John Updike, poet, novelist, essayist, has gone on to his greater reward. May he rest in peace. I was never much of an Updike fan. I suppose of his works, that I read, I liked the Witches of Eastwick best. That may be due in large measure to the incredible cast that played in the film and Jack Nicholson’s delivery, in full maniacal cry, of the speech about God inventing women to bedevil men. I had already read Hans Fallada’s Little Man What Now when Rabbit Run came out and just never saw the point in reading the rest of that tetrology, although I struggled through Rabbit Redux. I read Updike’s occasional short stories in Playboy or the New Yorker and admit I can’t remember any of them.
And what, you may ask, does this have to do with baseball. In one of the obits, there was mention of an essay Updike wrote about the last home game played by Ted Williams. There must be some significance to the fact that most of what I know about that game I have learned from Obituaries, however, it escapes me.
I was present at that game. I was a nineteen year old private first class stationed at Ft. Devens, located in Ayer Massachusetts, some thirty miles west of Boston. I had enlisted one step ahead of the draft on the promise of becoming a teen age spy. The word circulated around the billets that the USO was passing out free tickets to see Ted Williams play his last home game in Fenway Park. A group of us which including Robert Mallet and Jimmy Telford saddled up, collected the free tickets, and caught the train into Boston. Robert Mallet was a diminutive, walking stereotype of the unreconstructed Southerner. On meeting him he had stuck out his hand and said: Mah names Mahllet and ahm from Miss’ sippi. Jimmy Telford was an Irish Catholic boy from Brooklyn, of late transplanted to Babylon Long Island. His Brooklyn accent was as thick and staccato sharp as Mallet’s was Mississippi syrup. Jimmy played the Bongos which I attempted to learn and Mallet chased everything with a skirt on.
A crowd of us rode the train into Boston. For most of us it was to be a day trip but Mallet and Telford and I got a large but cheap room on the second floor of a seedy hotel, stashed our kit and made our way over to the ball park. We paid little attention to the ball game. I was there to see Ted Williams swing a bat in person. Mallet was there to ogle the young girls and Telford was along for the ride awaiting the pub crawl we had promised after the game. I remember thinking the ballpark was small even though I had nothing as a reference except the tiny Class D ball park where the Morganton Aggies played. The weather is worth mentioning because it was cold, and I had piled on clothes. It had spit snow on the last day of August as we marched from the billets to class which scared the living daylights out of me and prompted my winter buying spree. I had a spiffy new heavy duty wool overcoat that came complete with Sherlock Holmes cape and a nice wool hat, ear muffs, scarf and gloves. One look at me and Mallet who was buried under all of the warm clothes he owned and you could tell we were two transplanted Southerners. Telford could have done the game in shirt sleeves.
The game was initiated with a ceremony for Williams, his number retired, etc, and if you want a description of the detritus of the game you would be advised to read Updikes’s essay. The play crawled along reinforcing my notion that nothing is more boring than watching nine grown men try to hit a ball with a stick and nine others try to stop him. Late in the game Williams came to the plate for what would surely be his final at bat in Fenway Park. Not his final major league at bat since the Red Sox were slated to play in New York following the home stand with the Orioles. Incidentally, I live in Maryland and have seen the Orioles play only three times but that is another story. The Oriole pitcher was Jack Fisher, and I can only wonder if he served up a fat fast one for Williams to hit. Williams took the first pitch wide, whiffed the second and then got all of the third pitch and it soared over that long Fenway right field fence. Williams trotted the bases and disappeared into the dugout and into history. We stood and cheered and then left the ballpark. We had seen what we came for. Williams had cocked the bat and then in perfect rhythm unwound with amazing grace and power and drove the baseball out of the park.
The epilogue is this. Mallet and I took Telford on the promised pub crawl and we all got roaring drunk and the next morning woke to find the toilet full of vomit, frozen, and without water. We groused about, called the desk and after waiting for the better part of an hour for someone to come and fix the bloody thing the three of us wrestled the hotel window open and we began whizzing on the roof below. Telford should have known about els and perhaps he did and just didn’t care. But as the three of us perched there happily relieving ourselves an MTA cruised around the corner and those good citizens of Boston bound for church got a good look at three of American’s finest peeing all they could pee. Nobody flinched, we just whizzed and they just stared.
Now back to the point of obituaries. It was thirty years before I knew that I had seen Ted Williams hit his last major league home run. I discovered as much reading Abbie Hoffman’s obituary in one of the national magazines, Newsweek, I believe. The writer had been at the game with Hoffman and noted that Williams had not made the road trip to New York to finish the season. The last home run he ever hit was on that cold September day in Fenway Park. Almost fifty years later I have two distinct memories of that trip to Fenway Park. One is of a lanky Ted Williams unwinding on that fast ball and the other is of the astonished faces pressed to the glass of the elevated car as it whizzed by three young U.S. Army Soldiers whizzing from a hotel window.
January 28, 2009