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“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912, rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.”
So begins the most famous—and probably still the greatest—essay about baseball ever written, John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” his New Yorker tribute to Ted Williams in his final game, September 28, 1960, and final at-bat, when Williams obliged his fans and posterity with a 440-foot valedictory home run.
I have my own Chicago boyhood memories of Williams when the Red Sox came to town—of the games only vaguely but of the prior batting practice indelibly, with Williams rocketing balls off the right-field upper deck in the old Comiskey Park, his swing its own marvel of Euclidean determination. The end of that perfect swing is caught beautifully in the sepia photo wrapped around the boards of a small commemorative book reprint of the essay, prepared by Updike but published shortly after his death. On the front, the uncoiled Williams gazing upward into the stands; on the back, photographically continuous, catcher and umpire left with nothing more to do but also gaze skyward and admire.
I no longer follow baseball closely, but I do annually pull that little volume off my shelf as an autumnal tip of the hat to the passing of a season, to boyhood memories and dreams, and to one of the marvels of the contemporary American essay.
The centerpiece of the essay is, of course, Williams himself in all his iconic and aloof—sometimes truculent— excellence (famously, he never tipped his hat in acknowledgment, even to that final roar of adulation). But for me the essay’s opening lines carry evocations all their own.
Summers in the fifties for my brother and me were pretty much morning-to-night baseball, our endlessly practicing, say, our shortstop-to-second or second-to-shortstop moves to begin the flawless double play. It was always shortstop for me and second for him, except for a brief angsty period when, fired up by Mickey Mantle, I wondered whether my stardom might come in centerfield, a sadly low-grade existential crisis, considering my talent.
The exception to the daily routine came, of course, on Sunday, when baseball outside was not to be, lest our second base cause one of our neighbors to stumble or our raucous hitting put a dent in my father’s ministerial image. He couldn’t have been too much of a stickler about sabbath-keeping, though, allowing, as he did, for Sunday afternoon rag ball in the basement, which probably didn’t help him, a floor above, put the finishing touches on his evening sermon.
The other interludes to our outdoor play were, naturally, all those warm afternoons and evenings in front of baseball radio (dulcet Bob Elson) or, later, TV (Jack “Hey, Hey” Brickhouse and his original sidekick Harry Creighton. Creighton, to enhance the headiness of it all, was known for enthusiastically drinking the sponsor’s beer during play and promoting it between innings). On TV, only local games were broadcast, and the owner of Channel 9 seemed to have ordained that when the Sox were on the road, the Cubs were in town and the reverse, guaranteeing equal treatment for each team and a game almost every day.
Finally, came the day when, thanks to a friend of my father, my brother and I were invited to the real thing, a night game at Comiskey Park. Chico Carrasquel at shortstop and Nellie Fox at second base—in the flesh. And in left field, charismatic Minnie Minoso, close enough for my center-field ambitions.
The approach to the old Comiskey Park at 35th and Shields was not bucolic. Constructed in 1910 over a former city dump—a joke had it that legendary shortstop Luke Appling once caught his spikes in a buried coffee pot—the park was surrounded by the gritty working-class neighborhood of Armour Square and sat in a sprawl of jammed city streets and parking lots from which would emerge, as soon as you parked, a youth who promised, for a price, to “protect” your car. As to the brick front of the park, this was before Bill Veeck (as in “wreck, he announced) came to town in 1959 and painted, to little uplifting avail, the exterior walls white and, in his most flamboyant antic, installed the major league’s first exploding scoreboard, inspired by a James Cagney movie with pinball machines.
Then through the gates and into caverned levels and inclines of concrete and steel, with beer and hotdogs and pennants hawked on every side, upwards to the top. And there, as we emerged from the stadium surround into the tiered rows of the upper deck, it was! The lights were already on, and far below, a glorious expanse of grass whose preternatural green our black-and-white Zenith TV could never have prepared me for. The infield base paths, pitcher’s mound, and batter’s circle seemed less constructed than precision-punched out of the manicured turf. And a vast expanse it was, Comiskey Park having been designed for pitchers and defense, reflecting from the outset the playing style of the original White Sox “Hitless-Wonders” and a design still favorable to the stellar-defense, spray-single “go-go” teams I knew in the fifties. No cheap home runs here, with a deep center field of 420 feet in an outfield allowing plenty of range for Minoso, Busby, and Rivera to haul down long fly balls. And unlike Williams’ Fenway Park, with its asymmetrically short left field and high wall, Comiskey was in perfect proportion, 363 feet down each foul line. Whatever the small changes over the years (Bill Veeck was a hard man to keep down), they were held to absolute scale. Not an irregularity in sight.
But beyond the glories of color, expanse, and scale, something deeper, it occurs to me now, may have been coming through, however unrecognized at the time. That entrancing Easter-egg perspective so named by Updike. Here, in a nighttime spectacle enclosed by high grandstands and enveloping lights, was, startlingly, a magical world within another world, contained but entire in itself. Other worlds, then, sometimes unexpected and sometimes closer than we think.