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."