The Books: The Only Game In Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker; edited by David Remnick; ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’, by John Updike


Next up on the essays shelf:

The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick

The Only Game in Town is a collection of sports writing from The New Yorker. So far, I have excerpted from the following collections: Life Stories (profiles), The Fun of It (Talk of the Town pieces), and The New Gilded Age (financial writing), and Secret Ingredients (food writing).

Roger Angell may be the most well-known baseball writer in America. But this piece, by John Updike, from 1960, is perhaps the most famous essay on baseball ever written. Certainly beloved by Red Sox fans, for obvious reasons (even people who would never pick up The New Yorker can quote the first line verbatim), it is quoted, quoted again, re-quoted, re-quoted again, ad nauseum into eternity. Updike’s description of Fenway Park as “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark” has entered into the common lexicon of baseball.

David Remnick, in his introduction to this collection, writes:

It is often said that John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” – an account of Ted Williams’ last day on the field – is the best baseball piece ever written (or, at least, once you take Angell out of play). It is also the only one he ever wrote for the magazine. Updike accomplished his ode to Williams in a flash – an aberration for the magazine in those days – and, ever since then, the piece has held a place in the deadline hall of fame.

Fantastic! Ted Williams’ last at-bat at Fenway, after a 21-year career (taking four years out, of course, to fight in both WWII and Korea), was on September 28, 1960. John Updike’s piece ran in the magazine the week of October 22, 1960. That is a hell of a deadline, especially for a piece so in-depth, so well written, as this. You get the sense that Updike had been waiting to write such a piece for years, so when the opportunity came, out it flowed. But still: what an accomplishment.


Ted Williams’ career was, of course, before my time as a Red Sox fan, but that’s irrelevant as any baseball fan will know. In baseball, you live alongside the past accomplishments, the history of the game and your team, and the names are passed down through generations. I may have grown up in the era of Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk and Yaz (the tail-end – I was at his second-to-last at-bat at Fenway), but I knew the names of the past. I don’t remember being told the names for the first time. They seep in through osmosis. Bobby Doerr. Poor Tony Conigliaro. Dom DiMaggio. Ted Williams. (And, of course, David Halberstam wrote a whole book about that group who were rookies at the same time, called Teammates.) Smoky Joe Wood. Also, Ted Williams was still alive, so he was around, in footage at Fenway, etc. He was still with us. I thought he was as handsome as a movie star. I knew about his surly relationship with the press, and also with the fans. This anecdote was included in one of our Red Sox books at home. I thought about it a lot when I was a kid. I didn’t like that he had thrown the bat. Apparently, he bought her an expensive watch or something as an apology … but I still didn’t like it. I was 10 years old and it had all happened before I was even born but I was disappointed in him. His aura as a phenomenal baseball player was almost otherworldly, and there was a huge disconnect between that and his refusal to “play the game” the way other players did (tipping his hat to the fans, being polite to the press, etc.) Williams was a son of a bitch in many ways. The anecdotes are endless.

Updike goes into all of that in his essay. First off, it is a description of a day at the ballpark. It is an ode to Fenway Park. It is a description of the crowd itself, and the feeling that they all had about Williams. It’s something in the air. There was a big ceremony for Williams pre-game. He made a speech where he referenced the press, and the entire event sort of trembled in the balance. Was he about to turn on the press, yet again, in his final moments? Grumblings of unease through the lyric little bandbox.

And, you couldn’t even script this any better, Ted Williams hit a home run that day, at his last time at the plate. You can sense Updike’s disbelief. Wait … what?

Describing Updike’s piece does not do it justice. Excerpting it also takes away from its power as a whole. And no matter how many times I have read it, I still feel the sense of soaring excitement near the end when Williams hits that home run.

Here’s an excerpt.

