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The greatest stars, and the children they once were

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Dick
Flavin

This is the time of year when we get special joys from watching the delight on the faces of young children and grandchildren. It brings us back to the days when we were young and the world seemed less complicated. Even iconic superstars, known by everyone for their talent and their accomplishments, were little kids once, before anyone had the slightest idea of what they would someday become. What would the childhood memories of the greatest Red Sox players be? They all wrote books about their careers, and some of them are quite revealing about their early lives, the time when they were just kids.

Ted Williams, the greatest of the Red Sox stars, had the unhappiest childhood. His mother had a single-minded devotion to her career with the Salvation Army, to the exclusion of all else; that included her two young sons, Teddy and Danny. Sam Williams, Ted's father, was a sometime photographer and a full-time drinker. Other than that, he just didn't care much about anything. While Salvation May, as Ted's mother was known on the streets of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, was off ministering to the needs of others, her own children were left to fend largely for themselves. Often Ted and Danny were left alone to just scramble a few eggs for their supper. Ted almost never talked about his growing-up years, even with those closest to him. There were no happy memories to relive.

As they grew older, Ted discovered baseball and pursued it with the same single-mindedness that his mother had for the Salvation Army. He loved it, of course, but even when he was twelve years old, he was dead serious about getting better, about being the best. Danny, two years younger, took another route, what he thought was the easy way, looking for the quick buck, the big score, whether by fair means or foul. It turned out to be far from the easy way. Danny Williams, in and out of trouble with the law, lived a hard and unhappy life before dying in 1960 at the age of 39. It's no wonder that Ted didn't like talking about those early days.

Carl Yastrzemski, on the other hand, grew up in the midst of a loving and supportive extended family. His people were Polish potato farmers on New York's Long Island, not well-to-do by any means, but not poor, either. They worked very hard and instilled that work ethic into Sonny, as Yaz was called by the family; his father had first dibs on the name Carl. They also instilled in him a love of baseball. His father and uncles all played, and the best of them was his father. He could have had a career in pro-ball, but the Great Depression intervened and he chose his responsibilities to his family over the crapshoot of being a ballplayer.

Carl the younger wrote two books, one in 1968, after the Impossible Dream season in which we was elevated to superstar status, and the other twenty-two years later, after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Both are entitled -- what else? -- Yaz. It is the first book, written with the late Al Hirshberg, that is especially revealing about his early years. He devoted an entire chapter to his maternal grandfather, Grandpa Skonieczny. They saw each other every day when Yaz was growing up, riding a tractor through fields of potatoes, fishing for crabs, and stopping later for ice cream. They developed a special bond, and in 1967, ten years after Grandpa Skonieczny's death, whenever Yaz found himself coming to the plate in a tense situation, he calmed himself by thinking of those happy times with his grandfather. That book was published more than fifty years ago and I'm sure it's been out of print for years, but if you can find a copy it's worth reading if only for the chapter on Grandpa Skoniecny.

When Pedro Martinez's number 45 was retired, he was presented with, among other things, a huge floral arrangement of his number in red flowers on a field of white ones -- you couldn't tell from the stands if they were roses or carnations. At one point in the ceremonies, while one of the dignitaries was speaking, I noticed that Pedro stepped quietly up to the arrangement, picked one of the white flowers, and brought it to his mother. In his book, he explained that he was very high-strung as a little kid, and when something didn't go his way, in order to calm him down, his mother would take him out to her flower garden to clip flowers. That stayed with him, and later, during his pitching career, he always kept a flower garden. On days he was starting, he'd go out into the garden before leaving for the ballpark and clip some flowers. He found that it centered him and let him focus on the challenge ahead without getting too tense about it.

David Ortiz grew up in Haina, a city in the Dominican Republic, in a neighborhood that was more dangerous than a ghetto; it was a cesspool of drugs and killings. He recounts in his book, written with Michael Holley, that as a child he once saw a murder commited right before his eyes. That he was able to escape that environment was due to three factors: the grace of God; strict, but loving parents; and his love of sports. Early on, he didn't aspire to be Ted Williams, he wanted to be the next Michael Jordan. But he found soon enough that baseball was his ticket out of Haina, and through talent and a large dollop of perseverance he made the journey all the way to Fenway Park and baseball immortality.

Those tales of the formative years of the Red Sox' greatest stars are all different, but there are two elements in their stories that are common to all of them: they were all blessed with talent; and they all worked their butts off to get where they were going.

Good for them, and good for us.

Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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