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Monday, September 27, 2010

John Updike on Ted Williams

Fifty years ago, on September 28, 1960, Ted Williams took the field for the Red Sox in Boston’s Fenway Park for the last time. Over the previous 21 seasons Williams had built legendary stats that rank him as one of the best ballplayers ever. He remains the last player in Major League Baseball to bat over .400 in a single season (.406 in 1941). His career batting average of .344 is the highest of anyone with 500 or more home runs.

Boston fans nicknamed him The Kid, the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame, and The Thumper—but they didn’t always love him. In Williams’s first season in 1939 he wowed them by leading the American League with 145 RBIs, hitting .327 and tipping his cap after each of his 31 homers. But in 1940 when Fenway fans booed him for making an error and then striking out, Williams chafed. As he wrote in My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life: “I vowed that day I’d never tip my hat again.”

Williams was a childhood hero to John Updike, who as a young man was among the sparse 10,455 fans gathered for The Kid’s last home game. Updike’s account of that game, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, which appeared three weeks later in The New Yorker, was the only time he ever wrote about baseball. Yet it has become, in Roger Angell’s words, “the most celebrated baseball piece ever.” “It’s not too much to say that Hub Fans changed sportswriting,” Charles McGrath wrote this past weekend.

Updike died in January 2009, shortly after revising Hub Fans for publication as a book by The Library of America. In the essay, he describes what Williams meant to him:
No other player visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.
The game’s drama climaxes in the eighth inning when Williams takes his final at bat. On the third pitch Williams swings:
... and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.
Williams rounds the bases, head down, and dashes to the dugout, which leads to the essay’s most quoted lines:
He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted ''We want Ted'' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.
Christopher Lydon recalls Updike talking about the ever in-character Williams post-baseball:
Updike said he met Ted Williams in person a few years later and that Williams admired him profusely. "Real talent," Ted said in effect. "With that sort of gift you could actually be doing something useful..."

"Like what?" Updike asked the Splinter.

"Like save the Atlantic salmon!" Ted roared, again like a god, but angry this time.
Of related interest:
  • Tom Singer writes about Williams’s last game on the Red Sox website, which includes footage of his final at-bat.
  • John Updike fans will be interested to hear that Alvernia University will host the first biennial John Updike Society Conference this weekend.
  • In the video below, watch Ted Williams appear on a 1954 episode of the game show “What's My Line?”

Related LOA works: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams (includes new preface and “Ted Williams, 1918–2002”; Baseball: A Literary Anthology

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