Williams was the best hitter in baseball history. His batting average of .406 in 1941 has not been topped since, and no player who has hit more than 500 home runs has a higher career batting average. Those totals would have been even higher if Williams had not left baseball for nearly five years in the prime of his career to serve as a Marine pilot in WWII and Korea. He hit home runs farther than any player before him--and traveled a long way himself, as Ben Bradlee, Jr.'s grand biography reveals. Born in 1918 in San Diego, Ted would spend most of his life disguising his Mexican heritage. During his 22 years with the Boston Red Sox, Williams electrified crowds across America--and shocked them, too: His notorious clashes with the press and fans threatened his reputation. Yet while he was a God in the batter's box, he was profoundly human once he stepped away from the plate. His ferocity came to define his troubled domestic life. While baseball might have been straightforward for Ted Williams, life was not.
THE KID is biography of the highest literary order, a thrilling and honest account of a legend in all his glory and human complexity. In his final at-bat, Williams hit a home run. Bradlee's marvelous book clears the fences, too.
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The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams
By Ben Bradlee
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Ben Bradlee
All rights reserved.
Ted was always ashamed of his upbringing.
Ashamed of his mother, the Salvation Army devotee and fixture of Depression-era San Diego who seemed far more committed to her street mission than she was to raising her two sons.
Ashamed of his largely absent and indifferent father, who ran a cheesy downtown photo studio that catered to San Diego's sailors and their floozies, and who had a fondness for the bottle.
Ashamed of his younger brother—a gun-toting petty miscreant always one step ahead of the law—who bitterly resented Ted's fame and success.
This sense of shame manifested itself in a reluctance to talk about his family with friends, outsiders, and especially reporters—at least until he was much older and out of baseball.
But there was one aspect of his family life that Ted for many years decided to conceal outright. It was one of the most interesting parts of his background, an important element that did not emerge publicly until near the end of his life: the fact that he was half Mexican—on his mother's side.
Based on Ted's All-American appearance and his white-bread last name, this was an improbable revelation, but that did not stop Hispanic activists from claiming him as one of their own. Not long before he died, Williams became the first inductee into the fledgling Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame.
May Williams was the second of eight children born to Pablo Venzor and the former Natalia Hernandez, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico. Pablo, a mason, married Natalia in 1888. Natalia had a brother who worked in the Mexican government, and the family, feeling vulnerable to Pancho Villa and the coming revolution, emigrated from Chihuahua to Santa Barbara, California, in 1907.
As immigrants often do in their effort to assimilate in a new country, some of the Venzors sought to play down their roots south of the border and claimed a Basque, or "Basco," heritage with a strain variously said to have been French or Spanish. May's younger sister Sarah Venzor Diaz, who died in 1999 at the age of ninety-four, went so far as to tell writer Bill Nowlin: "We have no Mexican heritage in our family. We are Basque." And she suggested that attempts by writers to delve into Ted's Mexican background were a slur against him.
Yet genealogical research reveals that May's Mexican roots extended back at least three generations—as far as records could be traced. No records on Pablo's side could be found, but interviews with surviving Venzor family members reveal nothing to indicate that his lineage is not cemented in Mexico as well. The Venzors' sensitivity probably reflected the fact that in Mexico, those with European or Anglo roots are often more socially esteemed than those with "indio," or indigenous, roots. This tension was also evident in the next generation of Venzors—Ted's cousins and May's nieces and nephews.
"We were fruit pickers," said Frank Venzor, son of May's younger brother Paul, speaking of the extended family.
"My dad was no fruit picker," replied Frank's sister Carolyn Ortiz.
"The hell he wasn't," said Frank, who, in a private interview later, sarcastically offered the Venzor family line on their Mexican roots: "We're not fruit pickers per se. We're Basques. We don't come from Mexico. We just happened to be passing through. My uncle Bruno would say, 'I ain't no Mexican! I'm a French Canadian!' "
If those sentiments represented normal immigrant sensitivity to what the Venzors perceived as the garden-variety prejudice of the day, Ted thought he had much more at stake. Coming of age as a baseball player in the 1930s, he decided then to hide his Mexican heritage for fear that deeply ingrained prejudice in baseball would hurt his career. He maintained silence on the topic throughout his tenure with the Red Sox and beyond.
