On the Fenway Park scoreboard, where only one team, BOSTON, was listed, the No. 9 flashed under the white-block letters that spelled out AT BAT.
But on this night, Ted Williams’s final turn would come not with the graceful sweep of his bat and a coda home run that made fans scream and poets sing, but with a lone US Marine trumpeter playing “Taps,” while generations of Red Sox players, from Dominic DiMaggio and Carl Yastrzemski to Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Damon, each lay down roses, one white and one red, in a last farewell to a man called an American hero.
“He was a very misunderstood man,” said longtime Red Sox broadcaster Curt Gowdy, who recreated his call of Williams’s last home run on Sept. 28, 1960, while rare footage never before seen in Fenway Park was shown on the center-field video screen and Jack Fisher, the Baltimore Orioles righthander who threw the pitch Williams hit into the right-field seats that day, was bathed in a spotlight on the mound.
“He was a proud man, a great man,” Gowdy said to a hushed assembly of 20,500, some of whom were moved to tears at the sight of such former Williams teammates as Johnny Pesky, Frank Malzone, and Walt Dropo, in their vintage uniforms, taking their positions on the field.
“I’m just glad I got to be a friend to Ted Williams. I owe him a lot, we all owe him a lot, and God bless you, Ted.”
Williams said he never wanted a funeral. But after a morning in which an estimated 12,000 people responded to the team’s invitation to come to the ballpark to pay their respects, many circling the field on the red-clay warning track to read his Hall of Fame plaque imported for the occasion, or to gaze upon a blown-up facsimile of his No. 9 home jersey hanging from the center-field wall, an array of dignitaries gathered for a two-hour ceremony that was billed as “a celebration of an American hero.”
Williams’s children were the most obvious omissions from a guest list that included Senator John Glenn, who was a Marine fighter pilot in the Korean War, where Williams served as his wingman; Acting Governor Jane Swift and Mayor Thomas Menino; baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who was booed when announced; and former Sox owner John Harrington as well as new Sox owner John Henry, who for the first time was introduced as John W. Henry in a transparent attempt to separate himself from the Hall of Famer’s son, John Henry.
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner announced that the 600 Club was being renamed the 406 Club, in honor of Williams’s 1941 achievement of being the last hitter to hit .400.
John Henry Williams and both of his sisters, Bobby Jo Ferrell and Claudia Williams, all declined invitations to attend. John Henry and Claudia Williams are aligned against Ferrell in a legal dispute over Williams’s will, and the ultimate disposition of his remains. In his will, Williams indicates an intention to be cremated, but at this time his body is frozen in an Arizona cryonics facility, where his son had him taken.
DiMaggio, the center fielder who played beside Williams in the Red Sox outfield and remained a lifelong friend, telephoning him the day before he died, made the only reference to the controversy in the ceremony, organized around “innings” devoted to the various facets of his life and baseball career: greatest hitter ever, war hero in both World War II and Korea, champion of the Jimmy Fund, advocate for the admission of Negro League players into the Hall of Fame; and the man who provided a living link to Red Sox teams for more than 60 years until his death at age 83 July 5.
“I am saddened by the turmoil of the current controversy,” DiMaggio said in words that elicited one of the night’s loudest cheers. “I hope and pray this controversy ends as abruptly as it began and the family will do the right thing by honoring his final resting place, and may he rest in peace.”
Left field was transformed into a garden by groundskeeper Dave Mellor, who fashioned a 77-foot-by-36-foot No. 9, whose border was comprised of white carnations, all pointing up. Bouquets of roses, carnations, baby’s breath, and other flowers created a red, white, and blue interior. On the left-field wall, which was covered by a huge American flag until the ceremony began, there were huge blowup posters, showing Williams at the plate, in the cockpit of a plane, and kneeling with a group of children.
Each base in the infield was marked by a large silver decal bearing witness to Williams’s signature accomplishments: a “.406” at third, a “USMC” at second, a “521” at first.
