Wrote biographer Ed Linn: "He was sometimes unbearable, but he was never dull."
(This too is from John Updike's writings of Ted Williams.)
Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lytic little bandbox of a ballpark. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934. It's right field is one of the deepest in the American League, while its left field is the shortest; the high left-field wall, three hundred and fifteen feet from home plate along the foul line, virtually thrusts its surface at right-handed hitters.
The affair between Boston and Ted Williams was no mere summer romance; it was a marriage composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard, of shared memories. It fell into three stages, which may be termed youth, maturity and age; or thesis, antithesis and synthesis; or Jason, Achilles and Nestor.
One might say the relationship between Barry Bonds and the fans is much more civil but the scribes most definitely seem to go out of their way to display, pure unabridged haterism when they describe a struggling Bonds or that they go out of their way to express themselves about something they don't feel Bonds should have done, whether someone asked them or not, like they're the know-it-all types, sort of a Rush Limbaugh with pen, if you will.
Said Ted Williams, the young bridegroom who came out of the West (San Diego to be exact), "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "
Williams reported to the Red Sox training camp in Sarasota, FL in 1938 and, after showing more volubility than skill, and was shipped down to the Minneapolis Millers, the top Sox farm team.
At Minneapolis he hit .366, batted in 142, scored 130 runs and hit 43 home runs. He also loafed in the field, jabbered at the fans and smashed a water cooler with his fist.
In 1939, he came north with the Red Sox. On the way, he dropped a foul fly, accidentally kicked it away in trying to pick it up, picked it up and threw it out of the park.
"Williams vs. the Press"
It is Ed Linn's suggestion that Williams walked into a circulation war among the seven (7) Boston newspapers, who in their competitive zeal headlined incidents that the New York papers, say, would have minimized, just as they had minimized the less genial side of the moody and aloof Joe DiMaggio and smoothed Babe Ruth into a folk hero.
The dowagers of local journalism attempted to give elementary deportment lessons to this child who spake as a god, and to their horror were themselves rebuked. Thus began the long exchange of backbiting, bat-flipping, booing, and spitting that has distinguished Williams' public relations.
The spitting incidents of 1957 and 1958 and the similar dockside courtesies that Williams has now and then extended to the grandstand should be judged against his background: the left-field stands at Fenway Park, for twenty (20) years have held large number of customers who have bought their way in primarily for the privilege of showering abuse on Williams. Greatness necessarily attracts debunkers, but in Williams' case the hostility has been systematic and unappeasable. His basic offense against the fans has been to wish that they weren't there.
Seeking a perfectionist's vacuum, he has quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it. It has been a costly theory- it has probably cost him, among other evidences of good will, two MVP awards, which are voted by reporters- but he has held to it.
While his critics, oral and literary, remained beyond the reach of his discipline, the opposing pitchers were accessible, and he spanked them to the tune of .406 in 1941.
Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out. Irrelevance- since the reference point of most individual contests 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, compared to such managers' dreams as the manifestly classy Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams was 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 concentrated within himself so much of the sport's poignance, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.
Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey assembled a team of lesser stars around Williams (sound familiar?) and their skills began to fade (or free agency took them elsewhere?), Williams' (Bonds'?) rigorous pride of craftsmanship 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 sealed, shockproof, in some case deep within his frame. (A non-smoker, non-drinker, habitual walker, and year-round outdoorsman, Williams spared his body the vicissitudes of the seasonal athlete. And his hitting was in large part a mental process; the amount of cerebration he devoted to such details as pitchers' patterns, prevailing winds, and the muscular mechanics of swinging a bat would seem ridiculous, if it had not paid off.
Ted Williams' last at-bat as described by John Updike.
In the 8th inning of the last game of the 1960 Boston Red Sox season, Ted Williams faced Jack Fisher.
As he was announced Red Sox fans stood and cheered. 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 fueds 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 signalled 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.
Fisher, after his unssettling wait was low with his 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. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was.
The ball climbed 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 top 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. Centerfielder, Jackie Brandt (originally a Giant) 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 vanished.
Williams ran around the square of bases 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 (Barry would?). 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 refused. Gods do not answer letters.
(special thanks to John Updike)
Monday, July 16, 2007
Wrote biographer Ed Linn: "He was sometimes unbearable, but he was never dull."
Posted by silverstreak at 4:58 PM