April 29, 2010

Book Review: Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

This isn't really a review.

On September 28, 1960, John Updike went to Fenway Park "with the open heart of a fan" for what was likely Ted Williams's last game on the field he had called home for 21 years.

Updike spent the next five days writing his thoughts on Williams and that afternoon's game -- and his essay was published under the title "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" in the October 20, 1960, issue of The New Yorker.

It is one of the finest essays ever written on the national game. Its first sentence is the source of the oft-quoted description of Fenway Park as a "lyric little bandbox".

Before his death in January 2009, Updike worked with The Library of America on a special edition of the essay for the 50th anniversary of the game. The 64-page hardcover edition is now available ($15 US). (The LoA sent me a paperback copy of the uncorrected proofs.) In addition to the essay, Updike wrote a short introduction. His eight-page afterward draws on other TSW essays he wrote in 1986 and 2002.

It is a modest package -- any consideration about buying it will likely depend on whether you feel it's worth the sticker price (in that respect it's a lot like David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water") -- yet there is no denying the sheer beauty of the writing.
The afternoon grew so glowering that in the sixth inning the arc lights were turned on - always a wan sight in the daytime, like the burning headlights of a funeral procession. Aided by the gloom, Fisher was slicing through the Sox rookies, and Williams did not come to bat in the seventh. He was second up in the eighth. This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us, and applauded. I had never before heard pure applause in a ballpark. No calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a somber and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the Kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-two summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signaled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his bat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.


Amy said...

Thanks for posting this. Updike is a favorite of mine, mostly for how he writes, not necessarily what he writes. I just finished reading what I believe was his last novel, Villages. It goes over lots of familiar ground: life growing up in PA, adultery in the 60s and 70s, fears of mortality, etc. But I love how he uses language, so I can read even the same themes and stories over again with new words.

Anyway, I was not aware of this essay, but will definitely look for it.

allan said...

It is essential reading for any baseball fan, even more so for a Sox fan. Just like Roger Angell's classic stuff from the 70s and early 80s.

I noticed that the bit I quoted was slightly different from what originally ran in The New Yorker (specifically the pure applause line). I was told that when Updike included the piece in an anthology in 1965, he made some minor edits, but that nothing was changed for this edition.

Zenslinger said...

It's an incredible essay. I read it, I'm sure, after reading about it here.

laura k said...

It's one of the best pieces on baseball, anywhere.

Amy, I bet you've read it. It's SO famous, and if you're an Updike fan, it was bound to come up at some point.

Amy said...

Never mind, I found it all by myself. I love Google.

Amy said...

Could be, Laura. You know me well enough to assume that it's more likely that I read it and forgot than that I never read it at all!

Nevertheless, I will look for it and read it (again?). Aside from appearing in the upcoming hard cover book, where else might I find it? Is it available online? (I can hear someone suggesting I check myself, but since Allan did not provide a link, I am assuming there is none available.)

Amy said...

Wow, powerful stuff. I knew the basics of the story---Williams' bad relationship with the press, his refusal to acknowledge the fans, and his final at bat at Fenway being a HR. But I had not read Updike's telling of the story. He did not disappoint me. He has a way of painting pictures and telling stories with the English language that perhaps makes him a Ted Williams of contemporary American writing. Maybe not the greatest ever, but certainly one of them.

Thanks again for making me aware of this. I never even knew Updike was a baseball fan, let alone a Sox fan. Or maybe I just forgot. :)

allan said...

(I can hear someone suggesting I check myself, but since Allan did not provide a link, I am assuming there is none available.)

Not appropriate in a book review to offer a link to the actual text!

Zenslinger said...

I was thinking about all the articles about First Baseman Sluggers since Howard signed his contract. Just as a thumbnail, career OPS+:

Howard 142
Fielder 139
Adrian Gonzalez 135
Pujols 172

And just for comparison:

Manny 155
Ortiz 133
A-Rod 147
Teixeria 135

laura k said...

I think Williams was a much better hitter than Updike is novelist. This essay, though, is very special.

allan said...

Comparatively speaking, if Pujols signs for $40 million per, it's gonna be a discount!

nick said...

That is some beautiful writing. I've never read this essay before. Added to the queue.


