by J.A. Marzán (November 2014)
I can tell you exactly when it started,…
I got my little bat, ran out to our little backyard,
and began swinging.
— Ted Williams
Of Ted Williams, the last .400 hitter, there is no debate over his status among baseball gods and genuine American heroes. Still, in life he invited detractors by carrying the arrogance of the greatness he knew he had since he was a kid. A Youtube video describes him as “overrated,” its author not forgiving the two times that Williams spat at fans. This attitude problem put off the press so that when he had planned to retire, on the advice of a fan, he reconsidered and kept playing to pump up his numbers to surpass the impressive 500 home-run mark and thereby pressure those journalists not disposed to voting him into the Hall of Fame in the first round.
Ironically that first-round vote was in jeopardy at the Hall of Fame for the very reason that today adds lumens to his heroic glow: because he had taken off five years to serve as pilot in the Marines. Despite a deferment, he enlisted, motivated to sign up by a secret pressure on him that other deferred baseball stars were spared. For in addition to his less-than-endearing cocky attitude’s endangering his immortality at the end of his career, another detriment incited in him an incentive to prove that he was 100% American: not the fear of being singled out with accusations of his being yellow but to vindicate himself despite any chance of his being denied recognition if it was discovered that he was really brown, that his mother was Mexican and that he grew up in a Mexican family. He had trained to fly in WWII but the war was over when he was ready, so his training was later put into service in Korea.
In Bob Knowlin’s The Kid: Ted Williams in San Diego (2005), Williams’ Aunt Sarah complains that “they been bringing up his being Mexican,” a fact that appeared to have surfaced only with the publication of Knowlin’s biography. Until then that background was little known. One has to ask how long “they” have been “always bringing up his being Mexican” and also covering it up from wider broadcasting and if his being Mexican had anything to do with his not getting along with sportswriters and with his feeling pressured to make extra patriotic efforts.
Southern California bigotry against Mexicans had originally prompted Williams to subdue that side of himself from public view, as Williams admitted in, My Turn at Bat: “My mother’s maiden name was Venzer, she was part Mexican and part French, and that’s fate for you; 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.” Biographer Nowlin later comments: “Ted wrote that on page 28, and that was about all he had to say about his Hispanic heritage.”
It is curious that Williams should believe that Venzer should mean anything in particular to elicit hostility as much as curiosity and the complication of having to explain or cover up, which he does in his reference to her being part French. Except for indigenous Americans and those of African descent, in mutt criollo Americas everybody is a composite of European strains. Marzán is French Catalan and the Marzáns comprise a municipal ward of now disconnected families descending from the same lineage in Puerto Rico. A convention of ethnically self-conscious rhetorical finessing invokes those European strains over less prestigious linguistic riffraff, such as plain Mexican.
Ted’s Anglo father of English-Welsh extraction was a drunk nonentity. From that Anglo American half Williams received his surname and his complexion fairer than his brother’s – two shields from prejudice – and not much else. No evidence exists of Williams’ having any significant contact – any contact at all – with his father’s family. In fact, given that his mother too was a dysfunctional parent, for reasons to be discussed ahead Williams grew up raised by his mother’s family.
Nowlin described Williams as the “first Latino” voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, also noting that when he first wrote of that background in articles before publishing his book: “they elicited quite a surprised response.” He didn’t say if those were expressions of pleasant surprise. Nowlin’s book was released in February 2005, then in August 26, 2005 The New York Times published Richard Sandomir’s piece on Latino Hall of Famers, inquiring “Who’s a Latino Baseball Legend?”: “When Major League Baseball unveiled its ballot for the Latino Legends team Tuesday, the 60 nominees excluded two of the greatest Hispanic players ever: Ted Williams and Reggie Jackson.”
Sandomir cited Carmine Tiso, a baseball “spokesperson,” who explained that lineage is not baseball’s standard for identifying a player as Hispanic: “[Baseball]… applied a litmus test that went beyond statistics: the nominees had to have a direct connection to their Latino heritage.” A second cited spokesman, Richard Levin, said the players should “represent the Latin community.” Tiso added a defense of Williams: “It’s not that he was ashamed of his heritage, but we felt that we didn’t find enough connection from Ted to that Latino heritage.” Levin appended an additional consideration: that Williams’s name “would distort the ballot” and “cause havoc” because his ethnicity is not widely known. The havoc caused, of course, would be to the public’s counting on Williams as icon on the plane of the classic American Story.
