Monday, February 16, 2009
Remembering Updike’s Eloquent Farewell to Ted Williams as We Greet the 2009 Baseball Season
The serious business of baseball’s Spring Training is under way in Ft. Myers, Florida and other less notable fields of dreams. In the midst of rumors of J.D. Drew’s perennial bad back, Big Papi’s promise to return to 2006 form, and palpitations about who will be able to catch Tim Wakefield’s salsa-dancing knuckle balls, I suggest we pause for a moment to reflect on the recent passing of John Updike, perhaps the most erudite and eloquent of all Red Sox fans (Stephen King is not even close!)
Updike has always been a mythical figure to me. I read his novels and short stories in prep school and college. I also knew him a bit. His first wife, Mary, sang in the Newburyport Choral Society. I was one of two high school age students admitted to this group, and I would often encounter Updike at our rehearsals, waiting to pick up Mary. The Updikes lived in the neighboring town of Ipswich. While I was still a member of the Choral Society, Updike created a sensation amongst the literati with his novel, Couples. It was a thinly-disguised roman a clef, chronicling in fictionalized form the secret lives and hidden liaisons of several couples in the mythical town of Tarbox, Massachusetts. Everyone knew it was really Ipswich. It was a bit titillating as a teenager to know that I recognized in the fictitious characters some of the denizens of Ipswich whom I knew in real life.
In 1960, on the occasion of Ted Williams’ last game as the splendid Red Sox left fielder, Updike captured the magic of the moment in what many consider to be the great piece of writing ever crafted about a baseball game. You have probably read it many times over the years. The New Yorker has reprinted it, and makes it available in its archives.
Here are the majestic opening and closing cadences:
“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.
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.”
I invite you to bask in the glory of the entire article. Follow this link to the New Yorker archives.
New Yorker Archive
We will never see the likes of Ted Williams again.
We may not see many like Updike again, either.
I will think about them both the next time I visit the Lyric Little Bandbox