- The late Dick Enberg tells the story of when he got close—but not too close—to his baseball idol, Ted Williams.
The following is excerpted from Being Ted Williams: Growing Up With a Baseball Idol by Dick Enberg. Copyright © 2018 by Dick Enberg and Tom Clavin/English. Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
Thank goodness Ted Williams loved to walk everywhere. Maybe he had no choice, with all that restless energy bursting to get out between games
Okay, let me explain. It was thanks to Ted’s penchant for walking rather than taking taxis that allowed me as a high-schooler to get as close as I dared to The Kid. And thanks also go to dear old Briggs Stadium, once home of the Detroit Tigers.
Being Ted Williams: Growing Up with a Baseball Idol
by Dick Enberg
The late Dick Enberg offers a series of personal anecdotes that loosely follow Ted's life from his childhood in San Diego, to his Red Sox career, his time as a fighter pilot in two wars, his post-career years and more.
Ted had made his debut there during his 1939 rookie season, on May 4, and showed right away why it would become his favorite ballpark in which to hit. The right field foul pole was 325 feet away to double-decked bleachers. His second time up that afternoon, Ted hit a ball that struck the top of roof. Not satisfied with that, his next time up, the ball went up over the roof and completely out of the park. It landed on Trumbull Avenue, took a bounce, and hit a taxi garage on the other side of the street. Years later, I asked Ted that if the Red Sox had traded him to Detroit and he played 77 home games there, how many home runs did he think he would hit in any given season. Without a moment’s hesitation, he barked, ‘Eighty!” (Oh, wouldn’t it be something to be Ted Williams!)
By that time, I was a student at Armada High, and Ted had been my hero for several years. Even though Armada and Detroit were 40 miles apart, I considered myself pretty lucky. In what was then an eight-team American League, even with a shorter 154-game season the Red Sox would play the Tigers several series a year. In 1950, for example, the Red Sox played 14 games at Briggs Stadium. Sure, I’d have been better off living 40 miles from Fenway Park, but with my hero I didn’t think about what I didn't have, only what I had—and that was the opportunity to see Ted Williams in his favorite hitting park. And oh what a show he would put on during batting practice! To watch him practice was to listen to Arthur Rubinstein rehearse on the piano, never producing a sour note, only sweet music.
What about television? The first baseball game broadcast on TV was in August 1939, the Cincinnati Reds against the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. With a world war in between, baseball on television had not come very far by the end of the 1940s, and most people (like my family) couldn’t afford a set anyway. This wasn’t necessarily a drawback at all. With Ted, because of the absence of visual images, my imagination made him all the bigger. In fact, he was bigger than life itself. While writing this book I asked Vin Scully, the legendary Dodgers broadcaster, about this, and he responded, ‘It was an advantage for those of us in that era to be influenced more strongly by black and white radio. Our imaginations added the bold, creative colors. (By the way, though living in the Bronx, Scully’s boyhood idol was also a home run-hitting left-handed batter, Mel Ott of the New York Giants.)
In many homes, including my own, the radio was our ‘entertainment center,‘ converting the living room into a ‘media room.‘ A favorite of mine was a national show called ‘Cavalcade of Sports,” hosted by Bill Stern, on Friday nights. He would have writers manufacture heroic stories about Babe Ruth, James Stewart, the Pope, and others. Who was I to question their validity? I devoured those stories as true, totally inspired.
Still, as stimulating as radio could be, the fact was that if I wanted to actually see my hero Ted Williams in the flesh, it had to be at Briggs Stadium.
My high school catcher, Dave Dunham, and I hitchhiked to Detroit. During the games we rooted for our beloved Tigers, but before the umpire bellowed ‘Play ball!' we were certain to be in the stands to watch Ted take batting practice. This was to witness a virtuoso in action, a master craftsman expressing himself better than anyone in the history of baseball. He never wavered from his belief that the most difficult feat in all of sport was ‘to hit a round ball with a round bat, squarely.' To see Ted Williams take batting practice, especially in an arena where he so enjoyed performing, was a spectacle worth crawling the 80 miles round-trip.
He never took a bad swing. He rarely fouled the ball off or hit a ground ball. It was just line drive after line drive after line drive. There was the same routine before every game—his first round of swings was to rip the ball to right field, then he switched to driving the ball into the lower deck in right. At Briggs Stadium, there was only a short gap between the upper-deck overhang and the fence on top of the base of the right-field wall. He smashed the ball into that small gap with the ease of a champion golfer driving I-irons. The concluding round of practice brought the anticipation and raw excitement of watching him try to hit the ball deep into the upper deck or even over the roof.
It could be great fun outside Briggs Stadium too. When in town the Red Sox stayed at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. It was a mile from the park, but when the weather was good, Ted and some teammates would walk it down to Michigan Avenue. My friend Dave (now a retired U.S. Army colonel) and I would position ourselves across the street to watch the players emerge, well-dressed men wearing identity-revealing ‘give-away' wing-tip shoes. One day, Ted Williams and his manager, Steve O’Neill, stepped out of the hotel.
We followed them all the way down Michigan Avenue. We were something out of a Bowery Boys movie, amateur detectives—when they slowed down, we slowed down when they stopped, we stopped; when they resumed walking, we hurried to catch up. As full of joy and excitement as this experience was, I was too in awe to actually ask my hero for a handshake, or even an autograph. It was like mission accomplished when we saw Ted and O’Neill disappear into the ballpark’s players entrance. I wanted to shout to the heavens that I had been that close to touching my baseball god.