Gods Do Not Answer Letters

For John Updike, Ted Williams represented an unbridled potential that was never fully realized or appreciated; a compromised existence that held a lonely place in the hearts of his long-suffering Red Sox supporters, but of whom that place was never soundly defined. As a writer with no background emanating from baseball – indeed, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” was his sole venture – Updike found his own relation to a childhood idol meddled with complications. As the New York Times writes, Updike’s self-identification tactic may have provoked the culminating report from a baseball legend’s retirement match, unassuming upon entry that documenting the ensuing melancholy would be achieved.
The article begins with a wide-ranging depiction of Fenway Park, which almost forebodes the oncoming onslaught of revelries and excuses for a much-loved icon. When Updike includes “Man’s Euclidean determinations” and “…Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff” he’s bringing a sense of lyric and personable mutuality that would seem a far-cry for a man disassociated to baseball as a game; the game, itself, a highly impersonal and selfish affair. When you consider baseball as a sport (and I’m no expect) each individual ultimately retains accountability for overall averages that propel scores (thank-you Moneyball and Brad Pitt), which discourages the idea of “team” sport and accessible connections between supporters and players.
Arguably, this is Updike’s returning theme to accentuate an already rocky road laid out by the past of Williams. He’s sojourning for a man credited with divorce, social misbehavior and fan strife, almost bashfully. He doesn’t disassemble or pull apart the seams of a troubled human being, but revels in the maverick status of a nearly-but-not-quite Greatest Ever that glittered Fenway Park amidst an era of roster-filling inexperienced youth and spluttering has-beens; a man that bucked the trend of point average norms, that inexplicably flipped the coinage of selfishness to a genuine ‘me, myself and I’ playing style. As Updike describes, “It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance” and outlines at length the Williams’ determination to smash the ball out of the ground, old school style. There’s almost an admiration of a man Updike feels he’s close to being – or somebody he wishes he was.
Sitting from his lofty observational perch, Updike recants Williams’ outlandish beginnings of naive oral – “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.’” – and an ongoing pursuit of perfectionism; titling grandeur and nationwide acclaim would remain out of his reach in looming closure, with secondary statistics to the likes of Babe Ruth haunting his immaturity and stubborn resolve (he rejected cap-tipping and fan acknowledgment for a whole career) which detracted from any potential media campaign to award his services to baseball. Williams was just not promotional material, nor a role model, but such cult allure did not lose his club’s backing. “You made me love you, I didn’t wanna do it, I didn’t wanna do it” cuts a particularly spiky mustard, but rings true in the Red Sox fanbase.
For a man of multitude achievements and envious hitting records, Updike highlights the prominent failings that plagued a careering career readily. The essay is riddled with disheartening sympathy, like it was paining to record the wrongs. Updike applies his best sales pitch to concern the audience with loosely compiled half-facts that could reconsider a lowly opinion on Williams’ strange twenty years; he mentions leaving for the War in 1942, losing three prime years, plus the plethora of perpetual injury and illness. Upon one late inclusion, Updike claims that ‘Thumper’ may have equalled Babe Ruth’s platinum standing if those unfortunate events were rescinded and expected playing abilities assumed.
We live and die by our decisions. I’ve already made regrets I’ll never be able to rescind. From a sporting perspective, I declined a professional offer to stay in England because of the lack of assurances and security; twelve month contracts only fuel the bonfire of scrapheap careers, and no club was willing to gamble on an injury record to top Ted Williams’ own for any longer. In a way, I respect the way in which Williams blazed his own path. The problem is, I’ve fallen on the side of the fence Updike situates; speculating, finding similarities but not trading places, figuratively or literally, with our idols or peers. Instead, I’m planning to be the one writing about ‘the ones’, after writing about the one who wrote about the one here.


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