Sunday, October 9, 2005

As befits one of the most memorable moments in sports history, John Updike’s famous account in the New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” qualifies as one of the most memorable pieces in sports literature.

By its nature, contemporary sportswriting has a fragile lifespan. Can you think of another example that has endured through the journalistic ages? Perhaps Grantland Rice’s overwrought lead on the 1924 Notre Dame-Army football game (“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again …”), but there was nothing especially epic about the event.

Yet when Ted Williams, possibly the best hitter ever, said goodbye to the Boston Red Sox and baseball on Sept.28, 1960, he literally went out with a bang: home run No.521, at that time third on the all-time list behind Babe Ruth (714) and Jimmie Foxx (534).

His career interrupted twice for military service in World War II and Korea, the last of the .400 hitters (.406 in 1941) was a tired 42 during the 1960 season. Williams had come back for one more year after batting an unbelievably mortal .254 in an injury-plagued 1959 campaign, but now he was going out in more typical fashion with an average that would be .316 at season’s end. In mid-September, he and the club announced jointly that he would not return in 1961.

The Red Sox were out of the pennant race, but it seems strange in retrospect that only 10,454 fans were at Williams’ last game at Fenway Park. One of them was author Updike, a longtime Red Sox fan who sat in the stands behind third base rather than in the press box.

It was overcast and chilly on that Wednesday afternoon, and the temperamental Williams was in a cantankerous mood as he chased away panting writers and photographers before the game. After one cameraman tried to snap him in the clubhouse, Ed Linn wrote in his 1993 biography, “Hitter,” Ted made an obscene gesture and barked, “Get one like this!”

When the pregame ceremonies began and broadcaster Curt Gowdy introduced him, Williams attacked a favorite target, Boston’s sportswriters and columnists, as club officials winced.

“Despite the fact of the disagreeable things that have been [written] of me, and I can’t forget it, by the Knights of the Keyboard up there” — he jerked a thumb toward the press box — “baseball has been the most wonderful thing in my life. If I were starting all over again, and somebody asked me where is the one place I would like to play, I would want it to be in Boston.”

Then the Red Sox-Orioles game started, with all eyes on Williams. In the bottom of the first inning, he walked on four pitches against left-hander Steve Barber from Takoma Park. In the third, he flied out to deep center. In the fifth, it looked as if his moment had come when he crushed a ball to deep right-center, but right fielder Al Pilarcik caught it at the 380-foot mark.

After returning to the dugout, Williams remarked, “I really stung it. If that one didn’t go out, nothing is going out today.”

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. Fisher pitched in the major leagues for 11 seasons and was involved in several historic events. In 1961, he yielded home runs Nos.59 and 60 during Roger Maris’ record-breaking season. Three years later, with the New York Mets, he threw the first pitch at Shea Stadium. But now with Williams coming up and the spectators on their feet, he was just another kid pitcher trying to retire a man with a .344 lifetime average.

As Williams stepped in for almost surely his last Fenway at-bat, 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 remained standing, but the old ballpark went absolutely silent as Williams swung hard and missed Fisher’s second offering. One and one.

Now Fisher threw the third pitch and … well, let Updike describe it:

“Williams swung again, and there it was. 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.”

Bedlam ensued. Wrote Linn: “It did not seem possible that 10,454 throats could make that much noise.”

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 he was not about to start now.

Still the fans yowled. Williams’ teammates, manager Mike Higgins and even first-base umpire Johnny Rice urged him to take a bow. Instead Williams sat in the dugout with his head down and a smile on his face. Of the assembled multitude, he said, “[Bleep] them.”

The home run gave the Red Sox a 5-4 lead going to the top of the ninth, and Higgins already had told Carroll Hardy to go to left field for defensive purposes. But now he said, “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 Ted one more chance to tip his cap.


After the game, the Red Sox announced officially that Williams would not accompany the team to New York for the season’s final series. His career was over, capped by an appropriately electrifying moment.

During the rest of Williams’ four-plus decades, he endured, along with contemporary superstar Joe DiMaggio, as 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 July5, 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 Teddy Ballgame. We should remember him in terms of his marvelously melodramatic final swing, as captured so evocatively in Updike’s prose:

“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.”

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