Nobody would have characterized two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike as a sports writer. It’s ironic, therefore, that the famed novelist, who died of lung cancer Tuesday at 76, contributed one of the most endearing and enduring pieces in the history of jock-related journalism.
Updike’s description of Ted Williams‘ dramatic home run in his last time at bat was titled “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” and appeared in the New Yorker magazine. Possibly the only sports story as famous is Grantland Rice’s “Four Horsemen” account of the 1924 Notre Dame-Army football game in the New York Herald Tribune.
The Red Sox were out of the pennant race on Sept. 28, 1960, and a crowd of just 10,454 witnessed Williams’ last game. One of them was Updike, a 28-year-old longtime Red Sox fan who sat in the stands behind third base rather than in the press box at Fenway Park.
On that overcast and chilly Wednesday afternoon, Williams walked on four pitches in the first inning against Baltimore Orioles left-hander Steve Barber. In the third, he flied to deep center. In the fifth, he crushed a ball to deep right-center, but it was caught at the 380-foot mark.
One more chance remained. In the eighth, Williams was due to bat second against a 21-year-old Baltimore right-hander called “Fat” Jack Fisher because of his girth. As Ted stepped in, the applause rose and continued for two minutes, forcing plate umpire Ed Hurley to call time. The noise was still cascading when Fisher finally threw his first pitch. Low, ball one.
The fans were on their feet, but the old ballpark went absolutely silent as Williams swung hard and missed Fisher’s second offering. On his third, Teddy Ballgame let it all hang out - and so did Updike.
“Williams swung again, and there it was,” he wrote. “The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. … It was in the books while it was still in the sky. [Center fielder Jackie] 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 vanished.”
Of course, bedlam ensued. As Williams neared home plate, Orioles catcher Gus Triandos flashed him a big smile. Ted grinned back but did not acknowledge the crowd’s hysteria. Often booed for lackadaisical defensive play in his early years, Williams never again tipped his cap and was not about to start now.
The home run gave the Red Sox a 5-4 lead going to the top of the ninth, and manager Mike Higgins already had told Carroll Hardy to go to left field for defensive purposes. But now he barked, “Williams, left field!” and the aging slugger grabbed his glove angrily and trotted onto the field. As soon as he reached his position, however, Hardy came running out behind him. So Ted started the long jog back to the dugout as the fans went nuts once more. Clearly, Higgins wanted to give Williams one more chance to tip his cap.
During the rest of Williams’ four-plus decades, he remained a symbol of baseball’s best during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He fished the Florida Keys to his heart’s content, managed the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers with mixed results for four seasons and lived life to the fullest until his death on July 5, 2002. His subsequent, disgraceful cryogenic freezing - torso in one chamber, head in another - followed as family members fought legal battles over his remains.
But that’s not how we should remember this man with a lifetime batting average of .344, third best all-time. We should remember him in terms of that electrifying final swing, as captured so evocatively by Updike:
“Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. … Though we thumped, wept and chanted ‘We want Ted’ for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back.
“Gods do not answer letters.”
Even for those who did not necessarily cherish Updike’s “Rabbit” novels and other works, his singular baseball prose matched and mastered the moment - always a difficult thing for a writer to do. If Ted Williams was at his best that day nearly five decades ago, so was John Updike.
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