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Ted Williams was born in 1918 to a Welsh and Irish father and a Mexican mother.  Gettyimages
Ted Williams was born in 1918 to a Welsh and Irish father and a Mexican mother.  Gettyimages

Ted Williams’ Hidden Heritage

One of baseball’s greatest players ever only mentioned his Mexican heritage once, in a sentence in his autobiography.

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When looking back at the Hall of Fame baseball career of Theodore Samuel Williams, more commonly known as Ted Williams, or his plethora of nicknames — ‘The Kid,’ ‘The Splendid Splinter,’ ‘Teddy Ballgame,’ ‘The Thumper’ — most rightfully see him as one of sport’s best hitters ever.

The stats and accolades don’t lie. 

In his 19-year career with the Boston Red Sox, which ran from 1939 to 1960, Williams amassed 2,654 hits, 521 home runs, 1,839 runs batted in (RBIs), and a career batting average of .344 at the plate.

All rank Williams within the top 100 of each category in MLB history, with his highest coming at number 10 in career batting average.

He is also one of only two players in MLB history with two Triple Crowns, earned when a player leads the entire league in home runs, RBIs, and batting average at a season’s end. Williams took home the crown in 1942 and 1947. 

He also won the American League MVP award twice, in 1946 and 1949.

Williams amassed a number of nicknames throughout his playing career, but “The Kid” was always his favorite.  Gettyimages
A hidden identity

‘The Kid’ left more than enough history to talk about on the baseball diamond, and if he were still alive, Williams would likely be ok with that.

Off the field and before he even stepped foot on one, Williams was the son of Samuel Stewart Williams and May Venzor. 

His father, whose last name Ted would take, was Welsh and Irish, and his mother was Mexican-American, born to Pablo Venzor and Natalia Hernandez, hailing from Valle de Allende, Chihuahua, Mexico.

Williams’ Mexican-American heritage is something only the few writers to do deep dives on his life and career have been able to unravel.

The baseball legend himself only reserved one 44-word sentence in his 232-page 1970 autobiography, My Turn at Bat, for his own Mexican heritage. 

“Her maiden name was Venzer, she was part Mexican and part French; and that’s fate for you; if I had had my mother’s maiden name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California,” Williams wrote.

“Her maiden name was Venzer, she was part Mexican and part French; and that’s fate for you; if I had had my mother’s maiden name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, the prejudices people had in Southern California,” Williams wrote.

The sentence was arguably the first time Williams had ever publicly acknowledged his Mexican heritage — after 52 years and a Hall of Fame baseball career.

Williams was afraid his Mexican heritage would bar him from playing in the majors.   Gettyimages
Venzer or Venzor?

It was also the sentence that sent Boston-based writer and baseball historian Bill Nowlin on a long journey to discover more of Williams’ hidden Mexican roots. He would go on to write an article for Boston Globe Magazine about the subject in 2002, published just a month before Williams passed away.

The journey introduces Nowlin’s book, Ted Williams: The First Latino in the Baseball Hall of Fame, published in 2018, the same year Williams would have turned 100 years old.

“I did a nationwide web search on the name Venzer. There were five people listed. I called them up. They didn’t know anything about having Ted Williams as a relative,” wrote Nowlin. “There was no thread for me to follow.”

More would be discovered, recounted Nowlin, after the publication of his first book on Williams, Ted Williams: A Tribute, in 1997.

His co-author on the book, Jim Prime, got an email from a man named Manuel Herrera more than a year after its release. Herrera claimed to be Williams’ cousin.

Nowlin called Herrera, and the writer finally had more thread to work with in putting the story of Williams’ Mexican heritage together.

He even came to the realization that the man self-proclaimed as “the greatest hitter who ever lived” had his own mother’s maiden name spelled wrong in his autobiography.

“It was maybe seven or eight minutes into the interview before he used the name Venzor,” Nowlin wrote about his conversation with Herrera. “As I transcribed the tape later, I kept hearing him say ‘Venzor’ — not ‘Venzer,’ which I’d always been pronouncing ‘Venz-air.’ Accent on the first syllable. Part Mexican and part French, Ted had written.”

A cross-reference with Williams’ birth certificate, and Nowlin confirmed the mistake that had stymied his research for years.

His next stops saw him make plans to go to Santa Barbara, California and El Paso, Texas to potentially meet more members of Williams’ extended Mexican family. 

