This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the retirement of Ted Williams, the "Splendid Splinter," the "Kid," the Red Sox hero and a Hall of Fame legend, arguably the greatest hitter who ever lived. Williams was the last baseball player to bat over .400 for a season, and he was perhaps the first sports icon to spend his whole career in a seemingly olympic struggle with the press.
Odd then, given his problems with the press, that this week also marks the 50th anniversary of the topic of an article that helped to define him for generations, to raise him to the level of the immortals in both batting stats and words. Williams' last game provided the fodder for John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a piece of writing for which modern sportswriters tend to reserve hushed-tones and reverent superlatives.
Thankfully, those who don't know what I'm talking about need no longer run to sportswriting anthologies and scan tables of contents in search of it. For its 50th anniversary, the library of America has released a book version. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu includes Updike's classic New Yorker article, an autobiographical preface by the author and an afterword on the rest of Williams' life. Both the preface and afterword were written by Updike shortly before his death last year.
While Gay Talese essentially created the modern magazine profile and thus changed the sports human-interest piece (as well as non-sports human-interest pieces), most sportswriters consider Updike's "Hub" as the work that changed sports reporting forever. While it's about a man, it's also about an event. Up until then, sports events were largely covered as entertainments and without the gravitas of serious literary types treating them as comparable to great moments in human development.
Prior to "Hub's" publication, the greats were men like Red Smith, Jimmy Breslin, W.C. Heinz, Ring Lardner: primarily your cigar-chomping, martini-drinking warrior of the daily press. Sports journalism's early masters built legends in single columns of text running down a broadsheet. One-liners set a scene or summarized a character. There's a certain affect to the prose, one that can inspire a modern reader to read them with a kind of Edward G. Robinson sneer and end each line with, "See?" Like,
Southpaw Teddy Ballgame hotfooted it to the plate and tarred the ball with 34 inches of ash, sending the orb screaming over the right-field fence while a gobsmacked Bob Feller stood there using his mouth to catch flies, see?
Granted, the writing isn't that obvious, but it has an inescapable whiff of the daily. One result is that more literary turns of phrase seem themselves to be particularly affected. The tone of sportswriting was such that things that were not sportswriting stood out as pastiche or artifice.
Updike's prose, by comparison, easily moves from expository to poetical, from familiar, to allusive to sportswriterly. Critics have often considered it the work of a great literary talent about to become giant, covering a giant about to retire as a man. It represents a confluence of circumstance and abilities, where Updike's eye for the middle class American, for repressed emotions and tiny detail can meet the pageantry of baseball, the grand gesture of a final at-bat before retirement, the unspoken honor and humanity in doffing a cap the last time, or not at all.
Baseball is serious business, and you'd better believe that Ted Williams is serious business, but Updike knows how to play up to that while also still playing around with the form. For instance, he starts out describing the stadium poetically, commenting on the Green Monster (the high left-field wall):
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....
Then, in the very next sentence, he writes with humor but also with an efficient sportswriter's edge:
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.
In the following paragraph, he opens his ears to the funny coincidence of something pop-cultural, while making a quick sarcastic joke about the visiting team:
The Orioles were hitting fungos on the field. The day before, they had spitefully smothered the Red Sox, 17–4, and neither their faces nor their drab gray visiting-team uniforms seemed very gracious. I wondered who had invited them to the party. Between our heads and the lowering clouds a frenzied organ was thundering through, with an appositeness perhaps accidental, "You maaaade me love you, I didn’t wanna do it, I didn’t wanna do it..."
Lastly, here is the following lovely and mythic paragraph, in full:
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.
All these passages occur in the first 1/12 of the piece, leaving the profile of Teddy Ballgame, the in-game atmosphere of Fenway and one of the greatest retirements in history—and one of the greatest sports articles in history—still to unfold.
Now, that said, I would be remiss if I omitted mentioning that, as with many famous old articles, it is not hard to find this piece online for free. It's understandable that some might balk at buying a book for a single article and a preface and afterword, even if both were written by John Updike.
For those leery of the expense, I would recommend the anthology,
The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by the talented Glenn Stout and the brilliant David Halberstam. It's a book deserving of its own review in the future, one packed with too many classic stories to name here. However, one detail merits mentioning at this moment: it's packed with nearly 900 pages of those classic stories, all for under seventeen bucks (which is, admittedly, slightly more than Hub).
Regardless of whether you buy a book devoted to it or just go for an anthology, find a way to read "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." You'll be glad you did.