Ted Williams was the Huckleberry Finn character of this modest neighborhood [in San Diego], the undisciplined roamer, the kid who didn't have to be home at any particular time. Born on April 30, 1918, named "Teddy" after Teddy Roosevelt -- a name Williams later formalized to Theodore Samuel Williams -- he and his brother Danny were caught in the cold climate of a bad marriage. Their father, Sam, was a photographer who left for work early and stayed late and didn't smile much at home. A drinker. Didn't care. Their mother, Mary Venzor Williams, was a religious zealot. She was always working for the Lord. For the Salvation Army. May Venzor Williams was the dominant figure in Ted Williams's young life. Or maybe the dominant nonfigure.
"She fell in love with the Salvation Army when she was very young," her nephew, Manny Herrera, says. "Her family was Mexican Baptists, religious enough, but not in the Salvation Army. The Army would hold revival meetings on the corner of Haley and State Streets in downtown Santa Barbara, where she grew up. When May was 11 years old, maybe 12, one of her sisters would come home and tell their father that May was down there singing. Mr. Pedro Venzor would get up, go down to Haley and State, and bring May home. She wouldn't fight. He'd say, `Those people are crazy.' `Yes, Daddy.' `They're fanatics.' `Yes, Daddy.' `I don't want you going down there with them.' `Yes, Daddy.'
"The next day she'd be back at Haley and State. Singing again."
That early love affair never ended. The only hiccup in her devotion came when she was training in Hawaii to become an officer in the Salvation Army. She met Sam. He was seven years older, finishing up his time in the US Army, an enlisted man from Mount Vernon, N.Y., returning from the Philippines. He claimed he had served with Teddy Roosevelt in the famous charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. There is some mystery to that -- his birth certificate indicates that he would have been 15 at the time -- but whatever he told May seemed to work. She gave up her hopes for a Salvation Army commission (officers were not allowed to marry outside the Army) but kept her faith and went with Sam. The year was 1910.
They were an interesting couple for the time, May with a Mexican mother and a Mexican father with Basque roots, Sam a mixture of Welsh and English. They lived for a short while in Los Angeles, where Sam was a streetcar conductor, but by the time the boys were born, and after May apparently had suffered two earlier miscarriages, San Diego had become home. This was where May had been stationed, a foot soldier now in the service of the Lord. The family moved into the tiny white house on Utah Street when Ted was five years old. The price of the house was $4,000. The payments were $100 per month.
Sam wandered into the photography business, owning a shop on Fifth Avenue. May charged into her life's work. She went to nearby Tijuana to convince drunks of the error of their ways. She went to downtown Broadway in San Diego to ring a bell on Christmas. She went wherever money was being raised and the Word was being spread.
"I went with her to the bars a couple of times," Alice Psaute, an 80-year-old Salvation Army veteran, says. "You'd go in with pots. Men would throw money at the pots. You'd have to get on your hands and knees and pick quarters off the floors."
"You'd see May on the streetcars all the time," Frank Cushing, a friend of Ted's from San Diego, says. "There were only two streetcar lines at the time, the 7 and the 11, and she'd be on either one of them every day. So if you took the streetcar, you saw her. Praising the Lord."
She would wear her blue uniform with the familiar blue bonnet every day. She was tireless and fearless. She sang, she played musical instruments, she did magic tricks to attract the curious. She once -- Alice Psaute says -- held the world record for selling the most copies of "The War Cry," the Salvation Army magazine, in a calendar year. The world record. Not San Diego. Not California or in the United States. The world record. What kind of dedication does that take?
Too much, perhaps, if you have two young boys.
"May actually was ahead of her time," Manny Herrera says. "She was one of the first liberated women. She did what she wanted to do. She didn't want to cook . . . couldn't cook. That gal burnt everything she ever tried to cook. She didn't want to clean house. I was in her kitchen once, she had nine big stacks of newspapers in there. My aunt Sara, who raised me, May's younger sister, came down from Santa Barbara to cook and clean house when the boys were young. May didn't want to do it. She was a sweet woman, but she was no housekeeper. She was all Salvation Army."
The boys, who both cringed when they were brought by her to be part of the Army's street-corner revivals, eventually were left at home. They had that unsupervised heaven that all kids say they want but few can handle. Where to go? What to do? The dull lights of education, of course, offered no great attraction. The boys went for the two traditional dramatic enticements: Ted went for sports, for baseball, and Danny, who was two years younger, went for trouble.
"I was seven years behind Ted at Hoover High," Frank Cushing says, "so when I got there, Ted was already a big deal, famous in the big leagues. But my metals shop teacher always talked about Danny, the things Danny Williams did. Never talked about Ted." . . .
While Danny broke away from authority, Ted walked toward it. Authority controlled the bats and balls, the games. The knowledge. He played baseball at Garfield Elementary, starting out as a normal recess and after-school activity, but by the age of 12 he was into his obsessive mode, swinging the bat in the backyard, imagining a late-game situation at the faraway Polo Grounds in New York, runners on base, Williams at the plate. He was swinging the bat, swinging and swinging, drinking malted milkshakes, eating any food put in front of him, swinging the bat, looking for size and power and that perfect synchronization to send baseballs over the fence at North Park. . . .
Williams showed up at Hoover High School baseball practice after finishing his last day at Horace Mann Junior High School in February. The practice was one of those "Chorus Line" affairs, one of the first practices of the season. There were maybe one hundred kids trying out for the team, at a field -- not the baseball field -- next to the school. Williams shouts, "Hey, coach, let me hit.'` No answer. Williams sits on the steps of the print shop. "Hey coach, let me hit." No answer. Finally, after a few more pleas, coach Wos Caldwell relents. He is a big, quiet man who once played football with Red Grange at the University of Illinois. OK, this will shut the kid up. Go ahead.
"The first one went on top of the lunch arbor," says Les Cassie Jr., a teammate and neighborhood friend, bringing in the proper majesty of the moment. "No one had ever hit one up there. Then he hit another. Then, when it's over, he tells Wos Caldwell, `I'll be back tomorrow.' "
OK, the kid could hit.