By Ferd Lewis, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU, Hawaii — After awaiting an assignment to the Pacific theater in World War II that would never come, Marine Corps fighter pilot Ted Williams relieved his exasperation by hitting baseballs in Ewa.
A lot of them.
So many — and so far — legend has it that they fashioned a major league-proportioned baseball field, Pride Field, at what was then Marine Corps Air Station Ewa in large part to accommodate the man who would go on to become the sport’s premier hitter.
“He was like a god,” said Ewa historian John Bond.
To this day, 16 years after his death, Williams remains something of an enigma, a man whose other-worldly talent was quickly evident but who was a complex riddle in so many other facets, as an exceptional chapter “Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” in PBS TV’s “American Masters” series seeks to illuminate Monday night on KHET.
Memories of Williams help rekindle a time when Hawaii was a gathering place for a series of major leaguers in military service, including Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Joe Gordon and Williams’ long-time rival, Joe DiMaggio, of the New York Yankees.
Williams, for all the brevity of his multiple stays here across two wars, has some intertwined history. His parents, Sam Williams, a corporal stationed at Schofield Barracks, and May Venzo, a Salvation Army worker, met here in 1911, according to the biography, “The Kid.”
Some of the fields where he pounded baseballs for the Third Marine Wing remain, including Pride Field, named after Admiral Alfred Pride, which has been reconfigured and used for youth league games, including the 2005 Little League World Series champion West Oahu team.
Begun as a Navy field for airships in the 1920s, Ewa became an airfield for the Marine Corps in 1941.
In 1945, with the war against Japan winding down and eventually over, Bond theorizes that many who followed Williams’ remarkable start in baseball before military service and wanted to see him be able to pick up where he left off when the 1946 season rolled around, were behind fixing up Pride Field. “I’m pretty sure they built it for him, he was held in that high of a regard,” Bond said.
Williams had hit .327 with 31 home runs as a rookie for Boston in 1939. By 1941 he upped it to .406 — the last major leaguer to reach the milestone — and 37 homers.
In 1942 he achieved the first of his two triple crowns, leading the American League in home runs, batting average and runs batted before entering military service the following spring, the start of a three-year separation from the Red Sox.
After advanced flight training, Williams was posted to Ewa, where he awaited orders as a replacement pilot. A perfectionist who saw hitting as a science, the future Hall of Famer sought to keep his well-crafted, fluid batting stroke sharp.
“The Marines just loved him,” said Bond, who paints a picture of them quickly snaring balls as souvenirs that Williams smashed over the fence.
Williams was shipped back to the mainland in December 1945 and discharged in late January. He quickly regained his batting form, hitting. 342 with 38 home runs in 1946.
Less than eight years later, he was back in Hawaii again — a 33-year-old jet pilot recalled to duty and awaiting assignment to Korea. Once he got there, Williams flew a total of 39 combat missions in the Korean War.