|Friday, July 5
Updated: July 8, 11:25 AM ET
New England original
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
Try imagining San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge, summer without sunshine or corned beef without cabbage.
Now, try something more inconceivable -- the Red Sox without Ted Williams.
"When you think of Boston baseball, you think of Ted Williams," said longtime teammate and friend Johnny Pesky. "That's all there is. You could bring in Moses from heaven and he couldn't make an impact here the way Ted did here."
No single player more clearly defined a franchise than the way Williams came to symbolize the Red Sox. Raised in San Diego and retired to Florida, Williams nonetheless became an honorary native of New England, part of the sporting fabric.
From the time he joined the Red Sox in 1939 as a brash, cocksure kid, until his death Friday at age 83, Williams was inexorably linked to the club. After his retirement in 1960, Williams served as a part-time instructor and full-time ambassador.
Carl Yastrzemski, a Hall of Famer himself, never quite escaped Williams' shadow after he took over in left field in 1961. Wade Boggs, whose five batting titles nearly matched Williams' six, sought him for hitting advice. Nomar Garciaparra beamed with pride when Williams once referred to him "as my kid."
It's been said that the 1967 season saved baseball in Boston, but it might not have existed at all had Williams not captivated the city in previous decades. More times than not, the Red Sox were barely competitive -- they won just one pennant in Williams' 18-year career -- but Williams was reason enough to keep paying attention.
"Not only was he great to the Red Sox organization, but he was great to baseball and great for baseball," said former Sox outfielder Dwight Evans, now the club's hitting instructor.
In a city that has been home to a dynastic basketball franchise that boasts of 16 championships, a hotbed of hockey and hosts the reigning Super Bowl champs, baseball has always been No. 1 in Boston and No. 9 is a big reason why.
Even other legendary athletes understood that. In 1993, longtime Boston TV sports anchor Bob Lobel hosted a special in which the holy trinity of Boston sports superstars -- Williams, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird -- sat and chatted about their careers.
"Ted sat in the middle," recalled Lobel. "and there's not one question that both of those guys -- big as they were -- totally deferred to Ted. It was obvious. It was noticeable. It wasn't uncomfortable. It was just the way it was. Ted commanded your attention. He had that presence. Larry was a big baseball fan and just to be in Ted's presense was a thirll for him. And I know that when the great ones got together, they also called Ted, 'sir.'"
Baltimore has Cal Ripken Jr., San Diego has Tony Gwynn and Chicago has Ernie Banks. But none commands the awe and reverence with which Williams was held. There are other stars in baseball's galaxy, but Williams was brightest of all.
Reminders of him were everywhere at Fenway Park on Friday night. The street behind the left-field wall was renamed Ted Williams Way a decade ago. In the afternoon, the grounds crew carved a No. 9 into the field which Williams long patrolled. A red seat in the right-field bleachers marks the spot of his 1946 homer that traveled an estimated 502 feet. It was left vacant, with a single red rose placed on the seat. Kristin Matthews, a 28-year-old grad student at Wisconsin who had purchased the tickets over the Internet for her first game at Fenway Park, was moved to a luxury box -- the red seat will remain empty the rest of the season.
Williams is remembered as the last man to hit .400, but so much of his legacy is full of firsts -- the first to turn hitting into science; the first to keep a detailed record of pitchers' habits; the first to win a batting title at age 40; the first modern player to spar regularly with the media; the first Hall of Famer to call for the inclusion of Negro League stars in Cooperstown.
His relationship with the fans wasn't always sunny, either. In one notorious incident, he was alleged to have spat in the direction of some fans who dared boo his sometimes indifferent outfield play. Notoriously stubborn, he steadfastly refused to tip his hat in acknowledgement of their cheers.
But just as Williams was constantly evolving as a hitter, so too did he mature as a public figure. At times cantankerous and ornery as a player, he gradually mellowed as he aged, finally accepting the adoration which surrounded him.
In 1991, when the Red Sox honored him upon the 50th anniversary of his .400 season, Red Sox officials debated whether to give him a cap to doff. Fearful that he might be angered by the suggestion, they decided against it.
Much to their surprise, Williams had other ideas. He approached reliever Jeff Reardon and demanded to borrow the pitcher's hat. The superstitious Reardon had been using the same sweat-stained cap all season and hesitated momentarily.
"I know it's your lucky hat," said an impatient Williams, his voice booming. "I'll give it back to you, damn it."
Reardon's hat in hand, Williams went out on the field and removed it in honor of the fans. It was his way of signaling a truce and unofficially kicked off his public rehabilitation.
From that day on, Williams and Boston never shared an angry moment.
In 1999, at the All-Star Game held at Fenway, Ted had a homefield advantage. Introduced as part of baseball's All-Century Team, Williams was a magnet on the mound, attracting the likes of Gwynn and Mark McGwire, who were thrilled to just be in his presence.
"I can't imagine another hitter who will ever have an impact like the one he's had," said principal owner John Henry.
"Nobody could replace him," said Yastrzemski. "I just followed him."
So, too, did baseball fans in New England, always and forever.
Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.