When Ted Williams died nobody talked of his background. What subject did dominate the media discourse was the legal fight between two of his four children over whether their famous father should be cremated or frozen. His son, John Henry Williams, who died of leukemia at age 35 in 2004, claimed that in a document both he and his father signed Williams expressed the wish to have his body frozen. His sister Bobby-Jo argued that their father’s actual will stipulated his desire to be cremated and that this ashes be scattered at sea.
Bobby-Jo lacked the funds to continue the legal battle and frozen won. Both options are pregnant with metaphorical possibilities. Williams’ desire to have his ashes scattered over an interjurisdictional body of water evokes the disconnect between his historical person, really from nowhere, and the icon that remains immortal in the American Story. Meanwhile his body preserved frozen is the perfect metaphor of how he is remembered in American tribute, a bloodless figure of fame and baseball greatness.
Efforts to write the story of Williams “the man” come up short because all we have is the curated album of simple, glowing public relations images: the baseball star, the fisherman, the hunter, the Marine pilot. Those who know him best customarily introduce anecdotes that supposedly contradict what impressions one might have of Williams as someone locked in himself and full of himself – anecdotes that don’t leave us changing greatly our original impression. One awaits some unguarded moment of confession, of self-reflection on his life as father, husband, son, or teammate but no such sound bite is forthcoming. His single conversation is baseball. In a 2012 Washington Post story, Williams’ good friend and co-author of My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life, John Underwood, is said to have written a movie script that is now looking for a producer. One wonders what that biopic is going to produce.
Nowlin doesn’t have to say it but it is evident that absent a real person for him to write a biography about he had to go behind him to those who knew Williams in his early years. Ted was closest to Aunt Sarah into his later years but physically broke from the family except for private support that he gave, such as paying for his nephew Manuel Herrera’s college education. Few of his family members are critical of his divorce from them, tacitly apologizing for his accomplishing what they had surreptitiously taught him to do, ultimately escape from them as a source of his identity.
Ted’s Aunt Sarah tells of her father’s, Ted’s grandfather’s, crossing the border when the first of his four children was one year old. The other three, including Sarah herself and Ted’s mother May were born in the U.S. Hostility, one gathered although Sarah does not mention it, encouraged the Venzer family to assimilate and gain acceptance. In fact, the entire family’s testimonial reads as if they had been assimilated for many generations when they were barely second generation.
When in the seventies I first read Chicano writings, I learned of a generational rebellion not just against Anglos but as well critical of earlier Mexican American generations that caved into cultural shame and conformed to the Anglo standard, looking to find acceptance as Anglos rather than defend their ethnic uniqueness. The Venzer clan, part Basque, meaning some were white and some were Indian brown, seems to be a paradigm target of that anger. They were, in other words, of their time as immigrants, in the tradition of finding a place in The American Story by shedding the past and embracing Anglo Protestant culture.
Everyone in the family talks as if the whole family could be named Smith or Jones, not making of themselves victims and finessing issues that would identify their difference and stigmatization. Logically, therefore, “[Williams] never made a point of letting it be known,” said Williams’s nephew, his brother Danny’s son also named Ted Williams, cited by Sandomir, “He didn’t promote it. He was very friendly with our Mexican relatives on a private basis, but sometimes he shunned them in public because he didn’t want it to be known. His mother led an Anglo life in San Diego.” It is also significant that the Venzer family at some point had become Baptists and that Sarah speaks as if she too were Anglo, referring to Santa Barbara’s being a “Spanish town.”
Aunt Sarah – the siblings appear to all have Anglicized names – inserts in passing that she married a border crosser and that they ran a tortilla stand. It is evident that this cultural theme had both social and family ramifications but judging from Aunt Sarah’s conversation one doesn’t get a sense. The rest of her interview with Nowlin proceeds as if she and her husband had said they sold hotdogs. One finished the interview, then looks at the family snapshots that Nowlin provides and one is reminded, having forgotten: these people are unmistakably Mexican of native American origin.
