeated, was that he could read the label of a 45 rpm record while it was spinning.) Is it any surprise such a dedicated hitter, even then, would go on to hit .388 at 39 years old?

There were friends in North Park as well. Ted played marbles with Chuck Moran, whose father "from back East" told the boys about seeing great ballplayers like Smoky Joe Wood and Walter Johnson. In My Turn at Bat, he recounts many exploits, along with those friends. He remembered as a boy "what big day it was when the Shenandoah, the big dirigible, flew over and seeing Lindbergh at the stadium. I always admired Charles Lindbergh," Williams said, "the hero that he was, the terrible tragedy he had to live with, his great obsession to be alone despite the important things he did." Ted enjoyed other neighborhood boys. There was Johnny Lutz, a kid named Ted Gray, Roy Engle, "who lived down the street," the Tallamani brothers — eight of them — and older Chick Rotert, "who lived next door" and now and again took him fishing, a hobby Ted pursued for a lifetime, becoming one of the sport's living experts, ("...I'm not far from being the greatest fly caster," he truthfully admits in his book.) And there was Wilbur Wiley, whose father was a streetcar conductor and who also befriended Ted.

Fathers were important to Ted, whether they were his friends' fathers didn't matter, and it doesn't take a psychoanalyst to see why their surrogate presence he came so desperately to depend on. Rod Luscomb ("my first real hero"), the North Park playground director who took Ted under his wing, became the first of many such father figures in Williams's life, beginning here in San Diego and continuing all the way up to Red Sox manager (with whom he never argued), umpires (whose calls he never disputed), and owners (Tom Yawkey he adored). It all began with his early coaches. And when an older Ted Williams later asserts, "A lot of times they're [coaches] more of an influence than the parents," frankly no one is surprised to hear it. After Lusk, there was Les Cassie, always "Mr. Cassie" to Ted even when he got older. Mr. Cassie lived across the street — his son Les Jr. was another of Ted's buddies — and, as he loved to fish, he often took Ted, with "Calcutta rods," to Crystal Pier or Coronado, where, surfcasting, they would fish for croakers and corbina all night and return at 5:00 a.m.! Nothing is perhaps more eloquent, or poignantly wistful, as regards his own parents, than Ted Williams's seemingly exclusive remark so many years later in his autobiography, "I loved Mr. Cassie."

Interestingly enough, it was Mr. Cassie — not his father — that Ted asked to drive down with him to the Red Sox training camp in Orlando, Florida, after he signed up. He provided a boy with needful attention, which is a kind of love, if it doesn't in fact embody it, but even with that said we are still able to discern in what young Ted was deprived of at home, the source of a lifetime of restlessness and frustration.

After going to Garfield Elementary, Ted attended Horace Mann Junior High in San Diego, playing on the junior high baseball team. "I had a picture of Babe Ruth on my wall, [but] Cotton Warburton was more of a hero to me then, a San Diego boy playing football at USC, 140 pounds, running zigzag up the damn field. I wasn't really concerned about Babe Ruth. It was 3000 miles to New York, and that seemed like three and a half months to me!" Ted's real baseball hero at the time, as a matter of fact, was Bill Terry of the New York Giants.

Ted attended Herbert Hoover High, a new school in 1932 of only about 800 or 900 students. "I was actually a block inside the bigger school's [San Diego High] territory, but I felt I had a better chance to play on a team just starting out, and I managed to get in." There were later rumors that a tough pitcher his age on the playground circuit named Bill Skelly, a rival — Ted was a pitcher in high school — was going to San Diego High and that Ted didn't want the competition. It was also gossiped that he didn't think he could play on Coach Mike Morrow's great Caver teams of the 1930s, who were 281-49 lifetime against high school opponents, 367-97 against all opposition.

As if the right-handed throwing, left-handed batting Williams feared competition! In high school he batted .583 and .406 his last two years, .430 for all three years, and led Herbert Hoover High — the "Hockers of Hockerville," as they were derisively called by the bigger, better school — to the championship, with Ted virtually beating San Diego High by himself, hitting .588 in 15 games, with seven home runs, 22 RBIs, and winning 4 straight games as a pitcher. It wasn't only Ted's natural talent and power (he was 6'4" and 140 pounds) — he was lucky enough, again, to have a coach/father figure named Wofford ("Wos") Caldwell, who later went on to become a professor of architecture at the University of Florida. At his Hall of Fame induction, Ted significantly singled out "Wos" Caldwell, as well as Rod Luscomb, citing them in his moving speech as two people from San Diego whose help in baseball was so instrumental in his career.

Meanwhile, at 17 Ted was playing for the American Legion Padre Serra "Fighting Bog" Post Team and other sandlot teams during the summer — good teams. "We challenged the Navy teams off the Lexington and the Saratoga, which were tied up in San Diego harbor," he later wrote. At one point, until his teetotaling mother stepped in, he was playing for $5 a Sunday on the Texas Liquor House team!

"I wasn't a good student," admits Williams, though he liked history and did well in it — and he wasn't sure where he was headed in life, though he prayed baseball figured in the equation. His temperament wasn't geared to anything unaggressive or unchallenging. He was a difficult character because he was a perfectionist. "I have never been regarded especially as a man with great patience," he says with classic understatement. He threw bats as a young player, frequently blew his top, kicked dugout stanchions, would, "damn near kill myself," in his own words. "Scream. I'd scream out of my own frustration." He clearly had an explosive nature, and in his blood, one-quarter Mexican, there was great pride. That highly controversial baseball player Bostonians knew for 22 years — a temper goaded by countless niggling and malicious sportswriters from that town with whom Ted Williams had a lifelong feud, by one whose source was shared in the misery of his missing father and absent mother — was no different in his sandlot days. He needed to be perfect.

