Sunday, September 26, 2010

50 Years ago, almost to the day.

We read everyday about the death of messaging, the death of language, the death of the need for writers. Systems will lead our behaviors and guide us the way marketers want us guided. The value of words, the pundits and the new media mavens, tell us is no more. They forget, almost completely, what the Obama campaign did with words and language. But don't bother them with facts, they are busy pontificating and declaring the death of something.

In any event, just about 50 years ago, Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox outfielder came up to the plate one last time as a major leaguer. John Updike was in Fenway that rainy day reporting. Here is a short bit, reprinted from "The New Yorker," of October 17, 1960.

"Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.

"Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

"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."

Maybe I am a curmudgeon. Out of step with what's left of civilization. Holding on by my well-gnawed talons to relevance.

Maybe the struggle, at least in American politics, what we are seeing is a struggle between the know-nothings and the elites. Clearly the know-nothings are winning. We have senatorial candidates who believe monkeys can transmute into men before our eyes.

But whatever.

I insist on enjoying writing.


Kelly said...


I'm between "like a feather caught in a vortex" and "Gods do not answer letters" for the phrase that leaves me most breathless. But of course, being able to picture Williams perfectly on that day (I think they stamp his iconic moments into every New Englander's brain on the day we're born), I'll have to go with the latter.

Thanks for the beautiful read—just what I needed to start my day on a bright note!



P.S. Curmudgeon? Meh. Who isn't nostalgic for all the best and none of the worst of the past? It's a good thing.

george tannenbaum said...

This particular Updike essay has been republished as a book. You can get it on Amazon for $9.

"Gods do not answer letters" does it for me. Absolutely perfect.