There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived

Posted: Tuesday, July 23, 2002

BOSTON -- Nine white doves took flight from home plate toward Fenway Park's famous Green Monster, soaring over the outfield where Ted Williams once roamed before turning and climbing over the Red Sox dugout and out of the ballpark.

Then, one-by-one, current and former Red Sox players took their positions on the field -- leaving left field empty except for a garland of white carnations in the shape of a "9.''

With a wave from shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, they all headed out to Williams' former domain to say goodbye.

The Hub bid the Kid adieu a final time on Monday, as Red Sox fans came by the thousands to pay their respects to the team's greatest player at a pair of events honoring the baseball and war hero.

About 12,000 people came to the ballpark in the morning to meander around the warning track past mementos of Williams' Hall of Fame career. At night, those artifacts came to life in the form of Red Sox greats from Carl Yastrzemski to Garciaparra and dignitaries such as John Glenn, the former senator and astronaut and Williams' squadron leader in Korea.

''Just saying his name means excellence in baseball,'' said Glenn, who flew more than a dozen missions with Williams. ''For me, Ted also stood for excellence in a setting far removed from baseball and for which he is less well-known. ... He never held back.''

About 20,500 people bought tickets for the star-studded service to remember Williams and forget the fight among his children over whether to have his remains cremated or preserved in cryonic ice. (Williams' three children declined an invitation to attend.)

The subject was broached only by former teammate and longtime friend Dom DiMaggio, who drew a standing ovation when he broke from the program with an impassioned plea to scatter Williams' ashes over his favorite fishing spot, the Gulf of Mexico.

''I hope and pray this controversy will end as abruptly as it began and that the family will do the right thing by honoring Ted's last wishes as to his final resting place,'' DiMaggio said. ''And may he then finally rest in peace.''

Williams died July 5, and the team set aside an off-day Monday as the day to remember its greatest player. Although he requested that no funeral be held, the procession of dignitaries took their seats on Monday to somber classical music.

Commissioner Bud Selig was booed, and documentarian Ken Burns had the gall to mention both Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner. But it was not a night for controversy, or mourning.

Instead, Williams' life was celebrated, with nine ''innings'' dedicated to No. 9, touching on his life as a young rookie who proclaimed his goal to be known as ''the greatest hitter who ever lived''; a veteran of two wars; a tireless charity fund-raiser; and an elder statesman who was inducted into the baseball and fishing halls of fame.

Fans entering the ballpark for the evening tribute were given a folder with Williams' stats, a postcard of his Cooperstown plaque and a copy of John Updike's famous New Yorker piece, ''Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.''

Once inside, they said goodbye for good.

The park was decorated with memories of Williams' life and his career. Giant banners covered the Green Monster to illustrate three of his biggest passions: hitting, serving in the Marines and talking to kids with cancer. Proceeds of the evening event were donated to the Jimmy Fund, Williams' favorite charity.

Stenciled in the infield dirt were the numbers .406, Williams' batting average in 1941, and 521, his home run total, and ''USMC,'' just one of many reminders of his patriotism and of the statistics he lost during five years he spent fighting in two wars.

''What would his baseball records have been if he had not been called back to active duty? Who knows?'' Glenn said. ''But I never heard Ted complain about that. Not once. Not a word.''

For five hours in the morning, a steady stream of fans that included families with strollers, camp field trips and even Red Sox first baseman Brian Daubach filed in under a blazing sun to walk along the warning track and see artifacts of Williams' career.

The fans peeked in the dugouts and bullpen, pretended to make catches against the Wall and, as they were leaving, had a chance to shake hands with team owner John Henry.

Two Marines stood guard as fans left a mounting pile of flowers, baseballs and caps and posed for pictures at the base of the center field wall. At night, the bouquets left by fans were used to fill in the No. 9 in left field.

Williams' Hall of Fame plaque was affixed to the left-field wall. A dozen more artifacts from Cooperstown were on display under the center-field bleachers, including the bat and ball used when he homered in his last at-bat.

The Wall also featured a picture gallery of Williams' career, showing shots of him with Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Yastrzemski and Muhammad Ali and former president and fishing buddy, George Bush. Forties music wafted from the speakers while the scoreboard video screen played highlights of Williams career and testimonials from friends and colleagues.

Billboards hung in the netting above the Green Monster in left field called Williams ''An American Hero'' and ''the greatest hitter who ever lived.''

Fans also had a chance to sign condolence cards, with many choosing to say simply, ''Thanks, Ted.''

''I saw your last homer,'' one wrote. ''Awesome.''

And that's how the Red Sox chose to finish the program as well, with broadcaster Curt Gowdy narrated Williams' final at-bats on Sept. 28, 1960. With former Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher on the mound, Gowdy called Williams' final homer.

''What a way to go out.''



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