Both cities, along with San Diego, are vital locations in the early life of Williams and that of his family. El Paso is where his mother spent the earliest years of her life, and Santa Barbara is where her family would settle.

San Diego is where Williams’ parents, May and Samuel, would settle with him and his brother Danny.

After Nowlin, the next writer to take on Williams’ Mexican heritage in a biography was longtime Boston Globe journalist and editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. His work on Williams, The Kid, The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, came out in 2013, and went on to become a New York Times best seller.

Williams was told not to speak on behalf of Black players in his Hall of Fame acception speech, but he chose to anyway.   Gettyimages
Ashamed of his family

The first chapter of Bradlee Jr.’s book is titled “Shame.”

It starts by laying out Williams’ embarrassment with his own family. Whether it be his mother, “the Salvation Army devotee and fixture of Depression-era San Diego.”

His father, “who ran a cheesy downtown photo studio that catered to San Diego’s sailors and their floozies.” 

Or his younger brother, “a gun-toting petty miscreant always one step ahead of the law.”

“Ted was always ashamed of his upbringing,” reads the first sentence of Bradlee Jr.’s book.

Regardless, his Mexican uncle, Saul Venzor, is credited by many biographers (including Bradlee Jr.) as being the one to first introduce Williams to baseball.

Williams is known as one of the best MLB players of all time and dubbed “the greatest hitter of all time.”   Gettyimages
Ashamed of his heritage

The resentment for his family extended to his Mexican heritage, which he saw throughout his playing career as something that would block him from playing on baseball’s biggest stage.

“Ted didn’t want anyone to know he was part Mexican,” Bradlee Jr. quoted Williams’ longtime friend, Al Cassidy.

Instead, due to his fair complexion, Williams would identify as “Basco,” hailing from the Basque region of Spain. The lie was kept up even by his closest family member, Sarah Venzor Diaz, when interviewed by Bradlee Jr. for his book.

“We have no Mexican heritage in our family. We are Basque,” she said.

Williams’ rookie season in 1939 was eight years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the owner of Williams’ Red Sox, Tom Yawkey, oversaw the last team to add a Black player to its roster.

As is mentioned by many writers and family members interviewed for PBS’s Ted Williams: “The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived,” Williams was also acutely aware of the prejudice faced by Mexicans in Southern California when he was growing up.

The problem with passing

In response, he passed as white, even if he wasn’t the first Latino or even Mexican in the majors. The latter distinction goes to Mel Almada, who debuted for Williams’ Red Sox in 1933, six years before “The Kid” began his own career.

Williams’ passing has been a point of contention for many when considering him one of the best Latinos to ever grace a baseball diamond. The Hispanic Heritage Hall of Fame inducted him as part of its 2002 class, but Major League Baseball left him off its own list of 60 “Latino Legends” in 2005.

Illinois Sports History Professor Adrian Burgos Jr., has also come out against “retroactively inserting Williams” into the history of Latinos in baseball because he did not identify as one.

For support, Burgos Jr. described the unique experiences of Latinos that entered the MLB before Robinson that Williams avoided with his passing.

“These Latinos gained entry, for the most part, not because they were white but because they were not definitively Black,” he wrote for Sporting News.

“These Latinos gained entry, for the most part, not because they were white but because they were not definitively Black,” he wrote for Sporting News.

He pointed to players like Cuban-born Miguel Angel Gonzalez, whose name was not only Anglicized to “Mike,” but his accent also became the subject of ridicule.

There were also the experiences of Latinos in the farm system of the Washington Senators in the South during the 30s and 40s.

“Their encounters in Jim Crow towns and around the major league circuit taught them that while they were not Black, most certainly did not see them as fellow ‘Caucasians’ or white,” wrote Burgos Jr.

Support for Black players

The only thing he gives Williams credit for is publicly supporting the induction of Black players into the MLB Hall of Fame during his 1966 Hall of Fame speech.

“I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can… be added to the symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given a chance,” Williams told the crowd July 25, 1966.

Five years later, Paige joined Williams in the Hall as the first Negro League player inducted. 

While ‘The Kid’ can’t be given all the credit for the MLB finally inducting Black players into its Hall, his speech started the discussion. In the same way, Williams’ biographers have started the discussion about his own hidden Latino identity. 

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