When I was a little boy, fresh from the long train ride from Mexico City to El Paso, then to Los Angeles and San Diego on a train bursting with young men in uniform going to war against the Empire of the Sun, I was told I had a cousin who played baseball but that he too was on his way to fight in the war. I was a little kid of three and didn’t know what baseball was.
Two years after the war I was a six-year-old fervent baseball fan and bragged to all that I had a cousin who had played for the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League and who was now playing for the Boston Red Sox. His name was Ted Williams. His mother was a Mexican woman who was the cousin of my great aunt and grandfather, I was told. Thus, as is the case in Mexican culture, one drop of family makes one family, no matter how distant. Sociologists call that extended family.
When I went out for football in high school I practiced on the same field Ted Williams played baseball on and my coach was the catcher on Williams’ high school baseball team. Coach picked me up one day after practice while I was hitchhiking home. He asked me if I knew the Williams family, I said no, but that we were distant cousins, I was told. He told me that Ted’s mother made the best tacos he had ever eaten, that he had eaten them by the ton because Ted Williams was his best friend. Did my mother make good tacos, he asked. I said no, my mother couldn’t make a tortilla to save her life, but I could.
Ted Williams might have been the best hitter of modern baseball. He was arguably the first Hispanic superstar in baseball, except no one knew it outside close friends and distant relatives like me.
The story is covered in depth in the new book, “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams,” by former Boston Globe Editor Ben Bradlee Jr. Williams did everything he could to hide the fact that he was half-Mexican. After his spectacular debut in the Major Leagues in 1939, Bradlee tells us, he came home to San Diego on the train and was aghast when he looked out and every Mexican relative of his from both sides of the border was there to welcome him home, the first Mexican American baseball hero. He high-tailed it off the train through another car. He was not proud of being what he was and he was afraid that bigotry would hinder his career.
There are relatives of mine who still feel the same way, now in 2013.
Funny, the day I met Williams, the day we kicked off construction of San Diego’s new baseball park, Petco Park, I greeted him with “Semper Fi” because we both shared our U.S. Marine experiences (he was a hero pilot in both WWII and Korea). I asked him if he remembered my Aunt Thelma. He looked at me and said he hadn’t heard that name of his mom’s friend in 50 years. Sure, he said, I remember her. He died a couple of years later, never admitting publicly that he was the first Hispanic, Mexican American baseball superstar. That’s a shame, but he was a product of his time.
One recalls that World War I Medal of Honor awardee David B. Barkeley told no one his mother was Mexican because the U.S. Army had just invaded Mexico twice and was filled with anti-Mexican bigots from corporal up to General Pershing.
It is 2013 and there are now millions of Mexican Americans. Almost seven in ten American Hispanics are of Mexican origin. Unlike when Ted Williams was a young man, we, like him, have served the country at all levels from private to general/admiral, to members of congress, U.S. Senators, governors, mayors, baseball and football players (Jim Plunkett, Tom Flores of the Raiders), lawyers, teachers, CEOs, Ambassadors and every occupation one can think of including astronauts and Nobel Prize winners for Literature and Chemistry.
If Ted Williams was 18 years old today, he would be proud of being Mexican American. The times and the country have changed since the 20s and 30s when he grew up in San Diego where one in three people today are of Mexican origin. A Mexican American is even running for mayor in a Special Election. San Diego has never had a Mexican American mayor since it became an American city in 1850. It never elected a Mexican American city councilman until 1992 (without being appointed first).
Proudly, I can declare that my distant relative Ted Williams was the first Hispanic baseball superstar, Marine hero and perhaps the greatest hitter in the history of the game.
I do so with a grin on my face because I know that the Mexican-haters among us who double as Minutemen will choke on this declaration. It’s a big grin.
Contreras’ books are available at amazon.com.