Bob Ryan

Updike hit it out of the park, too

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 28, 2008
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It is well-known that author, poet, and critic John Updike identified Fenway Park as "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark" in his celebrated 1960 New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," his first-person account of Ted Williams's final game. But the description goes deeper than that.

"Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg," he tells us. "It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities."

"I think I might have stolen the idea of the 'lyric little bandbox of a ballpark' from someone else," laughs Updike.

Fine. But the Euclid and Nature references are pure Updike.

Forty-eight years ago today, John Updike, 28 years old and, though raised in Pennsylvania, a Ted Williams fan since childhood, decided it was a good idea to attend the afternoon game between the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. He, like all members of the public, knew only that it would be the final home game of Ted's career. Not until the game was concluded did people learn that it would be Ted's last game, period, that he had announced before the game he would not be making a season-ending trip to Yankee Stadium.

The times were different. The word "hype" had barely entered the language. Today, there would be special editions, minted coins, and live shots galore.

"The world was a simpler place," Updike notes.

But Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960, was a dank, dreary day. And the Red Sox, Ted Williams aside, were a dank, dreary team on their way to a 65-89 record and a seventh-place finish. Accordingly, a mere 10,454 fans showed up. And it could very easily have been 10,453. John Updike's first choice that day was to visit a lady on Beacon Hill. Fortunately, the lady was not home.

Updike explains in a 1977 epilogue:

"I took a taxi to Beacon Hill and knocked on a door and there was nothing, just a basket for mail temporarily hung on the door. A bright brown basket. So I went, as promised, to the game and my virtue was rewarded."

Whatever reward Updike derived from attendance at that game does not begin to compare to the amount of pleasure his patronage has provided for others. For "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," published in the Oct. 22, 1960, New Yorker, is the most spellbinding essay ever written about baseball. Some, like critic Roger Dean, go even farther. "It is simply the greatest essay I have ever read," he insists.

"It influenced me in a big way," says Roger Angell, who would become the foremost baseball writer of the late 20th century, but in 1960 was merely a devoted follower of the sport who had yet to publish a word about it in the magazine. "And it has influenced just about every sportswriter who followed. The great thing is that he went expecting something amazing and incredible - and it happened. Only baseball provides in any number those totally unexpected turns."

"My one effort as a sportswriter," explains North Shore resident Updike. "It's had a longer life than I would have expected."

No one need be kept in suspense. We all know how the story ends. In the eighth inning, battling horribly adverse atmospheric conditions that have already cost him one shot at a homer, Ted Williams hits a 1-and-1 pitch from Jack Fisher onto the canopy covering a bench in the Red Sox bullpen. He runs the bases hurriedly amid relentless applause and does not tip his cap. He takes his place in left field at the start of the ninth and is replaced with Carroll Hardy by manager Pinky Higgins in the hopes he will acknowledge the crowd, and again he does not tip his cap. He has not tipped his cap since 1940 and he has no remote intention of deviating from his policy.

There are 10,454 eyewitnesses, and to our everlasting joy, one of them happens to be John Updike, who sets it all down on paper. I have read and reread what he has written about that dank, dreary afternoon and it is the visual equivalent of listening over and over again to a favorite song that never offends the ears.

"And it was all produced at lightning speed," marvels David Remnick, the current editor of the magazine and, in an earlier incarnation, a Washington Post sportswriter himself. Magazine articles are often handed in six weeks or more in advance of publication. This astonishing work had a publication 25 days after the game.

"By New Yorker standards, it was an amazing turnaround," Remnick points out. "It may not impress someone at the Associated Press - but it should."

Updike, it seems, was writing from the heart. Ted Williams had been a youthful obsession, with Angell claiming that Updike had once revealed that the Thumper was half the reason he had settled in Boston. In the essay, he recalls listening with fascination to the 1946 All-Star Game in which Ted had gone 4 for 4 with two home runs, and of seeing Williams play in Philadelphia.

"I remember watching one of his home runs from the bleachers of Shibe Park; it went over the first baseman's head and rose methodically along a straight line and it was still rising when it cleared the fence," he writes. "The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might have hit."

"I was in love with him, you might say," Updike declares. "Although it was a chaste relationship. No other sports figure has moved me as much as Ted Williams."

Williams is his man, and for that he makes no apology.

"Williams," he writes, "is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill . . . 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."

Ted Williams liked the piece. At least, that's what was conveyed to Updike by a third party. And Ted even suggested Updike be a collaborator on a biography, an offer Updike politely declined.

"I'd said all I had to say on the subject," he explains in the epilogue.

Here is Updike on the always controversial topic of whether or not Ted Williams was a team player: "For Williams to have distributed all of his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness."

(By the way, that must have been some woman, if she was in legitimate competition with Ted for Updike's attention.)

But this is no hot August day. This is late September, early autumn in Boston. It is cold and damp. John Updike is there, and he is taking it all in.

"No one describes things like John Updike," Remnick notes. "I call him the 'Great Noticer.' "

Updike takes a seat on the third base side and looks around. "The crowd looked less like a weekday ballpark crowd than the folks you might find in Yellowstone National Park, or emerging from automobiles at the top of scenic Mount Mansfield."

And this: "Along with these tots and second-honeymooners, there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a sufficient quantity of insouciance is saturated with enough insecurity." Thus speaks John Updike, Harvard '54.

Those aren't the only college students he happens to see and hear. "Behind me, two young male voices blossomed, cracking a joke about God's five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists - typical Boston College levity."

The pregame ceremony honoring Williams allows Updike to smile at the sight of "a tight little flock of human sparrows who, from the lambent and pampered pink of their faces, could only have been Boston politicians."

As for the ballplayers, the Red Sox, he decides, are "a jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence," while the Orioles are "a much nimbler blend of May and December."

Updike reviews Ted's career, dividing it into three stages, which, he says, "may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor." Explaining Ted's tortured relationship with the fans, Updike explains that Ted has "quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that surrounds it. Hence his refusal to tip his cap or to turn the other cheek to newsmen."

A Ted at-bat, according to John Updike: "Whenever Williams appeared at the plate - pounding the dirt from his cleats, gouging a pit in the batter's box with his left foot, wringing resin out of the bat handle with a vehement grip, switching the stick at the pitcher with an electric ferocity - it was like having a familiar Leonardo appear in a shuffle of Saturday Evening Post covers."

We get to the eighth, when, Updike reminds us, "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." But Ted has sent right fielder Al Pilarcik to the 380 sign in the fifth, and thus "there will always lurk, around the 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 destiny of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future."

Of Ted's stubborn refusal to tip his cap, despite being given three separate occasions to do so (coming to the plate, rounding the bases, and trotting in after being removed from the field), Updike sagely notes, "Gods do not answer letters."

But they sometimes leave behind epic accounts of epic events.

Thank you, sir.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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