A big topic of dinner-table conversation on the evening of September 27, 1960, was the first Kennedy-Nixon debate that had taken place the day before. Many Americans wondered how the two candidates would do when next they met.
But the following evening, the attention of much of the nation was diverted from the debates – indeed, from the whole world of politics, domestic and international, and just about everything else that usually grabbed the front pages – and focused on something that had happened, in less than a minute, that afternoon, in a two-thirds empty ballpark.
In a Youtube clip presented by the MLB channel today, famed sportscaster Bob Costas notes that in the world of baseball, three farewells, though they happened long ago, still are defining moments in the game. The first was in 1939 when Lou Gehrig, forced from the game by the disease that would bear his name, told the multitudes at Yankee Stadium that he was the luckiest man in the world. The second was when dying Babe Ruth doffed his cap to the fans in the same place one last time in 1948.
The third farewell was much different from these, not least because of its unexpected nature. But, perhaps more so than any other moment in American sports, it brought to life the famous words of Theodore Roosevelt about the man in the arena, about which I wrote recently in regard to Chris Cox’s run for Congress. And, fourteen years before Chris’s grandfather read those words on the morning that he left the White House, it was Ted Williams, always one of the thirty-seventh President’s strongest admirers, who exemplified them in Boston’s Fenway Park.
It was a chilly, downcast, cloudy afternoon at that stadium on September 28, 1960 – so much so that the night lights were turned on. A wind of 15 to 20 miles per hour blew in the direction of home plate. As every Boston Red Sox fan knew, the man who wore number 9 usually had trouble in cold weather. And, though Williams had reached the age of 42 still batting over .300, he had had some ups and downs that season, and after a career which had seen him achieve heights almost no other hitter approached (and one magic number, .406 in 1941, which no player has attained since), it was clear that the time had come for retirement.
Ted Williams was never comfortable with hullaballoo surrounding him, and his arrival at Fenway was low-key. Just 10,455 fans had braved the weather to see him. Before the game, the Red Sox management presented a check to his favored charity, the Jimmy Fund. As usual, Ted ordered reporters out of the locker room when he thought it was too close to game time.
The Red Sox, second-to-last in the American League as the season finished, were playing the second-place Baltimore Orioles. The O’s pitcher was overweight Jack Fisher, a journeyman concluding his only winning season, 12-11, in a decade-long career. The previous day, Boston had been demolished by this team.
In the first inning, Williams stepped to the plate and walked. In the third and fifth innings, he hit with his peerless swing, but the wind was against him and both times the flies sailed harmlessly into the waiting gloves of the opposition.
In the eighth inning, Williams came to the plate again. The fans applauded. But they did not cheer, for all the circumstances seemed to point to nothing better than another flyball, a finish no different from that of countless other players, Hall of Famers and one-game unknowns alike.
Fisher threw wide on the first pitch. The second one was a strike. The pitcher wound up and let another go.
And for the rest of the story, I refer you to John Updike.
On that day, Updike, who died just last year, was 28 years old. A Pennsylvania native, he’d idolized Williams from childhood. Indeed, after coming to Manhattan to fulfill his dream of writing for the New Yorker in the mid-1950s, he had left the city for the suburbs of Boston after a couple of years, unable to tolerate seeing his hero face jeers in the temple of Ruth and Gehrig, without the respect that at least came with the frequent jeers in Fenway Park.
Updike, as readers of his novels and stories know, had his struggles with the flesh. Long after that day in 1960, he acknowledged that he had left his wife and three small children, murmuring about going to see Ted Williams play his last home game, all the while planning to visit a woman not his wife. But when he arrived in Boston and she was not at home, he took it as a sign to go to the park. He entered and was given a ticket a few rows behind third base.
Destiny thus placed Updike in the spot where, in the eighth inning, he could look into the stoic features of Williams, or rather part of them, for as always Ted, when he did such work , was running “hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of.”
The writer when home (after watching the Red Sox win, or maybe the Orioles, utterly demoralized by what had happened, lose) and wrote about what he had seen. Later that month, just as his second novel, Rabbit Run, was ready to enter the bookstores and launch him into the literary stratosphere which he steadily added to all the way into the opening days of the Obama Administration, Updike’s essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” appeared in the New Yorker. It has since, countless times, been acclaimed as the greatest piece of writing about baseball by anyone; just a few months ago, it was reprinted in a slim volume by the Library of America, with an introduction penned by its author shortly before his passing. The “Splendid Splinter,” after picking up the magazine, allowed that Updike’s work “adds to the mystique” – and then advised the author to set aside the transient pleasures of fiction and focus his manifold writing skills on furthering the essential cause of protecting the Atlantic salmon.
But though Updike wrote countless more words of nonfiction, on many other topics, and while in his immortal Rabbit Angstrom series of novels he frequently examined basketball, he did not write of baseball again, apart from a few more, briefer words about Williams, such his short tribute when “the Kid” died in 2002. He had learned something that day about determination, dignity, steadfastness. It may have helped sustain him when, going against the grain of most of the American literati (and certainly nearly all his fellow New Yorker brethren), he spoke in defense of the American effort to defend South Vietnam – a stand that probably cost him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ted Williams lived over four more decades after that afternoon. In 1969 he came to Washington to manage the Senators during their last three seasons before moving to Minnesota, and he and President Nixon, as often as possible, visited each other at RFK Stadium and in the Oval Office. Williams made a point of mentioning his admiration for his fellow Southern Californian in his autobiographes, and his biographer, Leigh Montville, writes that he wept when RN died in 1994.
Ted Williams often said that he wanted, when he walked down the street, to have a father say to his son, “There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.” He got that wish, and on that day in 1960, and for the rest of his life, like Richard Nixon, he also embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s words: “who at the best knows at the end the triumph of high achievement.”