Answer: Ted Williams
Last February in San Francisco, Ted Williams became the first inductee in the new Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
Williams's Latino pedigree surprises many, but the Splendid Splinter was always private about family. In his 1969 autobiography, My Turn At Bat, Williams acknowledged his heritage as "part Mexican" and recognized the difficulties that might have been his lot. He wrote, "If I had 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."
I grew up in Boston and Ted was my hero. A seven-time batting champioon, he was considred by many to be the greatest hitter ever to play baseball. After I married into a Mexican-American family, I became intrigued that the hero of my youth had Mexican ancestors. Many questions begged for answer: Was he shaped by Latino culture in any way? Did he share special friendships with other Latino players? Why does it seem that his Mexican background was virtually a secret?
My Turn at Bat gives his mother's name as May Venzer, but when I began investigating in 1999, I couldn't find any Venzers in the phone listings for California, where Williams grew up. However, a photocopy of Ted's birth certificate showed her name as Venzor. It was misspelled in his book! Here was a thread to follow, though the real breakthrough came in an e-mail from one of Williams's cousins, Manuel Herrera, who had read a book on Williams that I had coauthored.
Herrera explained in a later telephone interview that the Venzor family, especially Ted's uncles in Santa Barbara, had a significant but unpublicized influence on his life. Ted's maternal grandparents were Natalia Hernandez and Pablo Venzor. The family was Basque in origin and had settled around Hidalgo del Parral and Valle de Allende in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Natalia and Pablo were married in 1888; as political troubles began to brew in Mexico, they joined the exodus north to Texas. Ted Williams's mother, May, was born in El Paso in 1893, one of nine children. The family migrated west to Santa Barbara.
May married Samuel Williams around 1915, shortly after the groom was mustered out of the military, and the couple moved to San Diego, where Ted grew up bearing his father's Anglo surname.
In a 1999 telephone interview, May's younger sister Sarah Diaz told of frequent family visits back and forth between Santa Barbara and San Diego, where she often looked after her young nephew. Were it not for Diaz, Ted would often have been home alone as a boy. In his autobiography, Williams writes that his mother was "gone all the day and half the night, working the streets for the Salvation Army. I didn't see much of my dad."
Still, May Williams managed to take her son to visit family in Santa Barbara, 200 miles away. Diaz told me: "Ted loved to hunt. He loved to fish. My father was a good fisherman, and all my brothers used to go out here on the wharf in Santa Barbara and fish."
But the first sport of the Venzor family was handball, a sport rooted in Basque tradition. And Ted's uncle Ernesto Ponce - one of the last family members born in Mexico, in 1913 - was a great handball player, for many years the tristate handball champion of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Ponce lives in El Paso now, and when I visited him in 2000, he said: "I played baseball, just as a kid. I never played on a school team or anything, though. I was a pitcher, because my expertise was handball. Several of my mother's brothers played handball, pelota. When he was a young kid, Ted liked me. He'd always look at my hands and say, 'I want to be just like you.' These were the hands of a handball player. Big. Rough. We never talked baseball back then."
"I loved handball," Williams told me when I visited him at his Florida home in 2000. "I wasn't the best I've ever seen, but I was pretty good." And besides Ponce, he went on to mention two of his mother's brothers: "Pedro, he was a damn good handball player. And his brother Saul was a damn good athlete."
In fact, it would be Ted's uncle Saul Venzor and the sport of baseball that would make the strongest impressions on young Teddy Williams. One reason the home-grown summer game appealed to him was the proximity of San Diego's North Park playground to the Williams home on Utah Street.
The other was the skill displayed by the first baseball players in the family, Venzor, who mastered the game and played it with fiery determination.
Much credit has been given to North Park playground director Rod Luscomb and others who worked with Teddy as he drove himself relentlessly to become a better baseball player. But some of his earliest instruction, and his single-minded determination to excel, came from his uncle Saul, who played semipro ball and managed one of the local semipro teams, the Santa Barbara Merchants.
