The San Diego Kid
Has there ever been a more dramatic finish to an All-Star Game? The question is rhetorical; the answer is No. We’re talking about a Midsummer Classic of 75 seasons ago: July 8, 1941.
This year finds the media caravan in San Diego, where two previous All-Star Games have taken place—in 1978 and in 1992, though at Jack Murphy Stadium; this of course is the first such contest at Petco Park. But this city’s most profound connection to the All-Star Game dates to 1941, when the San Diego Padres were a team in the Pacific Coast League whose greatest local product, Ted Williams, was about to leave an indelible stamp on the season. Not only did Ted compile a batting average of .406—unequaled in all the years since—but he also, with one swing in the greatest All-Star Game ever played, turned defeat to victory with two outs in the final inning. This feat, too, has been unequaled since.
The game took place at Briggs Stadium and overnight became the stuff of legend. Here’s a bare-bones account.
The National Leaguers entered the last of the ninth with a 5-3 lead and hopes of nailing down their first back-to-back All-Star victories. The Nationals tied the score in the top of the sixth, but the Americans countered with a run later in the inning. Pittsburgh’s Arky Vaughan then made a bid to be the game’s hero, homering in the seventh off Sid Hudson with a man aboard to restore the NL lead, and homering again an inning later off Edgar Smith for two more runs.
A double and single by the DiMaggio brothers Joe and Dom brought the Americans a run closer in the eighth, but they still needed two to tie as they faced the Cubs’ Claude Passeau in the bottom of the ninth. Two one-out singles and a walk loaded the bases for Joe DiMaggio, with Ted Williams on deck. DiMaggio hit a certain double-play ball sharply to shortstop Eddie Miller, who threw to second baseman Billy Herman. However, Herman’s throw to first was wide, enabling DiMaggio to reach first and Ken Keltner to score from third. With two men now out and the Americans still down a run, Ted Williams homered on a letter-high fastball against the upper parapet in right for three more runs and a 7-5 AL win.
Williams, a stringbean kid who was about to become The Kid, abandoned all reserve and galloped around the bases like a colt, leaping as he turned first base, clapping his hands all the way home. On the radio, Red Barber made the call: “Passeau pitches. Williams swings. There’s a high fly going deep, deep … it is a home run. A home run against the tip top of the right field stands. A tremendous home run that brought in three runs and turned what looked to be a National League win into an American League 7-5 win. Two men were out, and what a wallop!”
Playing in his second All-Star Game—he was inexplicably excluded from the 1939 squad—The Kid was hitting .405. Joe DiMaggio came into the game having hit in 48 consecutive contests, surpassing Willie Keeler’s mark of 44; he would go on, of course, to hit in eight more to reach 56, prompting this writer to reach once again for the phrase “unequaled since.” Has there ever been a season quite like 1941, the last one before Pearl Harbor changed everything?
The exuberant Williams of the All-Star Game had escaped an unhappy home; it was baseball that had given direction and meaning to his life. The Williams residence at 4121 Utah Street was exceedingly modest (it survives) and, with Ted’s mother and father gone all day and much of the night, not a place of care and comfort. Ted’s home had one undeniable plus: North Park playground was only a block and a half away, and its playing fields had lights. If his parents were going to be away from morning until night, at least Ted could play ball instead of sitting on the porch waiting for someone to come home. Roy Engle, Ted’s fellow North Park regular who graduated from high school a class ahead of him, said “We were kind of playground bums, I guess you’d say.”
At age 16 in 1935, he was the star pitcher and slugger of San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School. He batted .586 and the pro scouts took notice. In 1936 he “slumped” to .403, but signed a contract for $150 a month to play with the new San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League.
In 1936 Red Sox general manager Eddie Collins came to San Diego to check the progress of two Padres he had on option, Bobby Doerr and George Myatt. Collins saw this scrawny 17-year-old part-time pitcher taking batting practice, and he saw the most perfect batting form he had seen, better even than that of his old teammate Joe Jackson. Collins talked Bill Lane, the Padres’ owner, into a handshake deal for an option on the boy who had The Swing. One year later he came back to exercise the option, letting Myatt go to another club, and Williams, like Doerr, became the property of the Boston Red Sox.
The Padres of 1937 finished third with Ted playing left field every day, hitting cleanup, and hitting some of the longest homers ever seen on the Coast. On September 19, in the second game of a doubleheader in San Francisco that marked Ted’s last game of the regular season, he provided a harbinger of things to come: he hit a home run in his final at-bat. Before going out to pitch the seventh inning with the wind whipping at his back, Missions’ pitcher Wayne Osbourne said to his teammates, “If that guy thinks he can hit a homer against this gale he’s gonna have to furnish his own power.” Osbourne lobbed up a soft pitch (not unlike Rip Sewell’s famous “eephus” pitch to Ted in the 1946 All Star Game). Ted ripped the ball through the gale, over the fence, across the street, and against a high wall 425 feet from home.