"Ted didn't want anyone to know he was part Mexican," said longtime friend Al Cassidy, the executor of Ted's estate. "It concerned him. He was afraid they wouldn't let him play. He'd say, 'It was an entirely different time back then.'"
In late 1939, after Ted's sensational rookie season with the Red Sox, he returned home to San Diego for a visit, the conquering hero. But when a gaggle of his relatives on the Mexican side of the family gathered to meet him at the train station, Ted beat a hasty retreat after spotting the ragtag group from afar.
According to one of Ted's relatives who was there, Williams took "one look at this big group of Mexicans, and he says, 'Oh, my goodness, my career is down the drain if I'm seen with these people,' and he walks away."
Carolyn Ortiz said that when she was about twelve, "Aunt May called and told us Ted was going to be coming through Santa Barbara and he'd stop for a visit. Well, you would have thought the pope was coming. My aunt Jeanne painted the house inside and out. They had us kids cleaning and making all kinds of preparations. But when the day came, he didn't show up. He never even called. That's the way he was."
Several years later, a host of Venzors traveled to Los Angeles to watch Ted and the Red Sox play an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Angels, then a Pacific Coast League team. When the Venzors hollered and waved at him from the stands, Ted made a motion to indicate that he would see them later, but he never did. "All the family went to root him on and he didn't have the guts to come over and say hi to them," said Ted's cousin Rosalie Larson.
Another cousin, Salvador Herrera, used to spar with Ted about denying his roots. "Ted was a Mexican," Herrera said. "He was embarrassed to be a Mexican. He wanted to be an American, a gringo. I said, 'You asshole, you're a Mexican! Say you're a Mexican and say the Mexicans are the best hitters in the world.' I used to push his button. He laughed and he'd say, 'I'm Basco.' He wanted people to think he was Basque. But he was Mexican, just like me. He just laughed me off. He'd say, 'Don't tell nobody' and hang up the phone."
Years after he retired, Ted did say in his book: "If I had my mother's name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California." In My Turn at Bat, published in 1969, he even misspelled his mother's maiden name as "Venzer," and devoted just one line to her heritage, saying she was "part Mexican and part French." Herrera thought the misspelling was deliberate. "Venzer with an e, that's the way Basque people spell it. Hispanics, it's Venzor with an o." Yet no reporter developed this theme or dug into his Mexican heritage until Nowlin explored some of the Venzor family lineage in an article for the Boston Globe Magazine published in June of 2002, a month before Ted died.
The Venzors were a colorful collection of cowboys, longshoremen, evangelicals, bricklayers, sandlot ballplayers, and truck drivers. And many of them had serious drinking problems.
The patriarch, Pablo Venzor, was a stonemason and a sheepherder. Occasionally he would also get work as an extra at Flying A Studios, a onetime Hollywood outpost in Santa Barbara, but he finally quit in a huff after being cast as a Mexican peon once too often. Pablo died in 1920 at the age of fifty-two.
His widow, Natalia, never remarried and would outlive her husband by thirty-four years. Natalia chopped wood, rolled her own Bull Durham cigarettes, and never learned to speak or write English. She raised eight children (two others died in childbirth) and also watched over most of them as adults from the family's Santa Barbara base at 1008 Chino Street. Son Bruno lived next door at 1006 Chino, son Paul was at 1002, youngest daughter, Jeanne, lived across the street, and daughter Mary lived several blocks away, at 1716 Chino.
The oldest of Natalia's brood, born in 1889, was Pedro Venzor, known as Pete. A World War I veteran, Pete was a working cowboy at Santa Barbara's Tecolote Ranch, whose owners would stage grand barbecues that attracted California political notables and Hollywood cowboys like Will Rogers, Gene Autry, and Tex Ritter. Several of Pete's siblings worked stints at Tecolote at various times, and Ted visited the ranch as a boy.
Ted's mother, May, was born next, on May 8, 1891, though there is confusion about her place of birth. On her 1913 marriage license, she wrote that she was a native of Mexico. But in 1918, on Ted's birth certificate, she wrote that she was born in El Paso, Texas, though the city has no record of that. (On the 1920 US census she said her native language was Spanish.)
