SAN DIEGO — He’d faced a Bob Feller fastball with a sneer. He’d faced a Rip Sewell eephus pitch with a smile.
But when he faced a group of strangers waiting to fire questions Friday, Ted Williams grew uncomfortable. He kept a smile but fidgeted as others called him the greatest this, the best that. He grew increasingly antsy when reporters asked his opinion on this, his thoughts on that.
“I never know what to say at these things,” Williams said.
While still a teenager, Williams was brash enough to say he wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. “What gall,” people said. “Who does this skinny kid from a hick town like San Diego think he is?”
Williams learned that sharing his thoughts meant potential trouble. He retreated into a small circle of family, friends and teammates. His brashness became perceived as arrogance — even long after he achieved his goal.
But was Williams talked of his childhood in North Park or greeted friends he hadn’t seen in decades, it became clear any arrogance — real or imagined — is gone.
Williams is 73, retired and the survivor of a mild stroke. This week, he is the center of attention in San Diego. He’s in town because State Route 56 has been renamed “Ted Williams Parkway.” The official dedication will be Sunday at Mt. Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos, near where he once hunted rabbits and quail.
“I asked my daughter, ‘What am I going to tell them?’ said Williams, who batted .344 and hit 521 home runs in his career with the Boston Red Sox. “I’m not running for anything. I don’t know what to say.
“Well, she thought about it. She’s a bright little girl, and she said, ‘Tell them not to forget you and to drive carefully.’ ”
If the reception Williams has received in his hometown is any indication, he needn’t fret about being forgotten. He arrived in town Wednesday and toured his old North Park neighborhood with his former playground pals. He presided over the opening of FanFest on Friday and will throw out the first pitch of Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Jack Murphy Stadium.
“These are memorable moments for me,” Williams said.
That’s about as deeply as Williams lets outsiders into his psyche. But don’t be fooled. This trip has great meaning to the Hall of Famer. He cherishes every moment — even some of the adulation.
“He pooh-poohs it at first,” said Williams’ son, John-Henry, who accompanied his dad to California. “But once things start rolling, he really enjoys himself.”
But Williams isn’t here merely to take his memories and return home to the Florida retirement village of Citrus Hills. He’s here to leave behind a few memories, too.
On Friday, Williams surprised Hoover High School baseball teammate Bob Breitbard by donating his best memorabilia to the Hall of Champions. He gave the museum, which is operated by Breitbard, one of his two American League Triple Crown trophies, two Most Valuable Player awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed upon him early this year by President Bush.
“That’s really all he’d kept,” John-Henry said. “The house is empty.”
Said Breitbard: “His greatness as a hitter is matched by his quality as a man and his loyalty to his friends.”
Williams said simply that because he grew up in San Diego and because he always has been treated well here, the Hall of Champions was the natural place to donate his most-treasured mementos.
“I love San Diego,” said Williams, who nonetheless has visited his hometown only a few times in 50 years. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d have come right back to San Diego to live.”
Instead, after retiring in 1960 — with a home run in his final at-bat — Williams remained on the East Coast. He managed the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers for a couple years, then settled in Florida. His only direct connection to the game was as a spring-training instructor for the Red Sox.
“I was playing in the East and I was hunting and fishing in the East,” Williams said. “Before I knew it, my home was in the East. I liked Florida, and I still like Florida. But (San Diego) is the garden spot of America.”
Williams credits the city for his development as a hitter His father, Sam, spent the early Depression years working as a photographer, and his mother, May, became known as “the Angels of Tijuana” for her efforts with the Salvation Army. Williams, meanwhile, was organizing pickup games in North Park. “Teddy Ballgame” was on the loose.
“I’ve always said that if it weren’t for the great luck that I had to be in San Diego and to have lived where I could play baseball 12 months a year …” Williams said without having to complete his thought.
“I was (playing) a block from where I lived, so I played till 9 at night and I played as early as I could. At Garfield Grammar School, I got there before the janitor in the morning because I could get in the (equipment) closet with him and get the balls and bats and wait for the kids to come.
“Had I not become a pretty good hitter, I don’t know what the excuse would have been. I know I hit more balls and thought about it more and had more opportunity than any person I know.
“I think of Harmon Killebrew, a great home-run hitter and Hall of Famer, and I think, ‘Just how good was this guy?’ He hit more home runs than anybody else in the American League right-handed, and he lived in Idaho. I know they don’t play baseball more than three months a year in Idaho.”
The time spent on the San Diego playgrounds started paying off early. Williams already was developing into a local legend by the time he joined the Hoover baseball squad.
“At Hoover, he hit over .700,” Breitbard said. “We had a short right-field fence, and he’d just pop ’em. They probably would have been singles in a regular ballpark, but he’d pop ’em for home runs.
The beginnings of Williams’ dead-pull swing that later led to the Boudreau shift? That piece of strategy — in which the fielders shifted to the right side of the field to stop the left-handed Williams from pulling the ball — was a decade away when Williams started hammering pitchers professionally.
While still a student at Hoover, Williams signed with the Red Sox and joined the minor-league Padres in the 1936 seasons. Williams ran out of high school eligibility that spring but wasn’t due to graduate until the following January. Williams’ mother didn’t want him bouncing around the country before completing his education. Because the Red Sox were affiliated with the Padres, they won out.
Williams enjoyed his two years playing at Lane Field downtown, where he’d entertain the crowd by knocking batting-practice homers into the waterfront rail yards.
“In 20 swings, I’d hit maybe 10 out,” Williams said. “Well, the pitchers were watching, too, and I wouldn’t get anything to hit in the game. Pretty soon, I just started hitting line drives.”
Published in the Times Advocate on July 11, 1992.