Wednesday, August 11, 2010

John Updike On Ted Williams

My junior year in high school at BRHS-West I wrote a paper for English class on the theme, "Who was the greatest baseball player of all time." I was passionate about my theme because I was, at the time, passionate myself about the Great American Game. I researched my butt off, wrestling with the problem of establishing criteria for comparing stats of old timers and current players. I likewise had to determine how much weight to give fielding skills, leadership, base running, and pitching.

When all was said and done, I wrote what I thought was a stellar paper. Ty Cobb was the greatest. And when all was said and done, Ms. Saltzbart graced that paper with a U and U-. U for research, and U- for the writing itself.

Now for the record, I was an A student. I was in the honors programs, and even in Ms. Saltzbart's class I had almost all Aces throughout the year so that my final grade averaged to be a C in the fourth quarter even with these bad marks, my first C in high school. And like the dutiful "good kid" I was, I accepted my fate... except, I had to ask why this happened. Where had I gone wrong.

When I went to speak with her after class the following day she replied that I failed because, "Joe Dimaggio is the greatest baseball player of all time." That was the sum total of why I failed. She had nothing more to say.

All these years I dismissed her conclusion as wacko. Until today, actually. It may be that all my rambling comparisons of baseball stats missed something important. In Hemingway's Nobel Prize-winning Old Man and the Sea, Santiago took inspiration from DiMaggio, the man who never gave up. The theme song from Oscar-winning The Graduate features this Paul Simon line, "Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio." The great pop culture status icon Marilyn Monroe even married the guy. In other words, I never factored in the effect Joe DiMaggio had on the broader culture.

Seven player strikes and all the wrangling over contracts, salaries and taxes for stadiums has taken a lot of luster off the Great American Game. There was a time when It Happens Every Spring played on Saturday Night at the Movies the weekend before the season opener. There was a time when everyone knew at least a few of the stars. And literary giants wrote about the men who played it.

One such literary giant of our century past was John Updike, and the player he wrote an incredible baseball essay about was Ted Williams. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu is a must read if you were ever a fan of baseball. The essay, which begins as follows, appeared in The New Yorker in 1960, back when I was reading Casper the Friendly Ghost comics. The opening is wonderful.

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. The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational. The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons. A jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence, the Red Sox were finishing in seventh place only because the Kansas City Athletics had locked them out of the cellar. They were scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles, a much nimbler blend of May and December, who had been dumped from pennant contention a week before by the insatiable Yankees. I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season, and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder, known to the headlines as TED, KID, SPLINTER, THUMPER, TW, and, most cloyingly, MISTER WONDERFUL, would play in Boston. "WHAT WILL WE DO WITHOUT TED? HUB FANS ASK" ran the headline on a newspaper being read by a bulb-nosed cigar smoker a few rows away. Williams' retirement had been announced, doubted (he had been threatening retirement for years), confirmed by Tom Yawkey, the Red Sox owner, and at last widely accepted as the sad but probable truth. He was forty-two and had redeemed his abysmal season of 1959 with a—considering his advanced age—fine one. He had been giving away his gloves and bats and had grudgingly consented to a sentimental ceremony today. This was not necessarily his last game; the Red Sox were scheduled to travel to New York and wind up the season with three games there.

Ted Williams was another of the great ones. It may be that had I read Updike before writing about Ty Cobb I would have produced a better paper. Or if I had taken a typing class freshman year instead of senior year since my handwriting may have been a tad too illegible for a teacher staring at a pile of term papers through eyes befogged by cocktails. ("Objection! Calls for speculation.")

I would strongly encourage you to follow this link and bookmark the Updike piece. It's a masterful work and one of the greater bits of baseball literature ever written.

Trivia: Joe DiMaggio's contract, when making appearances, stipulated that he be introduced as "the greatest baseball player of all time." May we ourselves never be so vain.

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