Charity exhibition or not, Bertha Ragan Tickey wanted to do what she usually did--humble the hitter with a barrage of 85-m.p.h. fastballs.
But this time, the hitter was Ted Williams. Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox's Splendid Splinter. Ted Williams, the last major leaguer to hit .400. Ted Williams, lifetime average of .344.
Ted Williams, one of Tickey's more than 7,000 career softball strikeout victims.
In 1967, Williams played host to a baseball exhibition in Waterbury, Conn., to raise funds for his summer camp for underprivileged boys. Tickey, then 43, was nearing the end of her brilliant 24-year pitching career, and Williams, then 49, had been retired from baseball since 1960. But when Tickey faced Williams in a specially arranged at-bat in front of 15,000 spectators, age and the just-for-fun atmosphere went out the window.
"Ted Williams is such a competitor, and I knew he'd try his hardest to get a hit, especially off of a woman," Tickey recalled recently in a phone interview from her home in Clovis. "At the same time, of course, I really wanted to strike him out."
The count went to 3-2, and then Tickey challenged Williams once more with her fastball. Williams, a two-time American League MVP with 521 career home runs, went down swinging.
"That made it all the better, at least for me," Tickey said, laughing. "Ted wasn't exactly happy about it, but he was very gracious. The whole thing was exciting, and it'll always be a personal highlight of my career."
Striking out Williams is only one entry on a long list of Tickey's career highlights. As a pitcher for the Orange Lionettes in 1941 and then again from 1946-1955 (no team was fielded during World War II), Tickey led the Lionettes to four Amateur Softball Assn. national championships (1950, 1951, 1952 and 1955) and set numerous national pitching records.
Among her records still standing are most games won in a season (67, in 1950), most strikeouts in a national tournament game (20, in 1953) and most consecutive scoreless innings pitched (143, in 1950). She also holds the mark for most ASA tournament victories (74), and previously held the record for most perfect games in a season (three).
Tickey later continued her remarkable career in Connecticut with the Raybestos Brakettes and finished with a lifetime record of 762-88, including 162 no-hitters and 45 perfect games. For her accomplishments, Tickey, 67, will be one of nine inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame Oct. 29.
Tickey, who played as Bertha Ragan before marrying former Brooklyn Dodger catcher Ed Tickey in 1963, was used to playing against the guys long before facing Williams in the charity confrontation. Growing up in Dinuba, Calif., about 25 miles southeast of Fresno, Tickey had six brothers to contend--and compete--with.
"All my brothers were good athletes, so I ended up playing ball in self-defense," Tickey said. "But when I wanted to play with them, I had to try and play at their level, because they sure didn't go easy on me.
"As I got older and stronger, I got used to that level of competition and playing against girls my own age was kind of a waste of time."
By the time Tickey was 13, she was competing against college-aged women in games throughout the San Joaquin Valley. She played one game as catcher for Dinuba High School's baseball team before being ruled ineligible ("basically just because I was a girl"), and at 16, she was discovered by the Lionettes.
"They had read about some of my games, and I guess they wanted to see if I was for real," Tickey said. "So they came up to see me play and then right after they asked me if I wanted to join the team."
While in high school, Tickey lived in Orange during the summer to play for the Lionettes, then returned to Dinuba when classes started. She boarded with players and coaches, including the team founder, Elwood Case, and his family. "Orange was such a small town then, it seemed like I knew just about everybody," Tickey said.
Later, Tickey moved to Orange full time and began a 15-year residency. While there, she earned a degree from Anaheim Business School, but her primary interest revolved around the Lionettes. "I honestly loved the game and loved to play," Tickey said. "When a season ended, I couldn't wait for the next one to begin. I played as much as I could year-round."
Southern California, in addition to its consistently high level of softball competition, proved to have other advantages for Tickey. Her reputation as one of the nation's top players led to her being hired to teach actress Lana Turner how to throw a softball for the 1947 film, "Cass Timberlane," which also starred Spencer Tracy. "He played an umpire in the scene where Lana was supposed to be pitching," Tickey said. "I wish all the umpires were as much fun to work with as he was."
Mingling with movie stars might have been fun, but Tickey was all business when it came to softball. In 1956, she moved to Fairfield, Conn., where she joined the Brakettes. She pitched Raybestos to seven national championships from 1956 to 1968 and finished her career with a 13-inning no-hitter against a Fresno team in the 1968 championship game, won by Raybestos, 1-0.
"I knew the game inside and out," Tickey said. "When I went out on the mound, I knew I wasn't going to get beat. I commanded my position."
Of course, a fastball clocked at 85 m.p.h. thrown from 40 feet (the distance between the rubber and the plate) would do wonders for anyone's confidence. In addition, Tickey was capable of throwing her fastball consistently on a seemingly endless basis. Her record of most games pitched in a season (69) still stands, and Tickey says there's a simple reason she pitched so often that year: "I was the only pitcher we had."
Instead of reaching for her favorite pain reliever after throwing 100 fastballs (like a certain hard-throwing veteran pitcher is currently advertised as doing), Tickey most often just reached for a softball, day after day. No every-fifth-day rotation here.
A major league baseball fan, Tickey marvels at today's modern sports medicine and the methods used to keep pitchers in shape, but she recalls her own effective--and simpler--way of keeping her pitches unhittable. "I was in good physical condition year-round, and I didn't smoke or drink," Tickey said. "I couldn't afford to get hurt by not taking care of myself because the team counted on me so much."
Naturally, Tickey's favorite major league players are the ones who play with the same dedication and intensity that she did. "I can't stand to see them goof off with the money they're making today," she said. "I love to watch the players who give 100%, the ones who are dedicated to the game, like Don Mattingly and Kirby Puckett.
"With all the attention athletes get today, people ask sometimes if I feel like I was born 40 years too early, but it doesn't matter. I never played for the recognition--I played because I wanted to."
This Hall of Fame business is nothing new for Tickey. As an eight-time MVP of the national tournament, Tickey already has been inducted into the ASA Hall of Fame, the Connecticut Hall of Fame and the Fresno Hall of Fame. Still, Tickey is flattered to be considered among Orange County's greatest athletes.
"I know Orange County has produced a lot of wonderful athletes, and it's quite an honor to be included in the hall of fame," said Tickey, who moved to Clovis from Fairfield three years ago. "I'm looking forward to coming back to a place where I really enjoyed living."
Tickey has three granddaughters, but none has shown an inclination to follow in their grandmother's athletic footsteps. That, however, doesn't matter to Tickey.
"I had opportunities that my brothers and other members of my family didn't have, but they always supported and encouraged me all the way because they knew (softball) was what I wanted to do," Tickey said. "So if my granddaughters don't want to play softball, that's fine, and I'll support and encourage them in whatever they want to do."
As for Tickey, she doesn't wonder how her life would be different if she traded places with her grandchildren. "It seems like I played softball since I was born, and I can't imagine anything I would've enjoyed more," she said. "If I had it to do over again, I'd do it again. It's been wonderful."
Hall of Fame Banquet Facts
WHAT: 11th Orange County Hall of Fame Banquet.
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 29.
WHERE: Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim.
HIGHLIGHTS: Tickets, $100 each or $1,000 for a table of 10, can be secured by calling (714) 935-0199. The affair (cocktails at 6 p.m, dinner at 7) will include the induction of Bobby Knoop, Pat McInally, Bruce Penhall, Dwight Stones, Shirley Topley, Homer Beatty, Bill Cook, Alex Omalev and Bertha Ragan Tickey.