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This is baseball writing that soars out of the park

John Updike's essay on Ted Williams' final home run is still a walk-off hit.

October 18, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Author John Updike, right, found inspiration in baseball great Ted Williams.
Author John Updike, right, found inspiration in baseball great Ted Williams. (Getty Images; Adam Van Doren )

Be it said that the people who love good baseball are also drawn to good writing, though the cruciferous goons you encounter in the bleachers each summer do their best to convince us otherwise.

Yet, I think there are commonalities between the two, baseball and writing: wisdom, surprise, resonance, wit. I lack many of them, but as with the Supreme Court and pornography, I know it when I download it.

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 Euclidean 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. On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 28th, as I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundkeeper was treading the top of this wall, picking batting-practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff....

That's John Updike, from his 1960 piece on the retirement of Ted Williams. Nice chuck of writing. Here's more.

The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories. It falls into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

I can't recall whom Nestor played for … might've been the Braves. And I'm so shallow that for years I thought "The Dirty Dozen" was a comedy.

But Updike's references still aren't wasted on a relative yokel like me.

Yep, to say Updike could write a little would be like saying that Williams was pretty good with a stick. When Updike was "on," as he is here, you could almost dance to the stuff.

The essay, a New Yorker piece dubbed "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," is the finest piece on baseball I've ever read — Updike at peak form detailing the last Fenway at-bat of the best hitter who ever played. If you've read it before, you know what I'm saying. If not, stay tuned.

The best baseball fiction I ever read was "Shoeless Joe," the W.P. Kinsella novel that became a little movie you may have heard of, "Field of Dreams."

The best non-fiction was Roger Kahn's "Boys of Summer." To understand the difference between a high school hack and a genuine Major Leaguer, read the chapter where George Shuba gives Kahn a batting lesson in his basement.

"Level and swift, the bat parted the air and made a whining sound. Again Shuba swung again and again, controlled and terribly hard. It was the hardest swing I ever saw that close."

And the best essay? Well, this one by Updike, which felt like a good thing to share, some 50 years later, acorns underfoot, a World Series at our doorstep.

So, while I go to pour another cider and watch the idiots in the stands fuss with their stupid smartphones, warm your hands on what a real baseball fan had to say about the human drama right in front of him — the splendid splinter's final hit:

...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. [Oriole 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, 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 never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

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