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David Margolick

David Margolick

Posted: January 30, 2009 09:15 AM

John Updike, Hall of Famer

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I could have sworn I'd already read "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," John Updike's classic essay on Ted Williams' final game. Every serious, literate baseball fan has. But when I went through it this week, in the wake of Updike's death, I realized that simply could not be: it was too wonderful ever to forget. It was highly embarrassing, but it was exhilarating, too, because now, I could savor it for the first time.

For starters, I could savor how precocious Updike was. When he wrote the piece, which appeared in The New Yorker of October 22, 1960, he was only twenty-eight. What's most impressive, though, is not his relative youth, but his originality. Nowadays, when nostalgia is big business and every sports milestone is hyped, such an event would be covered exhaustively and bathetically. And if that milestone concerned baseball, the game of choice for intellectuals slumming as regular Joes, the press box would be filled with PhDs on day passes, producing an orgy of grandiloquence.

As far as I can tell, though, Updike had the story pretty much to himself. In fact, only 10,453 other fans came to Fenway Park that afternoon. While the Boston press was out in force, the national press apparently was not. Updike was prescient enough to know that something monumental was afoot: not only was one of baseball's greatest careers coming to a close, but also a storied, stormy marriage: Williams' tortured 20-year long union with Boston's fans and newspapermen. Updike took his seat -- not in the press box but in the stands, along with everybody else.

Yes, he was a familiar type: a Harvard intellectual rhapsodizing about baseball, but he was surely among the first. When he lovingly described Fenway Park, he did so before its every eccentric corner had been lavishly dissected. And despite his credentials, his writing, for the most part, is wonderfully plain and accessible. Even as a young hot shot -- for whom modesty is customarily the most difficult to muster -- he didn't show off, at least very much. (He even writes of going to college "near Boston," before that, too, became a form of vanity.)

His phrases are ingenious but not ornate. His images -- comparing the aged Williams' swing to a Calder mobile with one thread cut; likening the reporters in their overcoats hovering around Williams to festering maggots - are sharp and clear. His language is beautiful, but the beauty isn't always conventional. Sometimes, it's written in the private patois of baseball fans. "For me, 'W'ms, lf' was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5," he writes. Updike's prose, like Williams' swing, is natural, unforced. Of course, he must have labored every bit as much as Williams over his handiwork; nothing requires so much effort as making things look easy.

Updike's love of baseball, like his "Rabbit" novels and so much of what he wrote, was rooted in his Pennsylvania boyhood. He recalls checking box scores, listening to radio broadcasts, watching the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park. That was where he first saw Williams, when Boston came to town. Boys of his era loved baseball, of course, but Updike was that rarest of young fans: broadminded enough to appreciate brilliance even when it wore a road uniform. He loved Williams for his persistence, resilience, selflessness. The article is filled with baseball erudition and lore and statistics: He marshals them to prove just how extraordinary Williams was. (Crunching numbers, assessing contingencies, he was a precursor of Bill James.) Updike on Williams is a stirring spectacle. It always is when one genius lionizes another.

The obituaries and appreciations rightly praise Updike for his incredible versatility, as a novelist, poet, and short story writer, critic. They don't mention "journalist." But the piece is filled with those elusive details journalists so prize. Some are timeless, immutable, like the loneliness of ballplayers on the field. Many others are evanescent. Like the best journalists, Updike wrote incipient history: anyone keen enough to spot certain things will spot certain things destined to disappear. There's the forgotten feel of baseball played before small crowds on August weekday afternoons. And batters who still held bats with their bare hands. And fans who smoked cigars. And black players who were still so rare that you still felt the need to call them black. And superstars, Williams most notably, who, unprotected by agents and public relations men, still spoke their minds, and paid dearly for it.

Judging from how minutely he analyzes the man, you might think Updike never took his eyes off Williams. But before Williams took the field, or whenever he was off it, Updike studied the fans, in the manner of a genteel Diane Arbus. There's the "frowning, chestless, young-old" man who watched the game disconsolately; the woman with the blue Northeastern jacket who sits arrogantly behind the Orioles dugout, staring at the sky and French-inhaling; the army officers and priests and bartenders. The girl alongside him, he notes, has "buckteeth," a term which, for reasons of orthodontistry or political correctness, has fallen from the English language.

As a matter of timing and rhythm, Updike's piece is like that August day game he describes, which happened to be against the Baltimore Orioles. It starts out languidly, as if it will last -- and can be relished -- forever. In leisurely fashion, he reviews Williams' career and recapitulates the pre-game ceremonies, when Williams takes his parting shot at the Boston press. Only then do we finally get to Williams' first at bat, when he walks on four pitches.

Slowly, though, the piece picks up steam, almost too much of it. Ever so quickly, Williams comes up again, first in the third, then in the fifth, flying out deep each time. Within a few paragraphs, it's already the bottom of the eighth, and again he's at the plate, probably for the last time. Updike expertly dissects the very special brand of applause Williams receives, and everything that's encoded in it. The opposing pitcher is Jack Fisher.

Even though you know what comes next, because you know what comes next, you feel a great sense of suspense. It's like following the score of a musical masterpiece, and turning to the last page: how in heaven's name, you wonder, with relish and anticipation, but also with some sadness and dread, can he resolve everything in the perilously little space that's left? Updike sets things up and draws them out, but only for the perfect interval, neither gratuitously nor sadistically nor ostentatiously. Williams takes a ball, then swings and misses. Then the magic happens, and it's all so simple. "Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was," is all he needs to say.

A home run reaches the seats in an instant; the best writers manage to slow them down a bit, but they mustn't get greedy, nor linger too long. "The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field," Updike writes. "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."

What follows is the portion of the piece everyone invariably cites. Updike recounts how, despite the urging of fans, teammates, and even the umpires, Williams refused to tip his cap, or take a curtain call. Then he offers his succinct, aphoristic explanation: "Gods do not answer letters." To me, that's beautiful, too, but Updike had already done enough. In fact, the piece ends a bit anti-climactically. Then again, so did the game: there was still another inning to play. The imperfection is almost a relief. I heard once that in weaving their rugs, the Navajos intentionally make a single mistake, as a gesture of humility. Maybe Updike did the same.

Up until the age of 76, Updike never stopped working, turning out a vast body of words. In the literary world, he earned the accolade which, nearly half a century earlier, he'd bestowed upon Williams, who'd won a batting title at the age of 39: "the best old hitter of the century." But nothing can top this astonishing piece he wrote before any of that. It's well worth re-reading, or, if you're as lucky as I, reading for the first time, as we bid John Updike adieu.