Salute to Ted Williams

The legendary baseball great, who died on Friday in Florida, is one of the most prominent athletes to ever compete in high school sports in California.

The first major baseball-related decision in the life of baseball legend Ted Williams, who died on Friday at age 83 in Florida after suffering heart failure, was about which high school to attend in San Diego.

Williams could have gone to San Diego High, which has a terrific baseball tradition and at the time had the dominant program in all of Southern California, but instead he opted to go to Hoover High. At Hoover, Williams supposedly wanted to be a starter immediately and in the 1934 season when he was a sophomore he not only started but was probably one of the best players anywhere.

In that sophomore season -- Williams was only 15 at the time -- the gangly youngster was described as an "outfield slugger." He was reported with a grand slam in a 19-3 win vs. Alhambra and blasted a triple in a 3-1 upset win of San Diego. Hoover advanced all the way to the CIF Southern Section final that year, too (there was no seperate San Diego Section back then) before it lost, 6-3, to Cathedral of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, there were no published reports that included any details of that game.

The 1935 season saw Williams continue to emerge, and the junior also became a very good pitcher. Williams ripped four homers in his first five games in April, had 16 strikeouts in a 10-5 win over Glendale and hit .586 for the season. The April 23 edition of the San Diego Union had this to say about him: "Williams has been pounding the apple like a Babe Ruth."

Another highlight of Williams' 1935 season at Hoover was the team's appearance at the 20-30 Club Pomona tourney (now called the Pomona Elks tourney). It's too bad Hoover didn't play Muir Tech of Pasadena, which also was in that tourney, because one of Muir's top players that season was a youngster named Jackie Robinson. Long Beach Poly (there's that school again) actually won the event.

Williams was a senior based on his high school eligibility during the spring of 1936 although he would not graduate from Hoover until February of 1937. He was what they called at the time "a low senior," which was not uncommon. In that season, Williams led the team in batting with a .402 average (33 for 82 in 30 games) and scored 25 runs. His home run total was not reported, but he also pitched and went 5-0 in league with 66 strikeouts. The San Diego Union wrote that the "elongated chucker would rather boast of his home run hitting ability."

Williams' batting average did slack off from his junior season due to the increased pitching duties, but he did hit two home runs in one inning during a 13-1 win over South Pasadena. He is the first prep ever reported to have accomplished that feat nationally and he's still listed in both the state and national record books in the category of most home runs in an inning.

The major disappointment of Williams' prep career was that he was the losing pitcher in games that knocked out Hoover in both the 1935 and 1936 Southern Section playoffs. The Cardinals fell in 1935 to San Diego, 14-11, and lost in 1936 to Escondido, 8-3, in what was reported as a "startling upset."

After the 1936 high school season, Williams signed with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. As an 18-year-old in the 1937 season, Williams hit .291 in 138 games for the Padres. The Red Sox purchased his contract shortly afterward and it took Williams only three seasons until he put together his .406 average that has not been surpassed by anyone since. Williams was a true phenom, putting up MVP-type totals as early as age 21.

If Williams had not served two different stints as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, first in World War II and later in the Korean War, there's no telling how many all-time baseball records he would have set. He still played 19 seasons for the Red Sox and had 521 home runs and a .344 lifetime average. Only three players in baseball history have a higher career mark. Almost all baseball historians agree Williams is the best left-hand hitter ever and maybe the best period.

Before his death, Williams clearly was the greatest living ballplayer ever from a California high school. Now that monicker may be owned by someone still playing -- Barry Bonds of the Giants.

Other all-time great players from California high schools who've died in recent years have been Joe DiMaggio (Galileo, San Francisco); Willie Stargell (Encinal, Alameda) and Eddie Mathews (Santa Barbara).

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