I'll borrow the lead from Bob Ryan's Boston Globe article:
John Updike was not a sportswriter. He was a novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, critic, man of letters and a raging intellectual.
But John Updike, who died Monday of lung cancer at the age of 76, left a mark on sport. His four "Rabbit" novels featured a one-time high school basketball star who had a difficult time making the transformation from acclaimed small-town high school jock to fully functioning adult. He was a big fan of golf and he left behind a prodigious body of work on that topic. And then there was baseball.
Talk about making a statement. To the best of my knowledge, John Updike rarely wrote about baseball. But he attended the Red Sox-Orioles game on Sept. 28,1960 at Fenway Park and he was therefore witness to Ted Williams's last game and his storied last at-bat,which produced a home run. He was moved to write about his experience and what he produced was, in my judgment and that of many others, the greatest essay ever written about American sport. It appeared in his beloved New Yorker in the Oct. 22 edition, and what it did was elevate sports description to a height no ordinary sportswriter could ever hope to attain. He elevated the discourse even as he was shaming those of us who lack his immense vocabulary, education and powers of description, not to mention sense of humor.
Updike was 28. He was well-established at the New Yorker as a staff writer, but he had yet to establish himself as a premier novelist. He did not intend to produce a masterpiece. He simply attended a game (a last-minute decision based on the fact that a woman he had hoped to visit that afternoon was not at home), and, struck by the scene and the great eighth-inning drama, he submitted a story.
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ball park. 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.
. . .
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.
First, there was the by now legendary epoch when the young bridegroom came out of the West, announced "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.'" The dowagers of local journalism attempted to give elementary deportment lessons to this child who spake as a god, and to their horror were themselves rebuked. Thus began the long exchange of backbiting, hat-flipping, booing, and spitting that has distinguised Williams's public relations.
. . .
Have you ever heard applause in a ball park? Just applause -- no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a somber and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of shifting set of memories as the kid, the marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signaled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher would up, and the applause sank into a hush.
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.
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 and 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. . . .
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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