- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

SAN DIEGO (AP) Ted Williams might not have been the Splendid Splinter if not for San Diego's sunshine.
Although Williams spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Boston Red Sox, he never forgot how fortunate he was to have been born and raised in San Diego, where he played baseball practically year-round.
"Had I not become a pretty good hitter, I don't know what the excuse would have been," Williams said in July 1992, when he returned to San Diego to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the All-Star game.
"No kid had a chance to hit as much as I had."
Williams, who suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure in recent years, died Friday in Inverness, Fla. He was 83.
"I remember him like a John Wayne of baseball," said Bob Breitbard, a high school classmate of Williams and founder of the San Diego Hall of Champions. "He was in bad shape, but still, when it comes, it's not easy to take.
"Ted was the greatest baseball player ever to come out of San Diego, bar none."
Back when "The Kid" really was a kid, Williams lived just two blocks from North Park Playground, where he played baseball from early morning until well into the evening.
At North Park, and later at Hoover High, Williams honed the left-handed swing that would make him arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history. He had a career .344 average, hit 521 homers and was the last man to hit .400, batting .406 in 1941.
Williams vividly recalled his childhood whenever he visited San Diego. He loved to tell the story about always getting to school early so he could be the first one to get into the closet where the bats and balls were stored.
"They call it dedication. It was the most fun I ever had in my life, to be able to hit a baseball," Williams said. "I thought it was the greatest feeling, the greatest sound, and all the rest of it. That's what I wanted to do, that's what I did all the time."
Williams became so good, so young, that he signed with the Pacific Coast League Padres as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1936, before he graduated from high school.
There are three youth ballparks in San Diego named after Williams, plus a Ted Williams Parkway. Although the highway is out in the suburbs, miles from his boyhood home, Williams was pleased nonetheless because it's near where he used to hunt jackrabbits and quail.
Williams became friends with batting star Tony Gwynn, and on a visit to San Diego in 1996 he had an impromptu hitting session with other Padres.
Although Williams could take only half a swing because he'd been impaired by strokes, it had an impact.
"His eyes just lit up when he got a bat in his hand," manager Bruce Bochy said at the time. "This man has a passion for hitting like I've never seen before. He loves to challenge you. He has a reason for everything he talks about."
When the Padres' downtown ballpark is finished in 2004, a Ted Williams Plaza beyond the left-field wall will be connected by 19 palm trees with Tony Gwynn Plaza behind right field. Williams wore No.19 for the minor league Padres and Gwynn wore it for the big league Padres before retiring last October.
After his playing career, Williams lived in Florida because he loved to fish and hunt. He often said his biggest mistake was not moving back to San Diego.
"I remember the first home run I ever hit at North Park Playground I thought I was Babe Ruth," Williams said in an interview with the Associated Press in February 1996, when the San Diego Hall of Champions honored him as its Star of the Half Century.
"That's all I could think about was Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth. And it was just a little pop shot, maybe 280 feet over the shortest part of the fence. But it went over the fence.
"And to think, I was born in a place I could play it 12 months of the year. The playground two blocks away, and they even had lights sometimes in the '30s in some of those little ballparks.
"I was sure lucky."


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