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.


Not sure if you have the right side of the cause and effect relationship between withheld MVP votes and Williams' surely manner with the reporters. They were pretty much screwing him out of MVP's from the get-go.

Really nice article about Koyie and the Make A Wish foundation. Nice to see someone make a real effort who's not making $12 million a year.


yeah, give that guy a hand...i mean a round of applause.



Gerald Perry, Thad Bosley, Clint Hurdle and Rusty Greer up for Rangers hitting coach...

I assume that most places that house the frozen heads of the dead is manned by people that are, to put it mildly, not among the most intelligent of God's creatures. Nothing the average American idiot does surprises me. Someone having had sex with the Splendid Splinter's head wouldn't seem out of the realm of believability so anything short of that is just another day at the office.

Well penned, Mike.

Neal: I read Montville's book, and it said the whole of Boston - press, team, fans - was immediately taken aback by the cockiness of the rookie when he came up. They were even more appalled when they discovered he had about zero interest in the art of defense.

It doesn't sound like the press was living by the golden rule, then does it? Ted Williams had a right to be cocky, didn't he? He was 20 year old rookie when he lead the league in total bases and RBI's.

Sportswriters acting like assholes? Well, oh my gosh, however did poor Ted not see that coming!

Of course, Williams also had the right to retaliate by treating the city of Boston like shit for 50 years, even though the fans there worshiped him like a God.

How 'Golden Rule' is that?

I think the whole point of the 'Golden Rule' is that your behavior is not based on what someone else has done to you -- the "right to retaliate" is not a consideration.

Williams didn't acknowledge the fans because he didn't like how they treated the players. Not quite sure if that falls under 'treated the town like shit'. It's what's called integrity.

Updike's piece was superb.


"Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

"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 captures nicely the way in which we can love even an insufferable prick for the fact that he does something beautifully--or rather, that we can love beautiful things even when their doers are insufferable pricks.

Always makes me wonder why I can't feel that way about Bonds. Racism? Maybe it's just easier to ignore Williams' personality because I wasn't alive when he was playing anyway.

In Updike's case, it seems to be a matter of admiring the single-mindedness and dedication of Williams even while acknowledging the difficult aspects of his nature. In some ways, while both Bonds and Williams were unlikeable, in Williams' case there were no steroids and you sense this sort of supreme ambition to be the best and desire to work at it that is, in a way, admirable.

"My personal memories of Williams begin when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last-place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company. For me, 'W’ms, lf' was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5. He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose. . . For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill. Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance—since the reference point of most individual games is remote and statistical—always threatens its interest, which can be maintained not by the occasional heroics that sportswriters feed upon but by players who always care; who care, that is to say, about themselves and their art. Insofar as the clutch hitter is not a sportswriter’s myth, he is a vulgarity, like a writer who writes only for money. It may be that, compared to managers’ dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

"By the time I went to college, near Boston, the lesser stars Yawkey had assembled around Williams had faded, and his craftsmanship, his rigorous pride, had become itself a kind of heroism. This brittle and temperamental player developed an unexpected quality of persistence. He was always coming back—back from Korea, back from a broken collarbone, a shattered elbow, a bruised heel, back from drastic bouts of flu and ptomaine poisoning. Hardly a season went by without some enfeebling mishap, yet he always came back, and always looked like himself. The delicate mechanism of timing and power seemed locked, shockproof, in some case outside his body. In addition to injuries, there were a heavily publicized divorce, and the usual storms with the press, and the Williams Shift—the maneuver, custom-built by Lou Boudreau, of the Cleveland Indians, whereby three infielders were concentrated on the right side of the infield, where a left-handed pull hitter like Williams generally hits the ball. Williams could easily have learned to punch singles through the vacancy on his left and fattened his average hugely. This was what Ty Cobb, the Einstein of average, told him to do. But the game had changed since Cobb; Williams believed that his value to the club and to the game was as a slugger, so he went on pulling the ball, trying to blast it through three men, and paid the price of perhaps fifteen points of lifetime average. Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles—a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish."

Williams doesn't have the stigma of cheating, adultery, perjury and tax evasion. He was also, by all reports, a war hero.

For me, I don't think it is racism. The steroids/HGH thing turned me off so much and put him in a different category than someone who was just an insufferable prick like Albert Belle or Jeff Kent. I wanted to like Bonds for a lot of years, going back to his years with the Pirates. When the PEDs thing became obvious, the admiration died. I lost it for Sammy & McGuire, too.

I never lost my affection for Sammy, but that might just be me overlooking negative aspects to the stories of Cubs' players that I wouldn't overlook for players on other teams. It's possible my dislike for Bonds stems from the way even home announcers would gush over his abilities when he played against the Cubs--reporters may not have liked him, but they made him out to be a much better baseball player than I ever thought he was. I don't like hype.

I liked Bonds, and wanted the Cubs to sign him when he was a free agent, not sure at what point I began to dislike him, probably when he got what I thought was Sosa's MVP in 2001.

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