Almost my entire lifetime ago, 50 years ago today, Ted Williams played the last game of his 21 year career for the Boston Red Sox. Williams always said he had one goal in life: “All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say ‘There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.’ ” He arguably accomplished that. The five years taken out of his career for military service in WW2 and Korea as a fighter pilot cost him a shot at the home run record of Babe Ruth (at the time)–but look at what he did accomplish:
A career batting average of .344; 6 league batting titles, 521 home runs; two Triple Crowns (leading the league in batting average, rbi’s and home runs.) and the wondrous year of 1941 when he hit .406, 37 HR, 120 RBI and 135 runs scored. His on base percentage that year of .553 was a record that stood for 61 years.
Many superstars play out the string and milk a farewell tour out of their final year (eg: Cal Ripken) or try to hold on past their best years and sully the record they achieved when they were young, gifted and seemingly immortal. Ted Williams always did things differently.
Williams was as productive at the end of his career as at the beginning. After hitting .388 in 1957 at the age of 39, Williams again led the league in batting average in 1958, hitting .328. He had his worst year for the Sox in 1959–hitting only .254 with 10 HR. Williams decided to play one more year (requesting a pay cut due to his poor year in 1959) and go out on a high note.
Williams surely redeemed himself, hitting .316 with 29 HR. But that’s not why we remember Williams’ final year. We remember the final game, when Williams hit a long home run in the final at bat of his career. Since barely 10,000 folks attended that game, we actually remember this game largely due to the work of author John Updike. Updike attended that game and wrote what is considered the finest essay ever on baseball: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
This essay, originally appearing in the New Yorker magazine, accomplished many things–it surely influenced all serious sports writing that followed. For me, the essay stands for two propositions. The essay is the very first brick in the foundation that is now the behemoth known as Red Sox Nation. It also quite clearly details why baseball fans love the game.
The 50’s and 60’s may be considered the classic era of baseball, reaching the apex of its popularity, but the Red Sox were never a factor during this era. In 1959, the Red Sox were the last team to integrate its roster, 12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The team refused to face the future and paid the price. The Sox were a lousy team of lumbering white guys playing boring baseball, winning sparingly, before an audience that reached barely out to New England.
In the 50’s and 60’s, the Red Sox were neither the dominant franchise we have seen emerge in the 00’s (aughts?), nor the seemingly cursed franchise that lost three of the most spellbinding World Series ever (1967, 1975 and 1986) while going 86 years without a championship. The Sox brief run of great baseball immediately after WW 2 that saw a Series loss in ’46, a playoff loss in ’48 and a spectacular late season collapse in ’49 was practically forgotten.
“Hub Fans” was the beginning of the myth-making. In reality, Fenway is a small, barely acceptable dive of a ballpark. To Updike (and generations of Sox fans) Fenway became “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.”
Williams career was mythologized by Updike being divided into three parts: one part Jason (“this child that spake like a god.”), one part Achilles (“the hero of incomparable prowess and beauty who nevertheless was to be found sulking in his tent while the Trojans, mostly Yankees, fought through to the ships.”) and one part Nestor (“After a prime so harassed and hobbled, William was granted by the relenting fates a golden twilight. He became at the end of his career perhaps the best old hitter of the century.”)
The 1967 “Impossible Dream” team, carried by Williams’ replacement in left field Carl Yastrzemski (also a 20+ year veteran w/ the Sox, a Triple Crown winner and Hall of Famer), may have started the turn around, but the Red Sox Nation worldview is embedded in Updike’s essay.
In “Hub Fans” Updike also nails what it is about baseball, a game that is not as fast moving or constantly exciting as say basketball or football, that attracts fans and keeps them attached to what Walt Whitman referred to as “America’s game.”
Williams 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. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art.
As for the call of the actual game, Updike didn’t disappoint there either.
Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. 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. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a 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 density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.
The final at-bat:
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.
The quite different reactions of Williams and the crowd:
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 never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.
The Red Sox are now finishing out the last week of the 2010 season–a very disappointing campaign marred by an astonishing number of injuries. One sportswriter (sorry–I can’t remember the writer’s name or where I read this, so no citation) opined that the level of injuries would be considered excessive at an urgent care facility. Sox fans now consider the playoffs to be a birthright, so there have been many complaints about the lack of personnel moves and the continued denigration of manager Terry Francona’s ability to adjust during games. (Something I’ve never understood–he’s now the longest serving Sox manager and has brought two Series championships and 5 playoff appearances in seven years.)
The Sox are still a dominant franchise, with a great opportunity to be in the Series picture next year barring another flood of injuries. As Sox fans, we need to stop and remember both why we love baseball and why the game and its players matter more than whether the team wins the championship. On Saturday, Sox fans will be bidding Mike Lowell adieu, the hero of the 2007 World Series playing the final game of his career. I don’t expect a final at bat home run, but then . . .