The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick; ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’, by John Updike

In 1959, it seemed all over. The dinosaur thrashed around in the .200 swamp for the first half of the season, and was even benched (“rested,” Manager Mike Higgins tactfully said). Old foes like the late Bill Cunningham began to offer batting tips. Cunningham thought Williams was jiggling his elbows; in truth, Williams’ neck was so stiff he could hardly turn his head to look at the pitcher. When he swung, it looked like a Calder mobile with one thread cut; it reminded you that since 1953 Williams’ shoulders had been wired together. A solicitous pall settled over the sports pages. In the two decades since Williams had come to Boston, his status had imperceptibly shifted from that of a naughty prodigy to that of a municipal monument. As his shadow in the record books lengthened, the Red Sox teams around him declined, and the entire American League seemed to be losing life and color to the National. The inconsistency of the new superstars – Mantle, Colavito, and Kaline – served to make Williams appear all the more singular. And off the field, his private philanthropy – in particular, his zealous chairmanship of the Jimmy Fund, a charity for children with cancer – gave him a civic presence somewhat like that of Richard Cardinal Cushing. In religion, Williams appears to be a humanist, and a selective one at that, but he and the Cardinal, when their good works intersect and they appear in the public eye together, make a handsome and heartening pair.

Humiliated by his ’59 season, Williams determined, once more, to come back. I, as a specimen Williams partisan, was both glad and fearful. All baseball fans believe in miracles; the question is, how many do you believe in? He looked like a ghost in spring training. Manager Jurges warned us ahead of time that if Williams didn’t come through he would be benched, just like anybody else. As it turned out, it was Jurges who was benched. Williams entered the 1960 season needing eight home runs to have a lifetime total of 500; after one time at bat in Washington, he needed seven. For a stretch, he was hitting a home run every second game that he played. He passed Lou Gehrig’s lifetime total, then the number 500, then Mel Ott’s total, and finished with 521, thirteen behind Jimmy Foxx, who alone stands between Williams and Babe Ruth’s unapproachable 714. The summer was a statistician’s picnic. His two-thousandth walk came and went, his eighteen-hundredth run off a pitcher, Don Lee, off whose father, Thornton Lee, he had hit a home run a generation before. The only comparable season for a forty-two-year-old man was Ty Cobb’s in 1928. Cobb batted .323 and hit one homer. Williams batted .316 but hit twenty-nine homers.

In sum, though generally conceded to be the greatest hitter of his era, he did not establish himself as “the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Cobb, for average, and Ruth, for power, remain supreme. Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Joe Jackson and Lefty O’Dowd, among players since 1900, have higher lifetime averages than Williams’ .344. Unlike Foxx, Gehrig, Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, and Ralph Kiner, Williams never came close to matching Babe Ruth’s season home-run total of sixty. In the list of major-league batting records, not one is held by Williams. He is second in walks drawn, third in home runs, fifth in lifetime averages, sixth in runs batted in, eighth in runs scored and in total bases, fourteenth in doubles, and thirtieth in hits. But if we allow him merely average seasons for the four-plus seasons he lost to two wars, and add another season for the months he lost to injuries, we get a man who in all the power totals would be second, and not a very distant second, to Ruth. And if we further allow that these years would have been not merely average but prime years, if we allow for all the months when Williams was playing in sub-par condition, if we permit his early and later years in baseball to be some sort of index of what the middle years could have been, if we give him a right-field fence that is not, like Fenway’s, one of the most distant in the league, and if – the least excusable “if” – we imagine him condescending to outsmart the Williams Shift, we can defensibly assemble, like a colossus induced from the sizable fragments that do remain, a statistical figure not incommensurate with his grandiose ambition. From the statistics that are on the books, a good case can be made that in the combination of power and average Williams is first; nobody else ranks so high in both categories. Finally, there is the witness of the eyes; men whose memories go back to Shoeless Joe Jackson – another unlucky natural – rank and Williams as the best-looking hitters they have seen. It was for our last look that ten thousand of us had come.

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9 Responses to The Books: The Only Game In Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker; edited by David Remnick; ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’, by John Updike

  1. mutecypher says:

    When I was 13 I completely memorized William’s book “The Science of Hitting.” I took it with me to practice. I tried to follow every one of his tips. I hit .612 that year.

