Once in a Lifetime: Ted Williams’ perfect coda

Ron KaplanContributor ISeptember 27, 2010

BOSTON - JULY 22:  Broadcasting legend Curt Gowdy sits with baseball greats Dom DiMaggio (L) and Johnny Pesky (R) during the Ted Williams tribute on July 22, 2002 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. The public was invited to the park to honor Williams who died July 5, 2002. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Darren McCollester/Getty Images


A handful of players have been fortunate enough to enjoy a storybook ending to their career: ending with a bang.

None have done it with as much mystique as Ted Williams.

The Splendid Splinter played his last major league game against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 28th, 1960. A dreary affair, with nothing on the line.

The Orioles finished eight games behind the Yankees, while the Sox were mired in seventh place at 65-89.

To go into the situation further would be to embarrass myself because no one told the story better than John Updike in his classic essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” The piece originally appeared in the Oct. 22 issue of The New Yorker.

This year, it was republished by The Library of America, and includes a new preface by the author, written shortly before he died in January 2009. There’s also a tribute to Williams by Updike, written after the Hall of Famer’s death.

Both essays contain “mild” annotations, explaining a few issues to the readers, both of the boomer generation and since.

Charles McGrath, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review section, wrote about the anniversary of Williams' career walk-off and Updike’s literary contribution last week, calling it “probably the most celebrated baseball essay ever.”

It’s not too much to say that “Hub Fans” changed sports writing. Affectionately mocking the tradition of sports clichés (as in the title, which didn’t actually appear in any of Boston’s seven dailies at the time, but easily could have), the essay demonstrated that you could write about baseball, of all things, in a way that was personal, intelligent, even lyrical. Updike compares Williams to Achilles, to a Calder mobile, to Donatello’s David, standing on third base as if the bag were the head of Goliath.

Deeper into the tribute to the tribute, McGrath writes:

Most of all, Updike identified with the artist in Williams: his focus and perfectionism, his single-mindedness in mastering the difficult craft of hitting, the way that, proud and a little aloof, he would not kowtow to the Boston press or court the fans’ affection, refusing to the very end to tip his cap in acknowledgment of their applause. He embraced and understood Williams’s isolation, writing: “It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.”

More interesting to me was the fact that Updike edited the original for a 1965 anthology, changing his masterpiece ever so slightly. Why mess with perfection, I wondered?

McGrath concludes:

In the tiny differences between the two versions, the refinements of phrasing, the crucial addition of that “little death,” there is something very like the “tissue-thin difference” Updike so admired in Williams’s career: the difference in this case not between a thing done well and a thing done ill, but between a thing done well and a thing done even better. Like Williams, Updike never coasted. He knew that over the long season, as he writes earlier in the essay, what holds our interest is not occasional heroics but “players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.”

The following video from the MLB Network makes a nice mention of Updike’s paean at about the seven-minute mark, with excerpts read by Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci and Bob Costas.

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