Sawx Say Goodbye to Splinter
On September 28, 1960 Ted Williams played in his last ballgame for the Boston Red Sox. The game was immortalized in one of the best essays on baseball ever written – Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu by John Updike.
Updike was 28, and a writer for The New Yorker. He was having an affair at the time and would not have been at the game at all had he not been stood up by his mistress. “So I went, as promised, to the game.” he wrote years later, “and my virtue was rewarded.”
The day was cold and damp. The Sox were near the bottom of the standings. There was only one reason that 10,454 fans came to the ballpark that day – to say goodbye to Teddy Ballgame.
Updike sat behind third base. He had never written about baseball before, but what he witnessed that day cried out for his burgeoning talents as a writer.
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidian determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities. Its right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters.
When he first came up to the big leagues, “The Kid” managed to anger fans with his braggadacio: ”All I want out of life is when I walk down the street folks will say, `There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.”’ On this day, fans were there to honor that youthful boast.
The game starts out inauspiciously for Williams with a walk in the first inning. In the third, he hits a long fly to center for an out. In the fifth, he gets ahold of one and sends it to the warning track – tantalizingly close to a home run. The wind was blowing in and it didn’t look like fate was on Ted’s side.
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 refused. Gods do not answer letters.
Ted’s homer had cut the Oriole’s lead to 4-3. In the bottom of the ninth, the Sox rallied and won 5-4 on a botched double-play ball.
On the car radio, as I drove home I heard that Williams, his own man to the end, had decided not to accompany the team to New York. He had met the little death that awaits athletes. He had quit.
Now isn’t that just a wicked pissah.