The next Venzor child, Mary, was born in Mexico in 1893, according to her marriage license. Thus it appears more likely that in 1891, the Venzors were still in Mexico and that May was born there, too. In 1895, son Daniel arrived.
May and Mary were "inseparable," according to Mary's daughter Teresa Cordero Contreras, the youngest of twelve children, who said the sisters always stayed in close touch until Mary's life ended tragically in 1943, when she and her daughter Annie were murdered by Annie's husband, who then killed himself.
Daniel was killed in World War I on November 11, 1918, the day the armistice was signed. This made Natalia a Gold Star Mother, and provided benefits that financed the purchase of her home at 1008 Chino in 1920.
The Venzor sibling who had the greatest influence on Ted's baseball development was Saul, born in 1903. He was a longshoreman and an accomplished ballplayer himself, a pitcher who managed the local semipro team, the Santa Barbara Merchants. Saul was about six foot five, with arms that dangled down to his knees and huge hands.
When May brought young Ted to Santa Barbara for visits, the boy would gravitate to his uncle Saul and pester him to play catch. Saul would turn these sessions into tough-love tutorials. The driveway at 1008 Chino was slanted; Saul would stand at the top and put Ted at the bottom, and challenge him to stand in there and see if he could hit any of the nineteen different pitches that Saul boasted he threw.
Saul would taunt and tease Ted, belittling his ability. "Ted picked his brain on how to throw a curve," said Manuel Herrera, Salvador's brother. "Saul wouldn't let Ted pitch to him, told him he wasn't mature enough yet." Sometimes Ted would cry in frustration after the driveway sessions, wishing he were bigger and stronger.
Natalia thought her son was being too harsh. "Grandma used to lean out the window and say, 'Leave that kid alone,'" remembered Dee Allen, Saul's daughter. "May would, too. My dad liked to do things and do them right. He would challenge Ted, to teach him."
Ted had seen Saul pitch in a sandlot game once and was duly impressed. Saul had gotten into a bases-loaded, no-outs jam. He then called time, walked over to the opposing team's bench, and took bets that he would get out of the inning without that team scoring a run. Saul collected the bets, then went back out and retired the side without further damage. "Ted was there and saw this, and told the story at a family barbecue," said David Allen, Dee's husband.
According to unconfirmed Venzor family lore, Saul also struck out Babe Ruth in 1935, after Ruth had retired and barnstormed through Santa Barbara. "Saul did this while he was playing with a bunch of ragtag Mexicans," said Salvador Herrera with some sense of awe.
Ted was closest to the next Venzor, Sarah, because she had come to San Diego and done yeoman duty helping to raise him as May worked the streets for the Salvation Army, and also because it was Sarah who would take care of May in her final days in Santa Barbara.
After Natalia, the Venzor matriarch, died, Sarah took over the main house at 1008 Chino, along with her husband, Arnold Diaz, a musician who had a mariachi band. Sarah became the backbone of the family and its chief caretaker. She would tend to her brothers when they went off on benders, and after her sister Mary and niece Annie were murdered, Sarah helped raise Annie's son, Manuel Herrera, and his twin sister, Natalie.
For many years, Sarah served as Ted's point of contact with the family. "Ted would say to Sarah, 'I'm coming on such and such a date, and don't you dare tell anyone that I'm there.' He didn't want to see any of the other relatives," said Ruth Gonzalez, May's first cousin.
If Ted called for Sarah and someone else answered the phone, he couldn't keep track of who was who. "Ted called one day out of the blue," Dee Allen recalled. " 'Hello, this is Ted; who's this?' 'This is Dee.' 'Who's Dee?' 'I'm Saul's daughter.' He asked what Sarah needed. Whatever I felt needed to be done—a new roof, windows, a wooden fence—I got bids for all that stuff and sent them to his office. Ted was a hard person to get into. You could only get so close. He wouldn't allow it."
Ted also enjoyed his uncle Bruno Venzor because they both liked to fish. Bruno was an excitable, happy-go-lucky sort who had a stutter. He drove a cement truck and also played some baseball, but not as seriously as his brother Saul. Once, when Bruno was pitching, he kept laughing at the hitters, and an irritated Saul yanked him from the game. Bruno was active in the Elks club and liked to dress up in Western duds. Arnold Diaz called him the sheriff of Chino Street.
