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Ted Williams: A New San Diego Icon?

The World Series may be over, but San Diego's top baseball historian is still waiting to hit a home run: he's trying to convince officials to erect a statue of Ted Williams at the waterfront.

What does the most famous Boston Red Sox player in history have to do with San Diego? Plenty, as historian Bill Swank will gladly tell you. Williams grew up in North Park, went to Hoover High and became a star baseball player with the minor-league Padres.

Williams played at the now-defunct Lane Field by the waterfront, and Swank wants to see the city remember its hometown hero. At my urging, Swank wrote a a Union-Tribune column touting the statue proposal; he says his campaign is gathering steam. (Swank and I go way back: I wrote a profile of him last year for voiceofsandiego.org.)

All this talk about Williams, arguably baseball's greatest hitter ever and the only one with a mid-county freeway named after him, made me wonder about his roots in our fair city. It turns out that several authors have been curious about the same thing. Here are a few tidbits about the "Splendid Splinter" from books that tracked his early life:

• Ted Williams was born in 1918. His dad, Sam, ran a photography shop downtown and later inspected prisons; his mom, May ministered to the needy through the Salvation Army. "Her special mission was ministering to the needs of drunks, prostitutes and unwed mothers," wrote Ed Linn in "Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams." A good thing: her husband was a boozer.

"You'd see May on the streetcars all the time," a friend told Leigh Montville in "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero." "There were only two streetcars 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."

As for the future ballplayer, Williams ended up spending much of his early life on his own.

• Williams, who lived on Utah Street in North Park (not too far from the current Chicken Pie Shop) and became interested in baseball before he reached his teens. "I'd be at school waiting when the janitor opened up. I was always the first one there so I could get in the closets and get the balls and bats and be ready for the other kids. That way I could be first up in a game we played where you could bat as long as somebody didn't catch the ball." ("The Kid: Ted Williams in San Diego," by Bill Nowlin)

• Bob Breitbard, a San Diego sports icon who died earlier this year, told author David Cataneo that his high-school friend Williams would play baseball all year around, hitting the playgrounds in North Park. "Ted could have gone to Hoover High School or to San Diego High School. We were on the borderline. San Diego High School had a great baseball team. Had a great coach. But Ted selected Hoover High School because Ted didn't think he could make the club at San Diego High." ("I Remember Ted Williams: Anecdotes and Memories of Baseball's Splendid Splinter")

• In 1936, the minor-league San Diego Padres signed Williams. "The Kid" got $150 a month to play, and his parents had to sign the contract because he was a minor. ("Ted Williams," by Ronald A. Reis)

Professional baseball was a big hit in San Diego even as it arrived in the middle of the Great Depression. The city was thrilled to get a minor-league team. The Evening Tribune rhapsodized in an editorial about an enthusiastic reception at the first game of the Pacific Coast League season: "… the team has the full support of the city… San Diego has needed professional baseball enthusiasm for a long time."

"Baseball has been called a good barometer of business conditions. Heavy attendance indicates not merely a surplus of money to be spent for amusement, but it further indicates that men and women can relax and dismiss business while enjoying the sunshine and the clean sport of the diamond," the Tribune gushed. "As long as baseball is popular, as long as businessmen can toss off their cares and become excited over a stolen base or a long throw from center, the solution of the more weighty problems of the day will remain in pretty safe hands." ("The Kid: Ted Williams in San Diego")

• Williams stuck around in San Diego for two years until the Boston Red Sox came calling. He wasn't exactly overjoyed. "The Red Sox didn't mean a thing to me," he wrote in his autobiography "My Turn at Bat." "A fifth-, sixth-place club, the farthest from San Diego. I sure wasn't a Boston fan."

But he took the job and left town with some prophetic words: "All I want out of life is when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'"

-Randy Dotinga

Editor's Note:

San Diegans, would you support a statue of Ted Williams in the high profile space at the foot of Broadway? Swank says in his article: "I predict that a statue of “The Kid” would become an instant iconic San Diego landmark." Is a statue of Ted Williams the right icon for San Diego?

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