When Ted Williams reported to the Red Sox spring-training camp in Sarasota, Florida in 1938, as green a pea as ever came off the farm, his reputation preceded him. It wasn’t his statistics that set him apart from mere mortals—in two years in the Pacific Coast League he posted modest batting averages of .271 and .291. It was The Swing. His first day in camp, when he stepped into the batting cage, everything stopped. Even the most veteran players interrupted their drills to watch the Kid strut his stuff: take the wide, erect stance that made him look even taller than his 6’3” height; extend his bat across the plate, as if taking its measure; wiggle his hips and rock his shoulders as if he were searching for solid ground beneath his feet; twist his hands on the bat handle with bad intent. Then, the turn of the hips, the snap of the wrists, the fluid follow-through, and the crack of bat on ball. No student of baseball who saw The Swing will ever forget it.
All the same, Ted failed to win a spot on the big club. He was packed off to Minneapolis, Niccolet Park, and a triple crown: .366, 43 home runs, and 142 RBIs. But his antics in the outfield and on the basepaths drove manager Donie Bush to despair. Maybe the Kid was going to be the game’s next great star, but the comparisons offered by newsmen around the Triple-A circuit were not to Babe Ruth but to Babe Herman—or to Ring Lardner’s “Elmer the Great.” It is hard to fathom today, but as he rose to the majors Ted was universally regarded as a screwball.
Ted made the Red Sox for Opening Day 1939, going on to a sensational rookie year, hitting .327 with 31 homers and a league-high 145 RBIs. After the season he went to Minnesota rather than return to San Diego, where his parents had just separated and his brother Danny was running with a bad crowd. “Home was never a happy place for me,” Ted said, “and I had met a girl in Minnesota.”
The girl was Doris Soule, whom he would later marry. The next year, the Kid incurred the antagonism of Boston writer Harold Kaese, who wrote, “Well, what do you expect from a guy who won’t even go to see his mother in the offseason?” That same year Joe Miley of the New York Post wrote, “When it comes to arrogant and ungrateful athletes, this one leads the league.” Ted never forgave them, not any of “them,” and the long battle between the Kid and the knights of the keyboard was joined.
After a sophomore season in which he failed to meet his own lofty goals, especially in home runs, the Kid began his glory year of 1941 by breaking his ankle in spring training. This may have been a lucky break, as for the first two weeks of the regular season it limited him to pinch hitting duty, thus reducing his plate appearances in the cold weather that he despised. By mid-June he was hitting .436.
The 1941 season was the highlight of Ted’s career for more than that one swing in the All-Star Game, more even than the .406 batting average. He also hit 37 homers to lead the AL and topped the league in runs scored and walks as well—with an astonishing .553 on-base percentage (the highest ever until topped by Barry Bonds) and a .735 slugging average (today seventeenth best).
Williams didn’t win the Most Valuable Player Award, however, as writers were swayed by Joe DiMaggio’s flashier record of hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. And the Yankees won the pennant. And Ted hadn’t gone home to his mother.
Before the War, Ted was impetuous, unable to deal with frustration. He blew up, threw things, raged out of control. With maturity came a measure of outer restraint, but his gut still churned. “In a crowd of cheers,” he said, “I could always pick out the solitary boo.” Ted and Joe DiMaggio competed for the public’s affection while disavowing any concern with it, but they were truly brothers under the skin—both of them hypersensitive, distrustful, and perfectionist.
After the War, Ted’s return to a Red Sox uniform was typically heroic, driving a home run into the bleachers on Opening Day in the nation’s capital. The Fenway fans of 1946 adored him and Ted reciprocated. The Red Sox cruised to the pennant, and all was right with the world, until the disappointing World Series loss to the Cardinals.
In the years that followed, on up to his famous home run in his final at bat in 1960, at age 41, Ted became increasingly standoffish with the fans and the press, though his teammates loved him. In retirement , though, he seemed to enjoy the company of fellow players ever more, especially those with whom he could talk hitting. Things came full circle for the Kid near the end, at the All-Star Game of 1999 that marked the announcement of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. Ted seemed especially pleased that another San Diego kid, Tony Gwynn, showered him with attention and love. Gwynn, with his .394 in the shortened season 1994, had come closer than anyone to matching Ted’s .406, and that made for a special bond between them.
Now they are both gone, Ted in 2002 and Tony in 2014. Maybe they’re still talking hitting.
This article appears in the MLB’s 2016 All-Star Game Guide.