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Redwood Falls man found a friend in baseball legend Ted Williams

By Jacob Belgum jbelgum@wctrib.com He hit the pitcher's rubber with three consecutive throws from his post in left field. He laughed and quipped to utility player Billy Goodman: "Instead of playin' for Cokes today, how 'bout playin' for Cadillacs...

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(Jacob Belgum, Tribune) Bob Manning worked the scoreboard at Fenway Park in Boston as a 17-year-old with his brothers.

By Jacob Belgum

jbelgum@wctrib.com

He hit the pitcher’s rubber with three consecutive throws from his post in left field. He laughed and quipped to utility player Billy Goodman: “Instead of playin’ for Cokes today, how ‘bout playin’ for Cadillacs?”

The voice belonged to Ted Williams, but the recollection was Bob Manning’s.

Though he currently resides in Redwood Falls, Manning grew up in the projects of South End, Boston, a melting pot so steeped in Catholicism that, as Manning puts it, “You were either a choir boy or an altar boy.”

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Before he donned Santa Claus costumes every Christmas to match his white hair and beard, a 17-year-old Bob Manning worked the scoreboard at iconic Fenway Park, receiving calls from the press box so he and his brothers, Jim and Leo, could properly change scores on the board. Through a small slot in Fenway’s Green Monster, they watched the early 1950’s Boston Red Sox and their left fielder who was, according to Bob, “the greatest baseball player who ever lived.”

Manning refers to him as Theodore Samuel Williams, his tone and full-name pronunciation making him sound like a 19th century poet rather than a baseball player with whom the young Manning often chatted. Even as a teenager, Manning understood Ted Williams’ mystique and he could never forget it.

“There’ll never be another like him,” Manning said.

For a time, both fans and the local media wished there wouldn’t be another like Williams. He bristled at even the slightest criticism and lashed out at those who offered it.

In 1940, during his second season, Williams told the Boston Evening American (as written in “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams”) that “I don’t like the town (Boston), I don’t like the people and the newspaper men have been on my back all year.”

In 1960, after homering in his final career at-bat, Williams refused to tip his cap to the desperately cheering Red Sox crowd.

Manning knew a different man.

Between innings during home games, Williams would ask Manning for Yankees updates. He wanted to know if his rival, Joe DiMaggio, had hit any home runs. DiMaggio was Williams’ measuring stick and Manning was his messenger.

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“He’d walk back and lean down, and we’d say ‘Joe DiMaggio got one in the fifth inning or whatever,’ ” Manning said. Williams would profanely reply to the news. “But that was Ted Williams,” Manning said.

Manning eagerly helped Williams, and in turn, Williams treated him well.

Umpires were another population who, according to Manning, catered to Williams. His eyes were legendarily sharp, so why deceive them?

“The umpire figured that if Ted Williams thought it was a ball, then it was a ball,” Manning said.

According to legend, Ty Cobb said that Williams “sees more of the ball than any man alive.”

For his career, Williams walked three times for every strikeout, and in 1941, the year he hit .406, he walked 147 times to only 27 strikeouts. His .482 career OBP is the highest in baseball history.

During his three years (1950-1952) as scoreboard operator, Manning saw many more of the age’s greats.

He watched teenage, pre-injury Mickey Mantle roam right field during his rookie season, while an aged Joe DiMaggio manned center. He showed Satchel Paige around his working quarters and marveled at his humongous feet.

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“(Paige) came out and wanted to see what the scoreboard looked like,” Manning said of bringing Paige inside the Green Monster. “I remember his shoes, his shoes must’ve been about (size) 22’s,” Manning measured. (They were actually size 14, but who’s counting?)

BOB AND JIM

While Bob adored Williams, his brother Jim, a die-hard Yankee fan, did not. Williams’ occasional lack of hustle irked Jim the same way it did other Red Sox fans and local media. (Or, perhaps Jim’s Yankee pride blinded him).

Despite his treacherous fanhood, it was Jim who helped get Bob and Leo jobs inside the Green Monster. Jim first operated the board and he continued long after Bob left.

Jim’s scoreboard duties were interrupted only by his service in the U.S. Marine Corps. The Korean War caused him to miss the entire 1951 and 1952 seasons.

The funny thing is: The organization didn’t notice.

Jim remained on the Red Sox’s payroll and the Mannings still received his gate pass. Bob and Leo treated neighborhood friends or their family members to games with Jim’s pass. As for Jim’s paychecks, Bob gave his mother every one he and “Jim” earned.

“We were poor,” Manning said, simply.

The Korean War also stole most of Williams’ 1952 and 1953 seasons. Williams missed roughly 4-1/2 seasons because of military service in World War II and the Korean War, yet he still clubbed 521 home runs and amassed more than 2,600 hits.  

All six of Bob’s brothers served in the armed forces and, before that, they all grew up playing and following sports. Today, at more than 80 years old, Manning still describes himself as a “sports junkie.”

The family played ball on the streets of Boston and at the city’s Boy’s Club of America.

“You lived at the Boy’s Club of America because they had showers there,” Manning said.

He said the nuns at his school would even occasionally join in their baseball games, often using balls Red Sox players game them. The nuns must’ve liked the sport since they allowed Bob and Leo to skip class to operate the scoreboard. Fenway Park installed lights in 1947, but most games were still played around noon.

As a teenager, Bob starred in basketball, playing in Boston Garden and the old Madison Square Garden, which as demolished in 1968. “The Mecca,” as it’s known today, was built in another location. Still, Bob claims Jim was the better athlete.

Though only 14 months separated him and Leo, Bob spoke mostly of Jim. Every Saturday at 8:15 p.m., Jim and Bob would talk on the phone about the Yankees and Red Sox. The tradition only ended when Jim died two years ago.

Bob left Boston in 1953 for Marine training. He first ended up in San Diego, where he met his wife, a Redwood Falls native. Coincidentally, Ted Williams was born and raised in San Diego.

Bob never moved back to Boston after he left in 1953. Still, he’s a stereotypical proud-of-his-roots Bostonian. He wore his “Green Monster” t-shirt to a recent interview for a reason. When asked if he missed the place, the people and its sports teams, Manning replied simply: “You always miss Boston.”

 

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