Ted Williams’ Mexican-American heritage explored in PBS film
By RUSSELL CONTRERAS
Friday, July 20
ALBQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Ted Williams is the last major league baseball player to hit over .400. The Boston Red Sox slugger captivated millions with his dazzling swing and towering homers throughout the 1940s and 1950s in competition with New York Yankees hero Joe DiMaggio.
But beneath the smiles and happy trots around the bases sat a man consumed with rage. For years, the baseball legend would shun his ethnic heritage and kept his family’s past a secret. Only when he’d begin to speak out on behalf of black players would he begin to slowly reveal his connections to his Mexican-American Southern California family and the experiences that shaped him.
A new PBS “American Masters” documentary explores the life of Williams and his volatile relationships with his family and the press. The upcoming film uses rare footage and family interviews to paint a picture of an entangled figure who hid his past while enjoying the admiration of adoring fans. It includes unreleased color footage of Williams’ final game that was shot by a fan.
Williams, often called the “greatest hitter who ever lived,” was followed closely by sports writers thanks to his superb slugging skills and John Wayne-like persona as a foul-mouth outdoorsman. But the future Hall of Famer regularly clashed with critical journalists and had public spats with his numerous wives. The slugger also lost prime years because of service in World War II and the Korean War — something that angered him.
“We wanted to know…who was this man, who had such an effect on so many people?” director Nick Davis said. “He was so complicated and so full of contradictions and rages. Where did it all come from?”
The San Diego-born Williams played 19 years as a left fielder for the Boston Red Sox where he won two American League Most Valuable Player Awards and twice took the Triple Crown. He finished his career with a .344 batting average and 521 home runs, both of which rank among the top in baseball history.
While many of Williams’ professional accomplishments and personal clashes were widely known, Davis said few knew about Williams’ ethnic background until Ben Bradlee, Jr.’s well-researched 2013 book, “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.”
Davis said Williams kept his Mexican-American heritage a secret at a time when no black players were allowed in the major leagues and the Red Sox were owned by Tom Yawkey, a controversial figure who was the last owner to integrate a major league baseball team.
Williams was born to Samuel Stuart Williams, a white photographer and pickle salesman, and May Venzor, a Mexican-American Salvation Army devotee who often volunteered in Tijuana, Mexico, leaving Williams and his brother to fend for themselves with their alcoholic father, Bradlee said. His Mexican family ended up in San Diego as tension simmered before the Mexican Revolution began in 1910.
It’s a past Williams concealed until near the end of his life, said Bradlee. “He was ashamed.”
After his sensational 1939 rookie year, Williams returned to San Diego to find around 20 of his Mexican-Americans relatives waiting for him at the train station. Williams took one look at them and fled.
Bradlee, who was among those interviewed for the film and who found some of Williams’ cousins, said the family remained proud of his on-the-field achievements.
“But you can see they were a little bit hurt that he had shunned them,” Bradlee said.
In the film, daughter Claudia Williams said she would sometimes ask her father about his mother. But he refused to talk about her, or his past, she said.
Williams was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as soon as he became eligible. Williams wanted to use his speech to call for the Hall of Fame to recognize players of the Negro Leagues who had been excluded solely based on their skin color. Friends would say Williams, despite his own ambivalence about his own background, remembered the discrimination Mexican Americans faced in California.
But baseball officials wanted Williams to drop the reference. “You don’t tell Ted Williams what he can and cannot do,” Claudia Williams said in the film.
Williams gave his Hall of Fame speech his way, and soon after, players of the Negro Leagues were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
American Masters “Ted Williams: ‘The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived’” airs on most PBS stations on Monday.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras
Opinion: We Must Do More for Refugees
By Welton Chang
Sitting in a small Syrian restaurant on the Greek Island of Lesvos, Al told us about his journey to helping his fellow refugees. He sat at the far end of a long table, piled high with a cornucopia of Middle Eastern foods, describing his experiences to 20 Atlantic Council Millennium Fellows on a study tour of refugee issues. He detailed the journey of perils, trading away the uncertainty of the war zone for the certainty of the difficult, frequently inhumane conditions in temporary camps.
Circumstances forced him to identify and choose the least worst of bad options.
Millions have traveled similar routes; after all, the number of displaced in 2018 will be the most ever since the second World War. In Syria, hundreds of thousands of women, children and elderly are fleeing Daraa, where the civil war began more than seven years ago, as Bashar al-Assad’s forces close in on the heavily populated area.
Yet, their struggles to escape the violence and rebuild their lives barely pierces the public consciousness, save for a fleeting outpouring of empathy in 2015. If the Syrian regime, along with their Russian allies, undertakes a large-scale operation in that city, the resulting humanitarian crisis could rival previous major crises such as the ISIS sweep across northern Iraq and the regime’s attack on Aleppo.
Such an attack on Daraa would add a catalyst to a humanitarian emergency that has burned out-of-control for years. Many refugees who previously made the journey are now frozen in place in Turkey and Greece, a terrible temporary situation that is, by the day, rapidly becoming permanent.
And it isn’t just Syrians and Iraqis — Africans fleeing violence and seeking economic opportunity; Iranians and Afghans; and many others who have left their home countries are stuck, unable to return home and unable easily to pursue permanent accommodations. Greek officials we met with spoke of the “new normal” of migration, a systemic environmental change with which Europe has not fully grappled.
At the moment, America isn’t even leading from behind on refugees; we are actively running away from them. While most Americans can trace their family’s immigrant roots by going back a mere one or two generations, America is on track to accept the fewest number of refugees ever since the passage of the Refugee Act nearly 40 years ago. The rhetoric from many top American political leaders makes it clear that not only will they refuse to welcome refugees like “Al,” but they also have forgotten the words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. This abject moral abdication is both tragic and could also cause long-term damage to our collective security.
During our visit to Greece, we traveled to the School of Peace, a non-profit institution run jointly by Palestinian and Israeli civilians for the purposes of educating young refugee children. Our tight-knit group of fellows are from various countries, and one of the teachers asked the children to yell out where they ultimately wanted to end up. Several of the children said “United States” and “America.” I could not help but feel pangs of despair recognizing the improbability that these children would end up in America, let alone somewhere else in Europe.
As a naturalized American who immigrated to America at the age of 4 and as a veteran of the Iraq War, my connections to these children are both personal and geopolitical. By chance, I was not born in a country ravaged by war and was therefore able to come to America under normal circumstances. However, it seems that we are misattributing the character of these young children and refugees to the conditions that they came from — a common but tragic cognitive bias.
Instead, we must learn to recognize refugees’ enormous potential to be a force for good in the world. For instance, immigrant-owned businesses now generate an estimated $775 billion in revenue annually in the United States, a major economic force that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs for average Americans.
And how easily do we forget our own role in this new normal: While systematic factors such as climate change certainly played a role, our intervention in Iraq in 2003 and subsequent failure to secure the peace has led, in large part, to the flows of people that affect Turkey, Greece and the rest of Europe. We are responsible for much; yet we, as a country, and our government does little.
We can do more. We must do more. Many local charities in Greece such as Lesvos Solidarity are doing the difficult and thankless work every day to help the displaced. Larger aid organizations such as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children continue to work tirelessly on behalf of refugees. At home, the International Refugee Assistance Project legally represents asylum seekers, and No One Left Behind helps former Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, some of whom are themselves refugees, resettle.
To not help those in need is deeply counter to our American values. The world will not forget when we did not live our values. Let us take personal action and let us demand that our government live up to the core American values we hold dear.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Welton Chang is a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership Program and the Truman National Security Project. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.