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Updike and Williams

February 1, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


I learned on Tuesday that John Updike died by reading a blog post by my favorite sportswriter, Joe Posnanski. In it, he simply quoted a single paragraph from one early Updike article in the New Yorker.

I thought of writing my own post about Updike, but realized I hardly knew him. I’ve read such a tiny portion of his writing, mostly his articles in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. None of his novels. Still, I thought, I could at least link to Pos’s post, as I have now done.

Then I went to the New Yorker blog site and found a short note about Updike that noted that all 846 of his stories for the magazine are available in the archive. One was being made available to everyone for free — the very one from which Posnanski quoted. It is that great piece of sportswriting, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, in which Updike describes Ted Williams’ final game, played at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960. It was not the final game of the season, but it was the final home game, and Williams decided not to play the final three-game series at Yankee Stadium.

1960 wasn’t just another year in baseball history. It’s the year that I started paying attention. The Yankees were the only team in New York then, during the brief period between the departure of the Dodgers and Giants and the birth of the Mets. So I became an avid Yankee fan. The Red Sox weren’t much. They finished in 7th place in the eight-team American League with a 65-89 won-loss record. The Yankees, of course, were first, and at least up to the 8th inning of the 7th game of the World Series, they seemed to have things in hand. No need to discuss what happened next. (It’s way too painful, but I plan to look the pain in the face one day and write about this year at greater length.) For years, I have had the belief that I watched that Red Sox game, but it doesn’t really make sense. There’s no reason a Red Sox Wednesday day game against the Orioles would be broadcast in New York. I must merely have seen the highlight (to be described below) on TV. Over and over again. Still, I feel like I saw it. And you will too, after reading Updike’s description of the great moment:

The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on—always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, 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. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. 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 never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Yesterday I listened over the internet to The Saturday Show, Jonathan Schwartz’s weekly show on New York’s public radio station WNYC. I can’t imagine life without Jonathan Schwartz, but that’s yet another story for another time. I feel I’ve grown up with him, starting with his days as a DJ on New York’s progressive rock station WNEW-FM decades ago. He was playing music with a few remarks between songs in his typical way when he decided to acknowledge Updike’s death with some thoughts. And he too was led to Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. He recalled writing a fan letter to Updike after the article appeared, to share his admiration for the article. Updike, Jonathan reminded us, was a talented artist. He replied with a short note, at the bottom of which he drew a cartoon describing how the Red Sox could beat the Yankees. It showed a baseball park with a powerful Yankee at the plate, a Moose Skowron type, and with 15 Red Sox in the field filling every gap. Two shortstops. Six outfielders.

Amazing guy.

By the way, you may wish to check out the box score for that final game of Ted Williams.

Categories: Culture, Sports, Writing
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