Ted Wililliams’ life story has been very exciting to research for me, personally. Being a baseball player most of my younger years, serving in the Aviation side of the Marine Corps and seeing combat overseas, growing up in Southern California, Ted and I walked in many of the same places. His childhood home is less than 6 miles from my house here in central San Diego and his mother is buried in the city I was born, which is also where he learned how to play baseball, Santa Barbara, California. We were both stationed in Naval Air Station Pensacola where he was an instructor in the 1940’s and I was a student in the early 2000’s. I didn’t learn until recently that he was also the son of a Mexican immigrant. His mother Micaela, or May, Venzor Hernandez was from Chihuahua. I am sure that many other men and women had similar backgrounds as Ted, and it’s a little disappointing that most of his biographies don’t have much to share about his Mexican family outside of mentioning his mother’s ethnicity. There are several stories that have mentioned how much he resented his mother and avoided his Mexican relatives, but this very family was very influential to his upbringing. His uncle Saul Venzor, May’s younger brother, taught him how to play baseball when Ted would visit his family in Santa Barbara as a child. His aunt Sarah Venzor helped raise him in San Diego while his mother was out working for the Salvation Army and she also took care of May in her final years. In today’s podcast, I will be shedding some light into this side of Ted Williams’ life and also going further into his Mexican ancestry to discover where his family came from before they came to the United States. I have gathered information from several sources, but want to give thanks to Ben Bradlee for writing “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.” This book has a lot of great stories about Ted’s childhood and the Venzor family. As always, I hope you enjoy this podcast.
On February 19, 1953, Marine fighter pilot Captain Ted Williams crash-landed his Grumman F9F Panther after taking anti-aircraft fire in the skies over Kyomipo, Korea. It was not his first taste of combat, nor the first time he had taken fire. This was one of 39 combat missions that Ted flew during the Korean War. This time, his aircraft had taken so much damage that his radio was out and his landing gear was stuck, preventing a safe landing. A fellow pilot escorted him back to the base using hand signals and Ted had to slide his aircraft on its belly until it finally stopped at the end of the runway. He jumped out as it burst into flames. The following day, Ted was back in the air and flying another combat mission.
Before the Korean War, Ted Williams’s life was interrupted when he was drafted into service in 1942 after World War II began. And so it seemed to be tradition, at that point, that the wars of the world would directly affect the history of Ted and his family. His brother Danny was also a veteran of World War II and two of his uncles, Pete and Daniel Venzor served in World War I. On November 11th 1918, the same year that Ted was born, his uncle Daniel was killed during combat in France. That day was also Armistice Day, the last day of World War I. Daniel was a Private in the US Army and was attached to Golf Company, 103rd Regiment, 26th Division. His mother Natalia, Ted’s grandmother, became a Gold Star mother and those benefits financed the purchase of the Venzor family home in Santa Barbara. This house was located on 1008 Chino Street, in Santa Barbara’s West Side. It was here that Ted’s uncle Saul Venzor taught him how to play baseball on the driveway.
Saul Venzor was one of May’s younger brothers. In all there were eight surviving Venzor siblings. Two died during childbirth. Their mother Natalia, whose maiden name was Natalia Hernandez Rubio, was born in the city of Hidalgo del Parral, state of Chihuahua Mexico in 1869. That is also where she married Pablo Venzor Segovia in 1888. Pablo was born in 1864 in Valle de Allende, also in Chihuahua and worked as a mason. The Venzor family left Mexico in 1907 and emigrated to California, fearing that their family was in danger from Pancho Villa’s rebel army because one of Natalia’s brothers worked for the Mexican Government. The Mexican Revolution began three years later in 1910. The city of Hidalgo de Parral, where Natalia and Pablo were married, was also where Pancho Villa would later be ambushed and killed in 1923.
At this point, we know for certain that Ted Williams’ mother’s family came from Chihuahua, Mexico. There is conflicting information about her place of birth because she wrote that she was born in Mexico on her marriage license in 1913, but later wrote that she was born in El Paso, Texas in Ted’s birth certificate in 1918. The city of El Paso has no record of her birth. May also had younger siblings that were born in Chihuahua before they left for California, so it is more likely that she was born in Mexico as well.
