THE EARLY YEARS|
He made a name in San Diego, too
By Gordon Edes, Globe Staff, 07/05/02
He used to be embarrassed to be seen on its streets, hiding behind the bass drum while his mother, May, footsoldier in the Salvation Army, shook her tambourine and asked passersby for nickels.
But when he came back, decades later, to see one of those streets renamed ‘‘Ted Williams Parkway,’’ Ted Williams expressed the wish that he had come back long ago to reclaim his home, where he is regarded with some of the same fondness he has known in Boston.
San Diego remembered Williams, erecting a statue of him swinging a bat in the city’s Hall of Champions, inviting him to throw out the first pitch at the 1992 All-Star Game, and proclaiming Ted Williams Day. On that day, city officials renamed after him the playground and high school fields on which he played, as well as state highway 56, near a spot where the famous native son once hunted jackrabbits and quail.
And Williams remembered San Diego. On loan at the Hall of Champions are his MVP plaques from 1946 and ’49, one of his triple crown trophies, and the Medal of Freedom he was given by President Bush in 1991. He returned for his 50th reunion at Hoover High School in 1987, for the dedication of the playground field at North Park Recreation Center in ’91, and for the All-Star Game in 1992.
And in 1966, in the speech he gave at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., upon his induction, Williams singled out two San Diegans for their impact on his life: Rod Luscomb, the playground director whom Williams used to follow around for hours at a time; and Wofford ‘‘Wos’’ Caldwell, his high school coach.
Caldwell also was present when Williams opened his Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla.
‘‘My high school coach used to get me between first and second, you know,’’ Williams said. ‘‘I couldn’t run good, because I was all arms and legs and tried to get going.
‘‘And by the time I got between third and home, he was hitting me in the butt with a stick. That was the kind of coach he was.’’
Wilbert Wiley, one of Williams’s playground buddies, once told an interviewer how deceiving the skinny Williams looked.
‘‘When he’d hit, guys would say, ‘Where in Sam Hill does that skinny drink-of-water get his power from?’ ’’ Wiley said. ‘‘Ted was unusually strong in his hands and wrists. When I used to hang around at his house, I’d see him take a dining room chair and place six or seven big Life magazines on it and get down on one knee, and pick the chair up by one leg and raise it up.’’
Wiley also used to hunt with Williams when they were kids.
‘‘Ted was the finest shot with a shotgun I ever saw,’’ said Wiley. ‘‘We’d hunt ducks in Mission Valley, and if they were within range, he’d hardly ever miss. He was very good at pocket billiards. When he took an interest in something and liked it, he dwelled on it and made a big effort to be good at it.
‘‘When he was 10, 11, 12, he was such a scrawny kid that nobody dreamt he would turn out to be what he was in major league baseball. But he just tried and tried, and he seemed to improve and improve.’’
Ray Boone, the first of three generations of Boones to play in the big leagues, was batboy for the American Legion team on which Williams played. He also recalled riding his bike to Williams’s high school games, just to see Williams hit.
‘‘My, he could hit ’em high,’’ Boone told Williams biographer Michael Seidel. ‘‘Far, OK, but high was the thing. That’s why we biked wherever he played. We wanted Williams to hit one, and we just squealed when he put it up, so far up in the air, and then so far out of the park.
‘‘Whenever I saw him hit one [in the major leagues], I remembered those days in San Diego, all of us kids on our bikes, screamin’ and screamin’.’’