Monday, August 9, 2010

Great, But Not Perfect

This October the late John Updike’s classic New Yorker profile of Ted Williams, “Hub Bids Kid Adieu,” turns fifty years old. Recently reissued in book form Updike’s essay is something of a Gilgamesh of literary baseball writing, right up there with Ernest L. Thayer’s Casey at the Bat and Ring Lardner’s epistolary You Know Me, Al.

Recently, while working on my upcoming book Fenway 1912, I had occasion to take close look Updike’s story. Despite its legitimate and deserving place in baseball’s verbal Hall of Fame, it is not flawless. There are, in fact, several factual issues that a neutral scorekeeper might note as errors in their scorebook, or at last send back to the author for some clarification.

I mention them here not to disparage Updike but to underscore how difficult it is to be one hundred percent accurate, to gauge the veracity of another’s reporting - even a reporter as elegant and thorough as Updike - or to render any scene with absolute precision. History, after all, is not black and white but more often flesh and blood and shades of gray.

In the first paragraph Updike writes that “I, and 10,453 others, had shown up primarily because this was the Red Sox's last home game of the season and therefore the last time in all eternity that their regular left fielder… would play in Boston.” True enough, for Ted did retire afterward and did not accompany the team on its final road trip to New York.

But on the morning of September 28, 1960 these facts were not all that widely known. Ted had said he was going to retire, and on September 26 the Sox had released a statement to that effect, but Ted had “retired” before only to change his mind. Many Sox fans and media members wondered if this retirement was genuine, which might explain the sparse crowd. During the 1954 season Williams said he would retire at the end of the year and did so. But once his divorce was finalized on May 11, 1955, Ted abruptly “unretired, signed a lucrative contract beyond the reach of his settlement, and returned the lineup May 23. That act of selfishness may well have cost the Sox a pennant, for without him the Sox were a pedestrian 15-21 in 1955. Yet after Williams returned the Sox went 65-35 in the next hundred games to draw to within three games of first place as late as September 7 before falling back.

The point is that when most fans went to the park on September 28, 1960, Williams’ retirement was hardly certain, and there is little evidence that those other 10,453 fans - almost 5,000 less than the average that year - attended primarily because of Ted. Otherwise meaningless late season games had drawn similar crowds.

Personally I have always wondered what would have happened had Ted popped up in that last at bat. Would his ego have allowed him to end his career so commonly? Or would he, have gone to New York in search of an exclamation point? Would Updike ‘s chronicle of the pop-up been published, or would he have followed Williams to New York hoping for a better ending? Or if Williams had chosen to play in New York anyway after hitting the home run, (Updike notes he learned of Williams’ decision not to go to New York from the radio on his car ride home) would Updike’s story have such lasting resonance? We will never know. It is a small point, but nevertheless Updike’s statement leaves an impression that is less than complete.

And then there is Updike on Fenway Park. He writes that Fenway’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.” Today we know that the distance down the left field line was never 315, but somewhat less, but one can hardly fault Updike for believing number painted on the wall. Yet there is some ambiguity in the claim that “its left field is the shortest,” because that was not true down the line, where Yankee Stadium, at 301 feet in 1960, was considerably shorter, as was Memorial Stadium in Baltimore at 309 feet, although the outfield area in both of those ballparks was considerably larger than that of Fenway Park. Somewhat curiously, Updike does not mention height of the wall, but in 1960 there was not the fetish about what we now call “the Green Monster” as there is now. Updike may not have known precisely how high the wall was.

Apart from the alliterative phrase “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” I have never much cared for the way Updike describes the rest of Fenway Park, finding it not only forced and arch but imprecise and in some ways misleading. I have no idea what he means by “the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg,” particularly on a day that was dank, dark and dreary, and I suspect few others do either. I have spent hours looking up images on Google in search of a picture that suggests his intent without success. But if Fenway Park reminded Updike of an Easter egg on that gray September day, that’s fine. When I first saw Fenway Park it reminded me of an abandoned warehouse.

I do, however, take issue with his notion that Fenway Park was “a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities.” Most subsequent readers, I think, take that as Updike’s way of saying that’s what happens when you try to fit a ball field onto a patch of land whose boundaries were determined by Nature – presumably herds of cows or sheep - whose pathways later evolved into Boston’ streets.

This common interpretation, is, unfortunately, thoroughly incorrect. The plot of land upon which Fenway Park sits was completely undeveloped before the ballpark was built. The parcel was shaped – as it is now – somewhat like a trapezoid, not due to any irregularities of nature, but because some surveyor planned it that way. Before the ballpark was built the weedy, undeveloped lot between Lansdowne, Jersey and Ipswich streets, as empty as the parking lot of the Burlington Mall at four in the morning, was supposed to be cut into five rectangular blocks. A new street - eventually named Van Ness – was laid out to give these proposed new streets right-angled corners.

Neither Nature nor any wandering cow conspired to create Fenway’s celebrated nooks and crannies. They are the result of “Man’s Euclidean determinations” intersecting with Man’s greed and beguiling desire to cram as many seats as possible into the space, and nothing else.

That may not be as elegantly put as Updike’s fifty-year old lyric little bandbox of a box score, but it is, nevertheless, more accurate.

[Note: Several years ago Globe columnist Alex Beam noticed another potential error in the essay, the probable misidentification of Pumpsie Greene as Willie Tasby.]

Fenway 1912 will appear next year, and the twentieth annual edition Glenn Stout’s The Best American Sports Writing, guest edited by Peter Gammons, will appear this fall. This column first appeared in Boston Baseball, August 2010, as "Great, But Not Perfect. Copyright Glenn Stout, 2010.

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