Ted’s mother married the senior Williams after having committed herself to another Americanizing identity, the Salvation Army. In Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero by Leigh Montville, Manny Herrera confirms what other biographers have noted, that the most influential person in Ted’s life was May, as much by her cold love as by her abandoning him to her Salvation Army devotion. Manny remembered that May “didn’t want to clean house.” Her sister Sarah came from Santa Barbara to raise him and May’s two young boys. “May …was a sweet woman, but she was no housekeeper. She was all Salvation Army.”
Unsupervised, Montville adds “The boys went for the two traditional dramatic enticements: Ted went for sports, for baseball, and Danny, two years younger, went for trouble.” Montville noted that the brothers’ respective “roles of the athlete and the delinquent almost seemed to have been handed down from a higher power.” Ted was bigger, stronger, favored his father in being white while “Danny Williams looked Mexican. Would the roles have been reversed if the bodies had been reversed, the skin color reversed? Hard to say….The fact that [Ted] looked like an athlete and an All-American boy certainly did not hurt when coaches looked to find their favorite students,….There is a mystery, always, when two brothers live in the same bedroom, are raised in the same circumstance, eat the same food, and use the same shower and then step out the front door and do truly different things….How do you figure it? Danny found trouble and disappointment.”
Mystifying indeed that the Mexican-looking kid should grow up angry and incorrigible, criminal and always fighting authority, in a household where the non-Mexican-looking people, his mother and his brother, found acceptance away from their Mexican family, who would have held them back in a hostile society. In contrast, Knowlin reflects, if “Danny broke away from authority, Ted walked toward it. Authority controlled the bats and balls, the games. He played baseball at Garfield Elementary, starting out as normal recess and after-school activity, but by the age of 12 he was into his obsessive mode, swinging the bat in backyard, imagining a late-game situation at the faraway Polo Ground in New York, runners on base, Williams at the plate.” In baseball the young Ted found order in his life where in that same society Danny did not.
Ted resembled his mother May in a couple of important ways, as Bill Nowlin noted; Ted was allotted his dad’s physical genes but inherited his mother’s “single-minded and unswerving dedication in her calling as a Salvationist.” Unsurprisingly, “her eldest son picked up many of the same traits and put his own twist on it.” Rosalie Larson, the daughter of May’s brother Paul, observed that May “was determined to be the best captain in the Salvation Army” while her son Ted “was determined to be the best baseball player.” Their lives also performed the same American ritual. May had more than religious devotion to motivate her reinventing herself in The Salvation Army and Ted had more than a love of the game to motivate his reinventing himself in baseball: The Salvation Army and baseball respectively reaffirmed each’s sense of American belonging.
Baseball was America’s game (even more so back then), making its acceptance for Ted more than membership in a team. “Ted was all baseball when we were kids,” Joe Villarino told Knowlin. “The rest of us would play other sports. Ted only cared about baseball. That’s all he talked about. He never talked about girls, never had a date that I know of. Just baseball. I had a nice little girl, shared my locker at school. Not Ted. Just baseball.” Girls and dating, of course, are the crossroads of ethnic identity – and possible stigmatization.
But if in his day Ted could make a cultural demarcation using baseball, nearing the end of his career the demarcation will get blurred as into the second half of that century, baseball increasingly becomes an Americas game, tapping into a Latin American passion, ironically from where Ted Williams himself had received his first contact with baseball and learned what he would need to become the future batting great. Bill Nowlin had to go to the family to learn what Williams had veiled: “One of his earliest teachers was his uncle, Saul Venzer, one of May’s four brothers. At family gatherings in Santa Barbara, Spanish was spoken more than English, Saul would play catch with his eight-year-old nephew in the driveway. Saul had a semipro history as a pitcher. There was a family legend that he once had struck out Babe Ruth, Joe Gordon, and Lou Gehrig during an exhibition….”
Frank Venzer, one of Ted’s cousins, confirms Uncle Saul’s key role in molding the young Ted Williams. “Saul was the one who started this baseball stuff. Even before he [Ted] picked up a ball, before he knew what a glove was…I get this information from my aunt Sarah. She said, ‘Boy, those guys used to get up there and tease Ted. 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!’ Ted, although just fifteen, got so good that Saul allowed him to play on his amateur team of adult men.”