Dr. Jeff said...

Great article, but when I first read it what made the biggest impression was how he refused to make a curtain call. That seems unforgivable. Hell, it's your last at bat, why not? I guess he had his reasons.

One of my favorite Red Sox articles is "A Day of Light and Shadows" by Jonathan Schwartz. I had a copy that was photocopied a bunch of times and passed around from person to person. It was in Sports Illustrated. The guy was listening to games over the phone, long distance.

Dr. Jeff said...

Here's a link to the first few pages:

Day of Light and Shadows

allan said...

Despite the subject matter, Schwartz's piece is excellent. I have an average quality xerox in a box somewhere. That is a good example of a small book I'd buy if it was cheaper.

Emily O'Leary said...

I like this a lot. I've always kind of disliked Updike. Has anyone read Don DeLillo's Underworld? The first 70 or so pages take place during the 1951 playoff game between the Giants and Dodgers (Bobby Thompson's homer, 'The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!' etc.) It was republished as a novella as Pafko At The Wall , and I think it's the best baseball writing I've ever encountered. But I like DeLillo's writing a lot more than Updike, so that's probably part of it.

laura k said...

I'm pretty sure "Pafko at the Wall" was published first as a short story in Harper's magazine, then later included in Underworld. It was re-issued as novella after both of those.

I loved the short story, then unfortunately found Underworld unreadable. But I'm not a DeLillo fan, so that's not surprising.

"Pafko" is a great piece. Totally different than "Hub Fans Bid...". Love them both.

laura k said...

"A Day of Light and Shadows" by Jonathan Schwartz.

Another brilliant baseball piece.

allan said...

Has anyone read Don DeLillo's Underworld?

I loved it. My hardcover is autographed by DeLillo and Pafko! I bought a signed copy at a DD reading (he signed them beforehand, there was no meet and greet), then lugged it to a memorabilia store in NYC that Pafko was at. He didn't blink at the book, and while he said he knew about the story, he did not express any opinion about it one way or the other.


Schwartz's article is here.

Pre-MLB audio!!!!!

"Having lived in New York and having been a Red Sox fan since childhood, I had spent hours sitting in parked automobiles on the East Side of the city where reception of WTIC in Hartford, which carries Red Sox games, was the clearest. Eventually I had obtained through a friend in Boston an unlisted air-check phone number that tied directly into WHDH broadcasts. From anywhere in the world one could hear whatever it was that WHDH — and, subsequently, WITS, with a different number — was airing at any moment of the day or night. WHDH was — just as WITS is — the Red Sox flagship station, and one had only to be prepared for an exorbitant phone bill to listen to any Boston game, or season. Between 1970 and 1977 I had spent nearly $15,000 listening to Red Sox broadcasts. In a hotel in Paris I had heard George Scott strike out in Seattle. From my father's home in London I had heard George Scott strike out in Detroit. From Palm Springs, Calif. I had listened to at least 100 complete games, attaching the phone to a playback device that amplified the sound. One could actually walk around the room without holding the receiver. One could even leave the room, walk down the corridor and into a bathroom to stare glumly into one's eyes in a mirror and still pick up the faint sound of George Scott slamming into a double play in Baltimore. ... $15,000 in phone bills.


The wind had picked up. Shadows dominated the field, except in right and right center. I noticed that the clouds were just a bit thicker. A rain delay. Would the game revert to the last complete inning? A seven-hour delay and finally a decision. Red Sox win 2-0. I saw it as the only possibility. It had to rain right at this moment. Torrentially. Monumentally. Before the new Yankee pitcher could complete this last of the seventh. The new Yankee pitcher was Gossage, and Bob Bailey was preparing to pinch-hit against him.

Bob Bailey!

I bowed my head.

GOOSE GOSSAGE: When I saw Bailey coming up, I said to myself, with all respect to Bob, "Thank you."

Bailey looked at strike three and went away, out of my life, off the team, out of the league, out of the country, away, away.


Dr. Jeff said...

A press pass would be waiting in my name at the front desk of The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston. "If anyone asks, you're with Channel 7 in New York," he said. "But you've got to be dignified, or I'm in the toilet."

"Have I ever not been dignified?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Yes," he repeated softly.