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Williams got his start in San Diego
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07/05/2002 7:24 pm ET 
Williams got his start in San Diego
By John Schlegel /

Ted Williams in 1941, just a few years removed from playing on the sandlots of San Diego. (AP)
When The Kid really was a kid and the Splendid Splinter was just a toothpick, Ted Williams ran to the North Park Playground in San Diego every day so he could to do what he always wanted to do: play baseball.

From a very early age growing up in what then was a Navy town of about 150,000, Williams had only one desire. He just wanted to have people say, "There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived."

That he very well may have become that has plenty to do with his growing up in San Diego, with its Southern California sun and apparently perfect soil to produce a legend of the game.

"I think I was fortunate to grow up in Southern California, where it is always warm and a boy can stretch the baseball season to his own dimensions," Williams wrote in his autobiography, "My Turn at Bat."

Williams would stretch San Diego's baseball world into his own dimensions, from his days on the playground to a stirring career at Hoover High School to his professional debut with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League at age 17. After his baseball career took him away from Southern California, Williams returned more later in his life as San Diego and Padres management bid him a proud welcome home as not just a legendary ballplayer, but a legendary man.

As the 20th century gave way to the 21st century, he was considered the greatest athlete to hail from San Diego. While Tony Gwynn is certain to join Williams at the National Baseball Hall of Fame after establishing a career-long friendship with the city first at San Diego State University and then for two decades with the Padres, the eight-time National League batting champion knows Williams stands alone as Mr. San Diego.

"They tried to drop that 'Mr. San Diego' title on me before, and I said, 'I'm sorry, but there's a man by the name of Mr. Ted Williams who toiled around this town for a while, and to a lot of people on this earth, he's the greatest hitter who ever lived,' " Gwynn said of Williams, with whom he developed a bond over the last decade. "So when they drop 'Mr. San Diego' on me, I cringe, because that title is not mine. That title is Mr. Williams'."

Even though Williams' baseball travels would take him far away from the place of his birth, it could be said San Diego was home of Williams' heart and it certainly was where his baseball life began.

Indeed, he went a long way from North Park Playground and the steps of the Print Shop at Hoover High, where he was just some kid who was trying to beg his way onto the team.

There began a career at Hoover High, but that was only part of a San Diego story that had him spending practically all his days of youth at North Park Playground. Many an hour was spent wearing out friend Wilber Wylie's arm, getting him to throw curveball after curveball. He'd also be the first one to grammar school every morning, not waiting for the janitor to open the school and let him in the closet where the baseball equipment was stored.

Before he was 18, Williams was playing for the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League, headed for the Boston Red Sox soon after that.

"You have to understand: He always loved baseball," said lifelong friend Bob Breitbard, founder of the San Diego Hall of Champions sports museum. "He knew he wanted to be a ballplayer. That's all he wanted."

That much could be seen when Williams was in his first year of high school, and tryouts were being held days before the end of the semester in late January. Williams even chose to go to Hoover over storied San Diego High because he thought he'd have a better chance to make the baseball team.

As friend Les Cassie tells it, the tryout took place not on the regular baseball diamond but a big, open field. Coach Wos Caldwell was throwing batting practice.

"Where right field would be was a lunch arbor," recalls Cassie, who went on to become a San Diego legend himself in the area of prep coaching and sports administration. "Nobody ever hit it out there. We didn't even think of it.

"Well, practice is about halfway along, and this tall string bean walked up, sat on the print shop steps and said, 'Hey, Coach, let me hit.' We had so many guys going out for the team, Calwell wasn't letting him hit. Ted just sat there and a half-hour later says, 'Hey, Coach, let me hit.' So Calwell lets him.

"The first ball, he hit out to the lunch arbor. Nobody'd ever hit it there. The second ball, he hit out to the lunch arbor.

"Calwell says, 'What's your name, kid?' And he says, "Ted Williams. I'll be here next Monday."

When Williams signed with the Padres, he hadn't quite established himself yet as splendid, but he was a splinter. At 6-foot-3, Williams said he weighed 148 pounds -- even though the newspaper said he weighed 155. He made $150 a month when he started, and he had an inauspicious deput on June 17, 1936, taking three called strikes as a pinch-hitter.

He batted only .271 that 1936 season, but he improved to .291 with 23 homers and 98 RBIs in 1937, leading the Padres to the PCL championship. The Red Sox bought Williams from the Padres on Dec. 7, 1937, and he went on to make baseball history as the greatest hitter who ever lived.

None of which really came as much of a surprise to anyone who knew him in his youth in San Diego.

"I don't think it surprised anybody that he became a great hitter," Cassie said. "We never thought about how great he would become. We just knew he was outstanding.

"He was immersed in baseball. He just wanted to be the greatest hitter who ever lived. He always told me that when we were kids. He wasn't bragging. That's just what he wanted to do."

John Schlegel is a writer for based in the Bay Area. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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