The author John Updike died yesterday at age 76 and I immediately thought of the Boston Red Sox.
Let me walk you through it. Updike was one of America’s greatest men of letters in the second half of the 20th century and quite possibly the most prolific – authoring 50 books, including 40 novels, countless short stories, essays and articles, and a book of poems. He won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice.
But if he had never written another thing, he produced one of the best pieces of sports writing ever at the age of 28, an essay called “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which appeared in the Oct. 22, 1960 edition of The New Yorker. Here’s a link to it and if you love baseball, even if you hate the Red Sox, you should read it.
“The Kid” was Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams and the article was based on Updike’s observations after having attended the last game of Williams’ major league career, on Sept. 28, 1960 at Fenway Park.
Updike is no sportswriter, and in this case that’s a good thing, as the article starts, not with Williams, but with one of the most felicitous phrases I’ve ever read about baseball (“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”). He goes on to perceptively describe the often stormy relationship that Williams had with both the Boston media and fans. It’s evocative and full of the emotion that only a fan knows.
Sports also played a part in several of Updike’s most famous works of fiction, the four “Rabbit” novels he wrote over a period of 30 years. His protagonist, Rabbit Angstrom, is a former high school basketball star who finds that real life is a lot more complicated than a basketball game. He leaves his wife and children and eventually attains material success in life, but not peace of mind or spiritual fulfillment.
I have to confess that I’ve never read those books, except for a few anthologized excerpts. But it’s a theme that I’ve thought about over the years as I’ve covered high school football in small towns, especially football-obsessed Texas, the Florida Panhandle and western Pennsylvania.
I don’t want to stereotype or be overly dramatic. But I think it’s quite possible that some of these young men will have received more public acclaim, and will have a greater sense of accomplishment, at 18 than they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
That’s a theme that a lot of sports literature over the years has tapped into. Updike, the chronicler of middle class, suburban and small-town angst, apparently did it especially well.