May's life calling, superseding all else, was to be a foot soldier in the Salvation Army. Founded in England in 1865, the Army is an evangelical Christian group that considers itself a church but functions as a relief and social service organization whose adherents forswear drinking, smoking, drugs, and gambling. It rose to prominence by targeting and converting alcoholics, the homeless, drug addicts, unwed mothers, and prostitutes to Christianity. These were the kinds of people May tended to in a colorful mission that ranged from San Diego south to Tijuana and north to Los Angeles.
May was a beloved figure, a star of the street. Indeed, in San Diego during the Depression, "no woman was better known than Salvation May," wrote Joe Hamelin of the San Diego Union in a 1980 series the newspaper published about Ted. "In Salvation Army bonnet and flowing garb, she patrolled the streets in the '20s and '30s, collecting for the poor. Some thought her almost saintly. Others thought her eccentric, or simply a 'nut.' ... She knew everyone, and everyone knew her. She would take a downtown office building, start on the top floor, and work her way down without missing an office. There was no tougher job in Depression time than raising funds for charity. No one was better at her craft than May."
According to Alice Rasmussen, a colleague of May's in the Army: "She knew all the people in all the right places, and a lot of people in the wrong places, too. She had access to the mayor, the chief of police, business leaders, and she would go into the red light district—there was white slavery in those days—and minister there as well."
Kenny Bojens, who eventually became a sports columnist for the local paper, would run into May as she trolled the downtown bars making collections. "I used to run around with a legend of sorts, Gentleman Joe Morgan, the Union's police reporter," Bojens said in the 1980 Union series. "May used to call us her 'Sunshine Boys.' I remember this one night we were in a night club, the College Inn at Fourth and C, and we were flat broke. May came in, said, 'How are my little Sunshine Boys tonight?' and God-blessed the dickens out of us like she'd always do, and asked for a donation. I said, 'May, we don't even have the price of a beer,' which in those days was about 15 cents. And she reached down into her purse and said, 'Well, let the Army buy you one.' "
Another colleague was Alice Psaute, a lifelong Salvationist who made the rounds with May when she was a young woman. "We'd go to prizefights, and in intermissions we'd go around with a tambourine and try to collect money," Psaute said. "The smoke was so thick you could cut it with a knife. We'd also go to the county jail for meetings on Sunday morning. I played the violin. It made them better so they could get out sooner. May went to the jail many times."
So popular and influential was May that in 1924, John D. Spreckels, the richest man in San Diego, quietly paid off the note on the Williamses' house at 4121 Utah Street, where Ted grew up, in the city's North Park section. May had acquired the six-room house in December of 1923 for $4,000, agreeing to $20 monthly payments, plus interest, until the note was paid off. But by August 1, 1924, the note was discharged, courtesy of Spreckels, a sugar-refining industrialist, philanthropist, and publisher of both the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune.
When Ted became a star, May would unabashedly trade on his celebrity for the greater good of the Army, telling startled bank or bar patrons, "I'm Ted Williams's mother. Empty your pockets." Worse, as far as Ted was concerned, she'd work Lane Field after he signed his first pro contract to play for the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, collecting money in the stands with her tambourine.
Excerpted from The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee. Copyright © 2013 Ben Bradlee. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note 3
1 Shame 25
2 "Fairyland" 72
3 Sarasota and Minneapolis 91
4 Big Time 114
5 The Writers 140
6 .406 173
7 3A 199
8 World War II 221
9 1946 246
10 1947-1948 281
11 1949-1951 306
12 Ted and Joe 326
13 Korea 335
14 Transitions 367
15 1954-1956 399
16 Late Innings 424
17 Last Ups 446
18 Kindness 460
19 Real Life 469
20 Bobby-Jo 493
21 "Inn of the Immortals" 500
22 Dolores 514
23 The Splendid Skipper 527
24 Young John-Henry and Claudia 564
25 The Fishing Life 593
26 Being Ted Williams 609
27 Enter John-Henry 633
28 Ted Failing 650
29 Hitter.net 678
30 Spiraling 697
31 Alcor 711
32 Foreboding 721
33 July 5, 2002 742
34 The Pact 753
Appendix I Ted Williams's Lifetime Statistics 785
Appendix II People Who Were Interviewed for The Kid 787