Uncle Saul was “very respected as a baseball player in Santa Barbara,” according to Manuel Herrera, whom Nowlin cites: “Everyone knew he could pitch and he finally got a chance to show his stuff against the barn-storming major leaguers. He pitched a great game and struck out ole Babe Ruth and a bunch of the other so-called heroes of the diamond! The game was played in Santa Barbara about 1935 and I know a few people who remember the game. They were more impressed with Saul Venzer than with the major league all-stars.”
Frank Venzer adds this story: “Uncle Saul pitched a 19-inning, 1-0 ball game in the minors against Los Angeles, the Metro….the railroad company. My dad told me he wouldn’t quit. He wouldn’t give up. He pitched the 19 innings all by himself, and they won 1-0. They used to play at Cabrillo Field. They were called the Goleta Merchants. Ted used to send them equipment and balls and gloves.”
Nowlin wrote that at one semi-pro game, Ted was impressed by his uncle after an incident that he related to his cousin Dee, Saul’s daughter, and her husband David Allen. Saul had filled up the bases with nobody out. He asked the umpires for a time-out and went over to the opposing bench and took bets on his claim that they were not going to score. The team took him up on the bet and he collected their money, went back out on the mound and, according to David Allen, “either struck out two more or got a double play, Ted didn’t remember. But he won the bet.” Not only the skill of identifying pitches, then, the confidence and swagger that would define Williams’ star personality, for good or ill, obviously came from the influence of his Uncle Saul.
Ironically too, Saul provided a window to an orderly world in which Ted apparently envisioned himself much happier than in the dysfunction offered by his mother and the minority stigmatization of his only family. Interviewed on the video, The Man, the Player, the Legend, Williams praised baseball, as one would expect, but as well, in contrast to other aspects of his life, “…the greatest game that ever was, and everything that ever happened to me [pause] good ….”
But while that other life brought increasing fame, he personally sought out isolation. Not driven by team spirit, his obsession was with “the science of hitting” and standing alone as the best. His two other favorite sports allowed him to pursue solitude, fishing and hunting. He sought little intimacy even with the new world in which he had reinvented himself: instructions to one of his wives, “no funerals, no weddings.”
Ted Williams saw Uncle Saul for the last time when he returned to Santa Barbara for the funeral of his mother May. Nowlin writes that Williams rented out the entire top floor of the Santa Barbara Inn and registered under another name because as Manuel Herrera explained, “there was a ton of reporters.” One reporter’s inquiry seemed rude – if Williams had cried at his mother’s funeral – but the question does cross one’s mind. Manuel, loyal to Ted who remained loyal to him among few others, doesn’t describe Williams’ reaction to his mother’s death, devoting more attention to the occasion’s being the last time that Ted saw Uncle Saul: “‘I see that you learned how to hit the curve ball, and you did pretty good, huh?’ Now Ted was looking right at Saul as if to say, thank you for all you did for me. Teddy had a big grin on his face, focused right at Saul….It was like the old teacher and the student measuring success of the seasons of the past.”
In Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams (1994), biographer Ed Linn opens with description of Williams as a playground legend “the kid with the perfect swing….who could not only lecture the other kids on the proper technique of hitting but could tell them after watching the opposing pitcher warm up exactly how he was going to pitch to them…..How did he know what he knew?” West of the Mississippi there was no Big-League ball and San Diego, where he lived, was “little more than a naval base down by the boondocks.” And there was no television “to provide an eager kid with expert commentary…on how the battle between the pitcher and the hitter works.”
Linn cites Ted Williams’ account – shades of his mother’s Salvationist belief – of a sort of miraculous conversion to baseball: “I can tell you exactly when it started,” he says. “It wasn’t when I was ten or eleven. It happened when I was twelve. I had never followed major-league baseball. The only players I had ever heard of were Ruth and Gehrig. And then I read that Bill Perry had hit .400, and that really excited me….I was so excited that even though it was dark out – I’ve told this to anybody before – I got my little bat, ran out to our little backyard, and began swinging.” Linn, publishing his biography six years before Nowlin published his and writing before Latino baseball would become a part of baseball consciousness, doesn’t pursue Williams’ early life and takes him at his word. Saul Venzer doesn’t come up in Hitter.
