In baseball and beyond, Williams was a true American hero
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 07/06/02
Headed for the majors
In high school, Williams attracted the attention of professional scouts, among them Bill Essick of the Yankees. But on June 26, 1936, with his mother expressing a wish that he stay close to home, Williams signed a contract to play for $150 a month for the minor league San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, a team that had no direct major league affiliation.
Among Williams’s teammates on the Padres were Vince DiMaggio, oldest brother of Joe, and Bobby Doerr, who later became a Hall of Fame second baseman for the Red Sox. On June 27, in his first professional at-bat, Williams struck out on a called third strike from pitcher Henry "Cotton’’ Pippen of Sacramento. Six days later, he would collect his first hit, a single off Glen Babler of the Los Angeles Angels. Williams also pitched in the game, giving up two long home runs and effectively ending any thought that his future would be on the mound.
He finished his first full minor league season (1937) with a batting average of .291 and 23 home runs.
It was on a visit to see Doerr and George Myatt, another player on whom the Red Sox would hold a contractual option, that Williams was first discovered by Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins, who prevailed upon owner Tom Yawkey in the winter of 1937 to purchase the rights to Williams from the Padres. Williams’s contract with the Sox called for him to be paid $3,000 his first year, $4,500 his second.
Williams, who drove with Doerr to his first spring training in Sarasota, Fla., arrived about a week late because of flooding. "Then, one morning, this L’il Abner walks into the clubhouse,’’ Orlando said. "He’s got a red sweater on, his shirt open at the neck, a raggedly duffel bag. His hair’s on end like he’s attached to an electrical switch. If anybody ever wanted a picture of a raw rookie, this was the time to take the shot.
"‘Where you been, Kid?’ I asked him ...’’
Williams lasted a little more than a week in big league camp before being demoted to Boston’s Minneapolis farm team in the American Association. The skinny ballplayer, who carried barely 148 pounds on his 6-foot-3-inch frame when he first signed with the Padres, firmly placed himself in Boston’s future by winning the 1938 triple crown for the Millers, batting .366 with 43 home runs and 142 RBIs. He also exhibited tendencies that later surfaced with the Red Sox, fielding indifferently and reacting angrily to spectators who goaded him. But that winter, the Red Sox traded veteran outfielder Ben Chapman, opening a position for Williams.
Playing for manager Joe Cronin, Williams made his major league debut on April 20, 1939, batting sixth and playing right field in Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees. He struck out against Red Ruffing in his first major league at-bat, but hit a double off Ruffing in his second, the first of his 2,654 hits.
The next day, in the Red Sox’ home opener against the Philadelphia Athletics at Fenway Park, he singled off Pippen, the same pitcher who had struck him out in his first professional at-bat. Two days later, in his first Sunday game at Fenway, Williams had four hits, including a long home run into the right-center field bleachers, his first major league home run and one that evoked comparisons to Ruth in the Boston papers.
On May 4, Williams became the first player to clear the right-field roof in Briggs Stadium in Detroit with a home run. He finished his rookie season with a .327 average, 31 home runs, and 145 RBIs, numbers that established him as a star in the making.