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The greatest Mexican baseball player of all time

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As a kid, I could fairly be called an obsessive baseball fan. Among many other useless pieces of information I could have told you Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average, home run total, number of batting titles, and other bits of arcana which were much more impressive to know in the days before Google. I owned a copy of The Science of Hitting. I learned, courtesy of Ball Four, that the main labeled by the Boston press (whose members he generally despised, and who generally returned the sentiment) employed a striking ritual when preparing to ply his craft:

In the bullpen tonight Jim Pagliaroni was telling us how Ted Williams, when he was still playing, would psyche himself up for a game during batting practice, usually early practice before the fans or reporters got there.

He’d go into the cage, wave his bat at the pitcher and start screaming at the top of his voice, “My name is Ted fucking Williams and I’m the greatest hitter in baseball.”

He’d swing and hit a line drive.

“Jesus H. Christ himself couldn’t get me out.”

And he’d hit another.

Then he’d say, “Here comes Jim Bunning, Jim fucking Bunning and that little shit slider of his.”

Wham!

“He doesn’t really think he’s gonna get me out with that shit.”

Blam!

“I’m Ted fucking Williams!”

Sock!

When I put aside childish things, I read some classic essays about the man, including Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” and Richard Ben Cramer’s “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?

Here’s what I didn’t know about Ted Williams until today: he was half-Mexican (with some Basque heritage thrown in for good measure).

It’s something that didn’t come out until a month before Ted died in 2002, the fact that he was a Mexican-American. His mother was Mexican — [she] was born in Mexico — and her parents were born and raised there as well. He was embarrassed about this and afraid that the prejudice of the day would hurt his baseball career. Even though Mexicans didn’t figure as prominently as black ball players, nevertheless he was aware of the black prejudice and feared that it could hurt him. He was advised to keep this under wraps and he did. He always spoke rather contemptuously of his extended family on his mother’s side and referred to them as “the Mexicans” in not a nice way.

There was a very telling moment in 1939 after Williams had completed his rookie year with the Red Sox and had made an absolutely smashing debut — hit well over 300 and led the league in runs batted in — and he returned to San Diego the conquering hero and was met at the train station by a gaggle of 100 or so of the extended Mexican clan. Ted took one look at them from afar and beat a hasty retreat. He didn’t want to be seen with them.

Ted Williams was one of the most famous athletes in America for 20 years, and he had to put it mildly an adversarial relationship with what used to be called “the press” and is now the media. Yet he passed with complete success; nobody outed him.

A final note: Williams’ well-known acceptance speech when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966 now becomes an even more interesting cultural moment:

Ballplayers are not born great. They’re not born great hitters or pitchers or managers, and luck isn’t the big factor. No one has come up with a substitute for hard work. I’ve never met a great player who didn’t have to work harder at learning to play ball than anything else he ever did. To me it was the greatest fun I ever had, which probably explains why today I feel both humility and pride, because God let me play the game and learn to be good at it.

The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty second home run. (Note: Williams retired with 521.) He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, “Go get ’em, Willie.” Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.

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