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As a Marine, Ted Williams was 'revered'

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 6, 2002

Photo gallery: A career remembered
Williams, Citrus had tight ties
Fans and neighbors recall baseball great
Citrus loses a star that still drew a crowd
Hubert Mizell
One of a kind

'There goes the greatest hitter'

Williams' proudest moment came in the military

Williams recalled with praise
CITRUS HILLS -- Few men are honored by a visit by a former president as Ted Williams was on Feb. 9, 1995. But something even more rare occurred that morning.

As former President George Bush presented the baseball legend with a plaque in his honor, two Harrier AV-8Bs made a pass over the Ted Williams Museum on County Road 486.

In two seconds, the Marine Corps jets were gone, ending the flyover, an honor few people receive.

But the gesture, which cost taxpayers at least $60,000, served as a symbol of the other storied side of Mr. Williams' public life, that of fighter pilot.

As word of his death spread Friday, the Marine Corps grieved the loss of one of its own.

"Ted Williams was not only a great (ballplayer), he was also a distinguished and revered Marine," said Capt. Shawn Turner, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon.

"When we think of some of the greatest Marines that ever lived, Ted Williams is one of the names that comes up."

Mr. Williams joined the service after the 1942 baseball season and served three years in World War II. Several years later, he lost most of two baseball seasons when, as a pilot in the Marine reserves, he was called up for the Korean War. He flew 39 missions in Korea and landed his fighter plane at least once after being hit by antiaircraft fire.

He flew alongside another man who went on to become an American hero in his own right, former senator and astronaut John Glenn.

"He gave up so much for his country," said Jim Steele, 80, a retired Marine sergeant who lives in Crystal River. "I feel very, very sorry that he passed. There's not a lot of us left."

The attack on Pearl Harbor stirred deep patriotic feelings in Steele, and he abruptly left Syracuse University the following day to enlist.

But Steele was shocked when Mr. Williams left baseball to do the same.

"I said, 'He's out of his mind.' He had a nice career going in Boston."

In the mid 1990s, Steele had the opportunity to trade war stories with Mr. Williams, whom he met on a golf course in Citrus Hills.

Even then, Steele recalled, Mr. Williams retained the skills of a legendary athlete.

"He could hit a long ball," he said.

And Mr. Williams had not lost his flair for colorful language.

"Every other word out of his mouth was a swear word," Steele said, laughing. "We picked that habit up in the Marines. He was a nice guy."

Carl Carlberg, a 76-year-old Dunnellon resident who was a Marine field telephone operator in World War II, recalled seeing Mr. Williams play a Marine baseball game while stationed in New Zealand after the battle for Guadalcanal.

"I never did get to see him when he was coming up because I didn't live in the Northeast," said Carlberg, who grew up in Kentucky. "He was as agile as ever, and a great flier, too."

Though Mr. Williams did not lead a very public life in Citrus County, he was an honorary member of the local Marine Corps League. Men from the league were invited each year to the induction ceremony at Mr. Williams' Hitters Hall of Fame.

The museum donated baseball memorabilia signed by Mr. Williams, and the league auctioned it off to raise money for the Toys for Tots program.

"We lost a guy that everybody really admired," said 61-year-old Tom Heron of Floral City, a former Marine sergeant who is involved with the league.

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