|Friday, July 5
Teammates remember young, crazy Williams
By Dennis Tuttle
Special to ESPN.com
The famous Ted Williams temper, competitiveness and egocentric persona that became his identity developed long before he reached the Red Sox in 1939. As a 19-year-old assigned to minor-league Minneapolis out of training camp in 1938, Williams remained defiant against the big-league team's outfield veterans. "Tell them I'm going to make more money in this game than all three of them put together," he barked in the clubhouse.
Of course, Williams was right. He had nothing to prove in the minors. Signed by his hometown San Diego Padres as a 17-year-old, Williams played well enough in the Pacific Coast League to draw the interest of the Yankees, Cardinals and Red Sox, all of whom balked at his asking price of a $1,000 bonus to sign.
But Red Sox assistant general manager Billy Evans talked the team into paying the money and they almost immediately regretted it. Angry and carefree in Minneapolis, Williams "did a lot of crazy things," said Wilfred "Lefty" Lefebrve, one of Ted's teammates with the Millers that year.
"I noticed that nobody went out with him. So one night he asked me to go out. 'Come on, let's go out and get a sandwich.' He had bought a 1938 Buick. We got in the car, and he's going down Nicollet Avenue over there in Minneapolis about 50 miles an hour and he's hollering, 'Ya-HOOO! Ya-HOOO!' And I said, 'We're gonna get pinched.'"
Lefebrve said Williams was particular when it came to his eating habits.
"We'd go into a restaurant and he'd order a chicken sandwich. He'd take three bites and he's all done and I was halfway through. He said, 'Aw, let's get outta here. This place is horse (bleep). Let's go to another place.'
"So we'd go to another restaurant. He'd argue with the guy at the counter there. He wanted a chicken sandwich. He'd say, 'Is this chicken fresh?'"
Williams would then ask to smell the chicken.
"The guy would bring out the chicken and Ted would smell it and start arguing over it. ... I thought we'd get thrown out of there."
Football great Slingin' Sammy Baugh had just quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to the 1937 NFL championship and was spending the spring and summer of 1938 in the Cardinals' system. Baugh was playing for Columbus, Ohio, and he says his best memory of that season was the first time he saw Williams play.
"He'd go out to right field, stick his glove in his back pocket and turn his back on the pitcher, practice his swing and start doing jumping jacks and crap like that," Baugh said. "He'd look over his shoulder for the pitch and do exercises in between while the pitcher piddled around between pitches. These old-school guys, many of them on their way back down from the majors, thought, 'What a ... bush leaguer.' They were raising hell, saying, 'Get him out of here!'
"Williams was a screwball in many ways," Baugh continued. "But you know, that crazy sonofabitch would get up there and knock a board off the fence in the outfield [when he hit the ball]. Everybody also knew he was going to be great."
Lefebvre recalls when a prominent fastpitch softball team in Minneapolis challenged the Millers to a game. The manager of the fastpitch team walked up to Williams and said of his pitcher, "This guy'll strike you out."
"Like hell!" Williams blurted.
"I'll bet you five bucks he'll strike you out," the manager said, and Williams took the bet.
"First time Ted goes up," Lefebvre said, "the guy did strike him out. So the next time, Ted must have hit the ball 400 feet. Over the right-field fence. A softball. He was going around the bases jumping like a kangaroo. Got that big voice. You could hear him all over the ballpark. Oh, jeez. He was terrific."
While most of his teammates were afraid of his antics and temper, they also realized his greatness. A teammate organized a barnstorming tour through Minnesota and the Dakotas after the season to raise extra money. Williams offered to tag along.
"After the season he was planning to go back to California," teammate Otto Denning said. "But he told us he'd go with us. He would be a great draw and Ted knew it. He did that for us. He was [a] wonderful person. Anybody who says different, I'll tell them they're full of it. We made $20 a game, and in those days 20 bucks was like a thousand now."
Lefebvre also tells the story of Williams putting a case of shotgun shells he received from the team's radio sponsor to use.
"On this barnstorming tour he'd heard that there were a lot of big jackrabbits out there," Lefebvre said. "So he got that case of shotgun shells and he put them between his legs. He had Walter Tauscher, who was a little older and kind of watching over us young guys, driving his Buick and he was sitting in the front seat with a shotgun.
"Ted was shooting at everything! We'd be going about 50 miles an hour. Stan Spence and I'd be sitting in the back seat -- you know, falling asleep from the night before -- and all of a sudden we'd hear BANG! We thought we'd had a flat tire or something. Ted thought he saw a jackrabbit.... By the end of the trip I think he was shooting at cats and dogs. He probably killed a couple of cows, I don't know. It's a wonder we never got pinched."
Added Denning: "He always had his rifle with him so he could jump out and shoot a chicken hawk or something. But that was Ted. He didn't give a damn what people thought and he had a great time on that barnstorming tour. It was at the time of year when all the agriculture fairs were going on and we always had to stop at one of them.
"Ted loved the roulette wheel and one day he lost about $400 on it. It was rigged and we all knew it, but Ted wouldn't stop playing until he won at it. The guy behind the wheel must've had a little pedal or something to slow the wheel as the ball rolled around. Walter Tauscher threatened to go to the police about it, but Ted said to let it go. I think he was embarrassed about losing all that money. But Walter went back to that carnival and got about half of Ted's money back."
According to Denning, Williams went on a radio station at one stop and was asked what city was headed next. "Well, we're going to some jerk town called Worthington," Williams said.
"When we got to Worthington, we had a full house and everybody was booing him," Denning said. "You know how he quieted them? He hit a home run his first time at-bat that went out of the park and over some cow barns. It must have gone 500 feet. For the rest of the game they cheered every move he made."
During the tour Williams blew out the engine on his Buick. "That burned Ted," Denning said. "He was driving 90 miles per hour all over those backroads."
Cantankerous, free-spirited and every bit his own man and player, Williams obviously made a bigger impression on those around him than just being a great hitter. Baugh, one of the most easygoing and coachable athletes of his generation, said, "I always wondered how a manager would handle him. Not many would put up with his [stuff].
But, the great Baugh said with proper emphasis that followed Williams throughout his career, "How would you like to be the [one] who let Ted Williams get away?"
Dennis Tuttle of Cheverly, Md., is author of six books, including "Life in the Minor leagues" (Chelsea House, 1999).