Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Updike on Williams

John Updike died yesterday. The prolific author published more than fifty books, and won the Pulitzer Prize twice. He also wrote regularly for the New Yorker since 1954, often about baseball. One of his best known columns described the last game in the career of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams. It was intended as a rebuke to a Boston columnist who noted the occasion by saying, essentially, that Williams was overrated. Updike countered that argument, not with statistical analysis but with an examination of the love that New Englanders had for their hero. He wrote:

"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."

In that final game, in his final time at the plate, Williams capped his 22-year career by hitting a home run. Updike described the scene:

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.

Updike was 76.