Updike to Williams to This?!
John Updike was as fine a writer as Ted Williams was a hitter. Updike won two Pulitzers, Williams a pair of MVP’s.
When the former died in January of this year I marked his passing by listening to a recording of Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. It’s a classic essay he wrote for The New Yorker in the aftermath of Williams’ last game at Boston’s Fenway Park in 1960; a day when The Kid famously and fittingly homered in the final at-bat of a career that was both tempestuous and illustrious.
It’s beautiful; something that could turn non-believers into baseball fans the way Handel’s Messiah might call pagans to church.
It could not have been an accident that Updike was there to observe the event and later share his thoughts with whomever they concerned, although a preface to the recorded essay makes it sound as though it was just that. His first purpose for being in Boston that day was adulterous but, finding his paramour not at home, he went to the ballpark instead.
When Williams died in 2002 the poignancy of his death was overridden by the announcement that his head was to be frozen for future reference. His son, John Henry, who I recall accompanied his father on an autographing expedition to Des Moines in the mid-90's to raise funds for the Bob Feller museum not far from here, was having Ted posthumously decapitated and iced on the basis of a signed cocktail napkin that came with no certificate of authenticity. How at once cryonic and ironic.
It all seemed sad and grisly; certainly not befitting of the great slugger who was the last major leaguer to top .400 when he batted .406 in 1941 [inasmuch as that was the year of Joe DiMaggio’s legendary 56 game hitting streak, Williams didn’t even win the MVP award, nor did he in either of his two, count ‘em two, triple crown years!].
A plaque in Cooperstown, absolutely; a popsicle in a cryogenic warehouse in the Arizona desert - say it ain’t so!
But it was. And now breaks news that the stock boys at the freezer used Williams’ head for sport – even teeing it up on a can of tuna fish! If this too is so, Williams would have been better preserved had he been stuffed and mounted on the wall in a Beantown “man-cave”. Baseball cards are handled with more care than that accorded the remains of Teddy Ballgame. What, were the bored lab techs Yankee fans? Was the place so cold that decency went numb?
Aside from the indignity visited upon the man who aspired to be, “the greatest hitter who ever lived” [twice?], consider the macabre workplace shenanigans in their broader context. Baseball didn’t need another black eye, let alone the severed, frozen head of one of the game’s all-timers being the object of a game of pepper in a [meat] locker room somewhere. Probably just as well that the Bostons were excused early from this year’s playoffs. Had they advanced to the World Series around Halloween there would either have been too much talk or an awkward silence about The Headless Hitman.
Picture, if you can, the boss at the lab issuing a work order as follows: “Bring me the head of Ted Williams!” Then what - “PLAY BALL!”?
If it took none other than John Updike to do justice to Williams’ exploits on the diamond, then Stephen King writes the post-mortem. The whole thing smacks of Rod Serling.
For all his prowess at the plate, Williams earned his reputation for being surly and stubborn with the media and fans. He was repaid in the form of withheld MVP votes and occasional boos. Still, if he didn’t merit a pedestal, he surely deserved better than the alleged tuna can. It’s customary to commend the departed with hopes and prayers for resting in peace, not pieces.
Reports of the mishandling by the staff at the extended stay morgue have lent new meaning to baseball lexicon like bobblehead, sawed-off and disabled list.
Alas, the only head to roll in the matter is Williams’. The man in charge at the facility who should have been made to account for his slipshod oversight instead documented the goings on that he might profit from them in the form of a book.
What would John Updike have to say about all this? I just hope he has a grave to spin in.