Another mystery I ran into while researching Ted’s ancestry is his family’s claims that they were not Mexican, but instead Basque, or French, or Spanish. May’s sister Sarah claimed that they were Basque and had no Mexican heritage in their family. Her brother Bruno claimed French Canadian ancestry and other family members said that their ancestors only passed through Mexico after arriving from Europe, therefore not making them Mexican. However, over the last few months, I was able to build the Venzor family tree and have been able to trace his family to Chihuahua as far back as the 1700’s on his father’s side and the 1500’s on his mother’s side. So, not only were his ancestors in Mexico for over 300 years, but many of them settled and remained in the same region of Chihuahua. I can’t rule out that he has any Basque lineage, but if he does, it goes back many generations. I was able to find some of his first Spanish ancestors to cross the Atlantic to Mexico and they came from the central and southern regions of Spain, including the cities of Granada and Seville. The Conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who survived a shipwreck and capture by Native Americans in Texas, is his 13th Great-Grandfather. There are many other early conquerors in his family tree as well. I can safely say that most of his Mexican ancestry dates back hundreds of years and that the Venzor family has deep Mexican roots and were not merely “passing through” as they originally thought.
The important question now is… Why? Why did Ted Williams hide his Mexican ethnicity and why did the Venzor family try to re-write their ancestry? I can only think that it was for the same reasons: Preservation. Ted feared discrimination from baseball organizations if they knew he was Mexican. Ted’s longtime friend Al Cassidy said, “It concerned him. He was afraid they wouldn’t let him play. He’d say, ‘It was an entirely different time back then.’” Ted avoided being seen with his family, but did spend time with them privately, though not very often. When his family would see him play and cheer him from the stands, he would ignore them and motion that he’d say them after game, but then he wouldn’t show up. His cousin Salvador Herrera would give him a hard time about it, he said, “Ted was a Mexican. He was embarrassed to be a Mexican! He wanted to be an American, a gringo. I said, ‘You asshole, you’re a Mexican! Say you’re a Mexican and say the Mexicans are the best hitters in the world.’ I used to push his button. He laughed and he’d say, ‘I’m Basco.’ He wanted people to think he was Basque. But he was Mexican just like me. He just laughed me off. He’d say, ‘Don’t tell nobody’ and hang up the phone.” In his book, The Science of Hitting, Ted Williams said, “If I had my mother’s name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those day, the prejudices people had in Southern California.”
For his family in Chihuahua, life in Chihuahua during the late 1800’s was very dangerous. The tensions that led to the Mexican Revolution were already boiling over in that region, and the local population was in the middle of clashes between the government’s rural forces and local rebel militias, including Pancho Villa’s group of bandits. In 1901, the year May Venzor was born, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz had been in office for 24 years. Diaz rose to popularity as a General in the Mexican military during the battles against the French during the Second French Intervention in Mexico. He led an Infantry Battalion during the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, now celebrated as Cinco De Mayo. After years of military and political moves, Porfirio Diaz became President in 1877. He served seven terms as President, a total of 31 years, an era that came to be known as El Porfiriato. During his presidency, Diaz opened up the country to foreign investment and invited Europeans to relocate to Mexico and build businesses. As the economy grew, so did the disparities among the distribution of wealth. The indigenous populations were used for cheap labor and their ancestral lands were sold off to European investors, leaving them no opportunity to prosper. From 1876 to 1910, 800 European families owned 97% of national territory, only 17% of the population could read, and 90% of them lived in extreme poverty. Racism towards indigenous Mexicans was more than just an attitude, it was a federal system.
Taking history into consideration, it makes it a bit easier to understand why the Venzor family would hide their Mexican history. Perhaps it was safer to identify as Europeans during the Porfiriato. That would at least allow some opportunities to work for the government, as May Venzor’s uncle did during those years. However, when the Mexican Revolution came, those protections went away as the indigenous populations rose up against Porfirio Diaz’s government. And by then, it may have been too late for the Venzor family to claim their true identity as indigenous Mexicans. So, as many other families did during the Revolution, they left. Their history was lost, or at least re-written, because Wars tend to do that. Ted Wiliams knew much about Wars, both internal and external. In his later years, he spent his time fishing, where he finally found some tranquility. He left us on July 5th, 2002 at the age of 83. There is a lot more to be said about his life, but I wanted to make it clear that the greatest hitter in Major League Baseball was the son of a Mexican Immigrant, just like many of us living in the United States. I also wanted to express my deepest gratitude to all the Mexican American combat veterans past and present. We don’t pick our battles, but we stand ready for anything. Semper Fi. Thanks for listening.