Sarah Diaz recalled of Ted's visits to Santa Barbara in the early 1930s, when he was a teenager: "Ted played with my brother Saul. We had a big garden, and they'd get out there and throw the ball to each other. Ted learned a lot. When Ted would come, the first thing they would do is get out there in that field and pitch to each other and bat. My mother was left-handed and, boy, she didn't miss when she threw rocks at us, to get our attention."
Venzor was stubborn and aggressive. He was tough on Ted. Manuel Herrera said of Venzor, "He really had the tools, and Teddy would literally beg Saul to teach him how to pitch a baseball. No one could beat the guy and he hated to lose. Saul gave Ted more than just pitching lessons. He used a 'no-lose' attitude to build Ted's confidence and how to think and win. Not just get the ball over the plate, but to think with your head and always be aggressive."
Recently, Santa Barbara baseball organizer Tim Badillo, 91, called Saul Venzor one of the best pitchers around at the time. "He was a great prospect when he was a young man," said Badillo. "He could throw a ball through a wall! He played semipro for quite a while, and he played with one of the leading Mexican teams [Union Protectora Mexicana] in Southern California."
Herrera recalled, "Ted would plead, 'Uncle Saul, can I pitch now?' Saul says, 'Aw, you're not ready, kid. Maybe you're not hungry enough.' 'Oh, please, uncle Saul!' He'd tell Ted, 'Oh, maybe another day. Not today.' 'Oh, come on, uncle Saul! Please!' He'd beg him all day. Ted would throw his glove down and walk out of the room."
In the 1980s, when Williams was visiting Saul Venzor's widow, Henrietta (Venzor died in 1963 as the age of 60), she recounted this very story. Williams listened with with a big grin on his face. The young Ted's determination to prove himself as a ballplayer to his uncle Saul helped form the resolute drive that made Williams such an outstanding ballplayer.
Another cousin, Frank Venzor, confirms Saul's role in molding the youthful Williams: "Saul was the one who started this baseball stuff, who got Ted into baseball. The slanted driveway on Chino Street looked like a pitcher's mound. Saul and his brothers used to put Ted up at bat. 'Get up there. See if you can hit this,' they would yell at him. They were not nice to him. Ever. They used to tease him. He'd be out there bawling and crying. They'd get him out there on the driveway and he'd be crying. 'Get closer! Get up there! See if you can hit this!' My uncle could throw. He could throw 19 different pitches. This is where Ted began to recognize them. My aunt used to stick her head out the window and say, 'Saul! Leave the kid alone!'"
Williams's mother moved fluidly between Anglo and Mexican communities in her work. Her Santa Barbara clan fit into the local Anglo community, although family members still enjoyed their traditional carne asadas, or backyard barbecues. The oldest generations - Williams's great-grandmother Catarina Hernandez and grandmother Natalia Venzor - used only Spanish, but Williams never spoke it.
Joe Villarino, who has known Williams since grade school and often played baseball with him in those days, describes himself as Mexican. He was born in the same neighborhood as Williams, and his family, like Williams's, was eager to assimilate. Consequently, Joe never spoke Spanish growing up, either, despite having a Mexican father and a mother from Spain. Joe understood that his friend Ted never identified as Mexican: "He never did. Not that he didn't want to be known as a Mexican, but it just wasn't part of his life."
Although he did not turn his back on his Basque-Mexican heritage, Williams, a very private man, was uninterested in - or uncomfortable with - talking about either side of the family. Williams was brought up Anglo, with an Anglo surname, and he entered a world of baseball where he may have hit against a Camilo Pascual and a Pedro Ramos, they were just pitchers, and he was just a hitter.
Did Williams ever develop special friendships with Latino players? It doesn't appear so, but in recent yers Nomar Garciaparra as become one of William's favorite players. In February, a couple of weeks before the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum induction, I asked Nomar Garciaparra if their mutual heritage had ever come up in conversations with Williams. Nomar laughed, and said, "Yes. He said to me, 'You know I'm Mexican as well. My mother was Mexican.' I said, 'God, Ted, I knew I liked you!' We just joked around about it."
As published in the Boston Globe Magazine