"Hub Fans" Redux: John Updike, Ted Williams, and the Great American Essay

"The heart of fandom," John Updike once wrote, "is identification": that's my team at the top of the division, those are my guys chasing the pennant, and c'mon, let's face it, we're the best. As a boy growing up near Philadelphia, Updike tried to love the Phillies and the A's, but they were "feeble" teams, unworthy of his conception of the game played at its highest level, and unworthy of his ambitions for himself as a fan. Granny Hamner? Sam Chapman? Are you kidding? Their mediocrity created the vacuum into which his "irrational love" for the Red Sox flowed.

But "Why Boston?" Updike wondered in his fifties, trying to puzzle out the heart of his twelve-year-old self. "What led me, as a youth who had never been north of Greenwich, Connecticut, and didn't know Beacon Hill from Bunker Hill or Fenway Park from Park Street Under, to attach my heart to that distant aggregation?" The answer, of course, was Ted Williams. Boston had the best hitter in Updike's boyhood, perhaps the best hitter ever. Williams satisfied an ideal of professionalism that formed precociously in Updike: "For me Williams was the classic ballplayer of the hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill." Williams was not just good, he was consistently excellent: he brought his best to every game he played. Thinking big, thinking cosmically, thinking in absolute standards, Updike hitched his wagon not to a local celebrity, but to Zeus.

Updike's love for Williams was a boy's love--an innocent, unrequited Fitzgeraldian crush, the kind you can have only when you're twelve years old and have discovered exactly what you want to be when you grow up. Whenever I re-read, in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," Updike's description of Williams as an "icy star," one that radiates, "from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose," I always think of Fitzgerald--of Gatsby's reaching toward that "little green light" at the end of Daisy's dock, his longing to grasp and to hold to himself something fine, pure, lustrous, and enduring. "No other player visible to my generation," Updike wrote, "concentrated within himself so much of sport's poignancy, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy." For Updike, Williams was Polaris, a fixed inspirational twinkling both to steer by and to wish upon.

If Gatsby is a Great American Novel, then "Hub Fans"--Updike's account of Williams's last at-bat, on September 28, 1960--is a Great American Essay, a work of short nonfiction prose that, like Emerson's "American Scholar" and E. B. White's "Here Is New York," tells us something timeless and true about our national identity, and tells it in a great American style. It is also so solid a construction--so conspicuously splendid and self-contained and sui generis--that it merits publication between its own covers. Such was my thinking when, in June of 2008, in my capacity as a consulting editor at The Library of America, I wrote to Updike to explore the possibility of publishing a fiftieth-anniversary edition of the essay.

"Yes, let's run the Williams piece once more around the bases," was the reply. Updike was delighted to do the book for a number of reasons. "Hub Fans" was long out of print in any volume under his own name. (Assorted Prose, where he'd collected it in 1965, had fallen off the Knopf backlist.) It was his sole foray into sports reporting, and his one extended mash-note to baseball, the game that as a child had possessed him. (Golf was a later love, the game that, from the age of twenty-five on, he methodically set out to possess.) Fashioning a stand-alone edition of the essay also gave Updike a chance to conflate his two later, shorter, "lower-key" pieces on Williams (a meditation for Sport, 1986, and an obituary for the Times, 2002) into a single, definitive afterword. And, of course, the proposal presented him with yet another chance to make a book, a pursuit whose excitement never paled for him, not even after making some sixty of them.

Mainly, though, Updike knew that "Hub Fans" was one of his "lucky pieces," one of those inspired short works that, like such anthology classics as "A & P," "Pigeon Feathers," and "Separating," had come to epitomize his achievement as a writer. He also knew that the Williams of "Hub Fans," just as surely as Rabbit or Bech or Richard Maple, was one of his classic characters, a living, striving, spitting, bat-flipping model of literary portraiture that a half-century of sportswriters have tried in vain to improve upon. In short, he knew the worth of what his twenty-eight-year-old self had produced in October 1960: "a five days' labor of love . . . the facts all in me, waiting to be plucked." He was happy for the opportunity to get his writings on Williams into their definitive form, and was gratified that, in an LOA edition, they would likely stay in print forever and be "relatively imperishable."

We agreed to terms, and had just begun our work together, when, on Thanksgiving weekend, he discovered he had advanced lung cancer and, at most, only a few more months to live. Though he knew he'd never see the finished book, and though his mind and heart were occupied with so much else, he focused on the literary task at hand and paid close attention to the LOA's developing plans. He warned me not to make the trim size too "petite": "We don't want the book to look too trifling." He approved my choices of frontispiece and case illustration, but forbade further illustrations: "There shouldn't be too much attempt to 'juice up' the little volume. Austerity is always in style." He suggested that, for endpapers, we use details from the typescript he sent to the New Yorker on October 5, 1960, the original of which he had recently deposited at Harvard's Houghton Library. He improved and approved his setting copy in a letter dated "Xmas Day 2008." And he mailed me his preface, the last little bit of text, on January 4, 2009, just three weeks before he died.

His personal courage, his dedication to craft, his focus and intensity up to the very end--they were nothing but heroic. For me Updike in the clutch, like Updike the day-in-day-out professional writer, was just slightly larger than life. His example continues to illuminate, with a hard blue glow, my sense of all that a writer can and should be: a player who, no matter what the stakes, always brings his best self to the game.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams

64 pages.

The Library of America.

$15 hardcover.


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