John Updike Now Rests with Rabbit and Ted

John Updike, one of the great American men of letters, has died at age 76.

Updike wrote 61 books in all, perhaps none better than his quartet of  books about Harry “Rabbitt” Angstrom. Updike traces Rabbit’s American middle-class life from his days as a  high school basketball star through a loveless marriage until his final days. Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest.

Updike’s famous essay on Ted Williams final at-bat — Kid Bids Hub Fans Adieu — is one of the greatest pure examples of sportswriting in 20th Century America. It was published in the New Yorker magazine on October 22, 1960.

From the very first line, “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” the author beautifully describes the setting and captures the reader’s attention.

Updike describes Williams’ career in Boston, shortened by not one, but two turns of military duty. He talks of Ted’s arrogance, his excellence as a hitter, the comparisons to Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.

“The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories,” wrote Updike.

And finally, with one out in the eighth inning, Williams comes to the plate for what will surely be his final at-bat in Fenway. Here’s how Updike paints the word picture:

‘It Was in the Books While It Was Still in the Sky”

Jack) 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. (Jackie) 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.”

Gods do not answer letters. How good is that.

As it turned out, the home run was Ted Williams 521st, and the at-bat his last in the majors. He decided not to accompany the Red Sox to New York for their season-ending series with the Yankees and retired..

John Updike rests now, as do Rabbit and John Updike.


4 Comments on “John Updike Now Rests with Rabbit and Ted”

  1. coffee says:

    the loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it’s losing such great writers

    • sportslifer says:

      That’s an excellent point. With newspapers hurting and the print industry drying up, one wonders what’s the incentive for young talent to pursue writing paths. These are tough times.

  2. SandyA says:

    some of Updike’s stuff was self-indulgent, but he was unquestionably a brilliant writer, a chronicler of middle American values at a time when those values were rapidly transforming. The Rabbit set will be read for a long time to come because it does what great literature should do, address important themes in the narratives of believeable characters.

  3. […] the last-place Kansas City Athletics. Ted Williams, in his final year, would hit 29 homers — including one in his last at bat — and hit […]

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