A Marine color guard was already on the infield grass when the dignitaries were led by Pesky and DiMaggio to their seats set up along the baselines.
Massachusetts State Trooper Dan Clark, a former Marine, sang the national anthem, and Fighter Attack Squadron 321 of the 4th Marine Air Wing flew overhead.
“My role tonight here is simple,” Sox owner Henry said, “to thank you and welcome you. So now please join us in celebrating the life of Ted Williams, who for so many years in left field gave us greatness.”
That celebratory aspect was reflected in a variety of ways in a ceremony hosted by Sox broadcaster Sean McDonough and ESPN analyst and former Globe baseball writer Peter Gammons.
Sox chairman Tom Werner announced that the 600 Club was being renamed the 406 Club, in honor of Williams’s 1941 achievement of being the last hitter to hit .400.
There was the recitation of “Teddy at the Bat,” by TV personality Dick Flavin, who altered the poem written in Worcester by Ernest Thayer, climaxing with “They’re going wild at Fenway Park, because Teddy hit one out.”
DiMaggio told how Williams used to talk to the scoreboard operator and relay the news when DiMaggio’s brother, Joe, collected a hit during his record 56-game hitting streak.
Mike Andrews, the chairman of the Jimmy Fund, spoke of how the charity would not be what it is today unless Williams had made fighting children’s cancer part of his life’s work.
Kate Shaughnessy, the daughter of Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy and a leukemia survivor, spoke of how Williams called her when she was 8 years old and in a hospital bed, assuring her that she would be OK.
Gammons teased Yastrzemski about a spring-training tennis match in which Yaz, who overcame the strain of replacing a Hall of Famer by having his own Hall of Fame career, beat Williams, who never liked to lose at anything.
Glenn, reading from a prepared statement, recalled the time when Williams’s plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire but managed to return to safety - “a very close call, as close a call as you can have and still make it.”
“He never held back, he pressed the attack,” said Glenn, adding that the country had lost “one of its most dedicated patriots and Annie [his wife] and I lost a great friend.”
Former Sox broadcaster Ken Coleman noted the way Williams fought for Negro League players like Satchel Paige to have their place in the Hall of Fame, while Garciaparra gave a glimpse of his relationship with Williams.
Asked what Williams said to him at the memorable 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park, Garciaparra smiled. “When he called to me,” the Sox shortstop said, “he said, ‘I’m sorry I missed your party last night.’
“I knew him on that level. He gave me so many compliments that he turned my face red . . . but to be able to say he’s my friend means even more.”
And so the evening went, until the finale, when the lights were turned off, the facade of the Prudential Center was illuminated with a No. 9, and the former and current Sox, DiMaggio and Pesky, Charlie Wagner and Jerry Remy, Dick Radatz and Rico Petrocelli, Jim Rice and Lou Merloni, Tim Wakefield and Grady Little, Dave Ferriss and Jim Lonborg, Earl Wilson and Luis Tiant, assumed their positions, roses in hand.
With a signal from Garciaparra, they made their way to the left-field garden. Gowdy came to the microphone at home plate, the spotlight was placed on Fisher at the mound, and Williams’s last at-bat was relived.
“There’s a long drive to right field,” Gowdy said, the excitement in his voice rising as it had 42 years earlier. “That ball is going, going, gone. It’s a home run.”
And so it ended. All that was missing was The Kid crossing home plate, head down, ducking into the first base dugout.
The stadium PA played “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan, “This Used to be My Playground” by Madonna, and a California musician named Dorian singing a song written for the occasion by Sox executive VP Dr. Charles Steinberg, who orchestrated the event: “That’s Why I Fell in Love With Baseball.”
The Marine band, from a perch in the right-field bullpen, played “God Bless America.” The crowd sang along.
And then, a final spotlight, on the No. 9 jersey in center field. The players waved their caps, old friends embraced, a few tears were wiped away, and the scoreboard showed some final images of The Kid, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.