"Ted had to prove himself constantly," observes Ed Linn in his Book, Hitter. "He needed the approval — and the applause — of the crowd so much that he went to abnormal lengths to deny that he needed it. Joe [DiMaggio] had ulcers. Ted gave them.... Joe never showed emotion. Ted never let an emotion go unexpressed."

Deprivation sharpens ambition and in certain personalities engenders the need to excel, almost as an existence assertion, to be the best, to show the world, to redeem the time. Wasn't Babe Ruth, handed over by an uncaring father to a Catholic reform school, virtually an orphan? Didn't Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Patterson more or less raise themselves with their fists? Didn't Larry Bird's father's suicide leave him ignominiously defenseless and open to a vague fate? With his uncompromising personality, Ted Williams was loyal to his own principles, his own code of honor, the private resolutions he needed.

He never tipped his hat after a home run — Ed Linn explains this by pointing out "it kept him in control" — and became belligerently famous for it. A lifelong Republican, he despises politicians ("Maybe you could stretch a point and say that 1 percent of them are all right"). No man alive is more his own person than Ted Williams — or more sensitive to criticism. He famously had "rabbit ears" and could always hear that one boo in a bleacherful of cheers. He once spat at the Red Sox sportswriters box rounding third on a homer — he drove in more runs per time at bat than anybody who played the game, except Ruth, and was still criticized by these eunuchs — made an obscene gesture (still called by many in Boston the "Ted Williams Salute") at a stadiumful of fans hypocritically cheering him for a homer after having booed several unproductive at bats, and he once angrily flung a bat that hit a poor luckless woman in the box seats. The TW code never varies. He never, or almost never, wears a tie. He has never smoked or drunk liquor. He has worked relentlessly for the Jimmy Fund (a children's cancer project in Boston) from the very beginning. He has been married three times and has a son and a daughter. He always said that he was "a not too well-educated, not particularly smart guy who played probably the only game in which he could excel." He wouldn't add this, but he was also a flying ace and hero in both World War II and Korea and had been shot down, years taken out of his career — prime years — that would have fattened his averages and broken records and done God knows what kind of damage to Big-league pitching.

In baseball, he was simply the best.

"Hitting a baseball," says Ted, " — I've said it a thousand times — is the single most difficult thing to do in sport." Even in his formative years, long before the Tigers and Cardinals scouts were coming around, he "wanted to have a great-looking swing." Eddie Collins always said he lived for his next turn at bat. "My preference was a light bat. I treated my bats like they were special, keeping them usable as long as possible. I boned them to get the fibers together.... I cleaned [them] with alcohol every night. I took them to the post office to check their weights."

In 1936, Ted signed his first professional contract, at 17, with the San Diego Padres, a new team that had moved to San Diego from Hollywood the year before, a team at the time, says Ted, "everybody was getting civic-minded about." His salary was $150 a month. He stayed around the area "for my mother's sake," he said, as she wanted him close to home, ironically enough. It was with the Padres that Ted Williams "discovered the joys of paychecks and train rides," though he only batted .291 that year. And in the winter of 1937 he was sold to the Boston Red Sox for $25,000. "I read about that for the first time in the paper too and I was sick. The Red Sox didn't mean a thing to me. A fifth-, sixth-place club, the farthest from San Diego I could go. I sure wasn't a Boston fan." But they were his fans.

The Red Sox, except for Babe Ruth (whom moronically they traded to the N.Y. Yankees), never had a greater player than Ted Williams, however, whose batting average of .406 in 1941, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, may never be broken. "I don't give a rat's ass about the rest of the [baseball] cards," says a character in Laurence Block's The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994). "I'm only interested in Ted Williams. We're talking about 40 cards. The book value's what, three grand?" "Closer to five," comes the reply. And the man eventually pays $10,000! No, Ted is larger than life. At the inauguration of the Hitters Hall of Fame, former President George Bush, in attendance, called Williams "a rebel, a legend, and Gibraltar. John Wayne in a baseball uniform."

John Wayne wishes.

Ted Williams never returned to San Diego after leaving this city until he came home from the service at the end of World War II. He was gone, in short, from 1939 to 1946 — a rather long exile, as it were. "It had always been a struggle at home, the tension, my father and mother never really together" — after 20 years with May, Sam left, eventually remarried, and moved to San Francisco — "my brother always in some kind of scrape.... I mean, it was never a happy place for me, and in 1939 my mother and father separated and there was more grief, so I just stayed away. And do you know what Harold Kaese [Boston sportswriter] wrote the first time I did something to displease him? 'Well, what do you expect from a guy who won't even go to see his mother in the off-season?'"

When Ted did come back to San Diego on July 12, 1992 (he'd returned many times before that) for the dedication of the Ted Williams Parkway — the stretch of State Highway 56 off of I-15 near Rancho Penasquitos — he was genuinely touched by the ceremonies and later that day even showed his old Red Sox teammate Bobby Doerr, who had come down from Oregon to attend, where his father's old photo shop once stood. And part of the North Park playground — now called the North Park Recreation Center — was named Ted Williams Field. I took a walk around that park a few weeks ago, around dusk, a time of day when 60 years ago The Kid would have still been poling a few into far right field from that very plate. With a taped ball probably, and a cracked bat, with only a fried potato or two in his belly. That was when baseball was a game. Was fun. When desire, talent, grit, personal setbacks, and determination all met in a corner of this little "naval base down in the boondocks" called San Diego and miraculously created a fellow named Teddy Ballgame, The Thumper, The Splendid Splinter, Thumping Theodore.

T. Wms, Esq.

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