    A few summers later I fell in love with basketball (maybe because I was only hitting .350 by that time and I could dunk a b-ball) and spent my time in summer leagues for basketball – but I remember being impressed (and still am) with Ted’s devotion to hitting. I learned a bit more about his difficult relationship with fans and sportswriters – didn’t care about that. He was ruthless devoted to his craft. He loved his game.

    It completely breaks my heart to read the stories about what happened with his cryogenically frozen head.

    • sheila says:

      Ugh, yes, the whole business with his head is just too awful to even think about. It seems like a bad dream.

      Back to better thoughts: I love that about you and his book!

      There are those great stories about his early days – a manager for his team saying “Don’t ever let anyone tamper with your batting stroke, kid.” The second he saw his swing, he knew it was special. And it does have a certain … lOOK, doesn’t it? His swing is grandiose in some ways, total confidence, but also – it’s just GREAT looking, I think. Perfection.

      • sheila says:

        I haven’t read his book – what were some of the tips you found helpful?

        • mutecypher says:

          Oh, man, that was 40 years ago. I recall how much he emphasized guessing/anticipating where and what the pitch would be. If you guessed wrong, just take the pitch – even if it was a strike (unless you have 2 against you already, then you have to protect the plate). I’m sure there were comments about actual mechanics in the swing, but the biggest impression it made on me was to be thinking about what the pitcher was going to do and be ready for it.

          • mutecypher says:

            He also had stories about the older ball players and picking their brains for tips. I remember one giving him the advice “get a good ball to hit,” a more active version than “wait for your pitch”. I forget if that came down from Honus Wagner to Tris Speaker or vice versa. He had a section in the back where he ranked hitters that he had seen. I do recall a fair amount of discussion about the “inside-out” swing that he had a difficult time developing. It was a way to hit an inside pitch to the opposite field. He commented that too many people thought he was just stubbornly hitting into the “Williams shift” when in reality it took him time to learn to hit to the opposite field. That suggested to me, that if one of the greatest and most thoughtful hitters ever had trouble with it, then the “inside-out” swing must be seriously difficult to master.

            Now I’m remembering more, it’s just way early here in Hawaii.

          • sheila says:

            Awesome. I love the mechanics – and when baseball players are able to analyze what they do, and why.

            Thanks for sharing – if any more come to mind, let me know.

  2. mutecypher says:

    You mentioned his swing: it’s so graceful that you almost don’t believe that he could get around and hit the ball with something that smooth.

    As for his tips, he was even more forthright in anticipation and guessing than I made it sound. He talked about guessing what pitch was coming and choosing where to hit it. “I think Feller’s gonna throw me a curve low and outside, I’m going to poke it over the third baseman’s head,” that sort of thing. Or if you were expecting an inside pitch, but wanted to hit to the opposite field, you could do that with the inside-out swing. As a kid who had been told to hit the ball where it was pitched, his assertive style was very different from what I had heard. And more in line with my temperament.

    Now, I learned about his book from one of my coaches, so there were (yes, even then) many theories about how to hit.

    He really disliked first ball hitters, he wanted you to wait and get the pitch you wanted. He talked about managing Frank Howard and trying to get him to take two strikes, just to teach himself patience and judgement. He talked about getting as close to home plate as possible, while on deck, so you could see the pitcher’s stuff even before you got to bat. He talked about weighing his bats with a scale, because over time they could pick up a stray ounce due to dirt and moisture.

    Speaking of Bob Feller, an amazing person, I checked and Ted hit .347 against him – a couple of points above his lifetime .344.

    • sheila says:

      I love all this stuff so much. We used to get so frustrated sometimes watching Nomar Garciaparra, who was (obviously) amazing – but always seemed to swing on the first pitch. He couldn’t help himself. It seemed compulsive. We would groan every time. “WAIT, Nomar, WAIT for a better pitch!” we would yell at the TV.

      You know, because we knew so much better! Haha.

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