Ted’s solitude informed his entire life. Three failed marriages produced four children with whom he could give nothing of himself. In “John-Henry – The Kid’s Only Son” in the Boston Globe (7/21/2002), Joseph P. Kahn wrote of John Henry, on the occasion of the fight with his sister over the freezing of his father (the metaphor becoming even more creepily apt). John Henry grew up in Williams’ demarcated American world, raised with virtually no contact with Williams’ maternal side as his father had been raised with no contact with his father’s American family. Kahn cited John Henry’s cousin Ted Williams, son of the star’s brother Danny, who could only comment on knowing the difficulty of coming from a broken marriage because, as Kahn informed the reader, this cousin of John Henry, “the slugger’s 50-year-old nephew, … a graphic designer in Oakland … doesn’t know John-Henry personally.”
Kahn also cites another cousin, Manuel Herrera, who once allowed John Henry to stay three months at his house, where phone bills ran up rampantly. Manuel was also turned off by the spoiled rotten kid who bragged that his father gave him anything but that he “was waiting until his father died” so that he could inherit “all the money.” Fed up with the phone bills, “Herrera eventually asked John Henry to leave and never saw him again.” Surely no family ties were broken that never really existed.
Manual belonged to Ted’s private life and John Henry belonged to his public one. Ted’s girlfriend once commented to Manuel, Kahn cites, that “Ted doesn’t know how to raise kids. … The public owns him….” Ted Williams was his American public’s invention, in exchange for which he was rewarded with fame and money, the material American Dream. Giving of himself meant giving what John Henry expected, money and the memorabilia he expected to live off. Among the memorabilia, figures the soulless corpse of the American icon, the only father he ever had, giving sense to why he wanted to preserve it frozen.
In sum, in those days when the nation more sharply or more explicitly identified itself as Anglo Protestant, Ted Williams did the American thing, and survives as a great symbol of that ceremony. In exchange for shedding an ethnic past, he attained the status of American Icon. Unfortunately, his American visage was also a mask of solitude. Surely his solitude also came from excelling and being alone at the top. Then there was that disdain of the public, which almost cost him baseball immortality. As Linn asked where Williams got his baseball knowledge, one might also inquire on the source of this hostility toward the American public that he gave up his other memory to embrace.
Ironically, Williams’ transformation into that solitary mainstream American personage makes one think of the model of the Mexican psyche that poet Octavio Paz described as the Mexican “labyrinth of solitude,” a self-defensive mask that never reveals the true inner self. Carlos Fuentes also wrote of the Mexican psyche’s way of confronting reality with a mask, a mask that becomes permanent – the Williams we see in videos and read about in websites and the books that celebrate the great ballplayer.
In 1966 Williams was inducted into the Hall of Fame as the country was in the throes of a cultural revolution, in which Williams did participate in his own way. His Hall of Fame induction speech acknowledged the great players of the Negro League: “I’ve been a very lucky guy to have worn a baseball uniform, and I hope someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given a chance.” His call was radical for its day and Montville, having cited Williams, characterized his words as “a first crack in the door that ultimately would open and include Paige and Gibson and other Negro League stars in the shrine.”
Baseball itself, of course, had already been integrated, and been enriched by the dissolution of the old Negro League just as it was discovering the newer waves of players from Latin America, with whom Williams did not publically or privately identify. The great irony, of course, is that today baseball sends scouts out to retrieve what natural talent is to be found throughout the Caribbean Basin of Spanish-speaking America, and that if Williams were a kid today his family might not have felt the pressure to inculcate in Ted a disconnect from their own roots in order to be true Americans.
Americans can haggle over his ethnicity and over whether he should be recognized as a “Latino” player, since he never acknowledged himself as one, and if the Latino Hall of Fame should continue to exclude him. What is truly American in this controversy is that the feud is really over to which Story he rightly belongs, the mythic or historical America. Baseball will forever be grateful that Ted Williams existed, but at some point will have to come to acknowledge without controversy its gratitude to May and the great pitching gifts of her brother Saul. At some point the country must acknowledge that Williams was a gift to the culture not from the story that begins with the Puritans but from the alternate, multicultural American Story.
J.A. Marzán a poet, as Julio Marzán, with poems in several college textbooks, a fiction writer, and as well author of the landmark The Spanish-American Roots of William Carlos Williams. His latest book, as J.A. Marzán, is the 2014 paperback reissue of my novel-in-stories The Bonjour Gene, which was submitted by the U. of Wisconsin Press to the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.
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