Teddy Ballgame exited stage oh, so right
Home run in final at-bat punctuated, grew Williams' legend
Dave Powers was John F. Kennedy's press aide in the 1960 campaign and in the White House. Many years later he was working at the Kennedy Library, and the lifelong Red Sox fan reached into his desk one day and pulled out the 1961 Baseball Register.
"Jack kept this in his desk in the Oval Office, and sometimes took it on the road with him as his lucky charm," Powers said.
Powers opened the book to point out that Ted Williams' picture was on the inside cover. Ted had retired, and was thus saluted. "Ted retired with the home run," Powers recalled, "and less than six weeks later Jack Kennedy won the election. There was a tie, having grown up watching Ted, watching him finish, and Kennedy beginning as president."
This week Boston has celebrated two pieces of its most treasured heritage, the 50th anniversary of both the first Kennedy-Richard Nixon debate and Williams' Hub Bids Kid Adieu moment that John Updike turned into literary art history. In fact, the first Kennedy-Nixon debate occurred two days before Williams' Sept. 28 home run at Fenway Park, and as Powers joyfully pointed out, each came weeks before Kennedy's election.
To those of us who were teenagers at Groton School in rural Massachusetts, there was a sense that, indeed, the debates were history. I was fortunate to have a history teacher who loved politics almost as much as he loved teaching and maturing teenagers, a man named Jake Congleton, and because of him we understood that we were watching electronic media and politics become forever intertwined.
We had come off the football fields when we heard of Williams' home run and that he announced he wasn't going to New York for the final three games and thus had homered in his final at-bat. Understand that it was so slight an event that 10,455 were in Fenway on a cold, blustery afternoon for the final home game of yet another abysmal seventh-place season.
I do know that the Harvard hockey captain, Tim Taylor, took the afternoon off and sat in the seats his family -- which built Fenway Park -- have held since it sold the Red Sox in the 1910s. Updike, of course, was there, thankfully. But there was none of the buildup that there is for Mike Lowell Day this Saturday, or for the Yaz Weekend when Carl Yastrzemski retired. The sidebar in the next morning's paper was about Mike Fornieles setting the American League record for appearances with his 70th.
Williams later said he crushed two balls that the wind killed. "I never thought I could get it out," he later said, but off Jack Fisher in the bottom of the eighth he slayed the east wind and the ball carried into the bleachers. He ran around the bases, head down, as if it were a 10-6 game in June against the Washington Senators. Teamates, umpires, clubhouse kids all knew this was it, that Ted was not going to New York and that, indeed, the man who wanted to walk down the street and have someone say, "There goes the best [expletive] hitter who ever lived," had beaten Mother Mature and homered in his final at-bat.
Naturally, he would not come out and tip his hat for a curtain call. Not Ted. "Gods do not answer letters," wrote Updike, but later Ted several times told me that he regretted not coming out and doffing the hat. "I could be a little stubborn, you know," he said at his Florida house in 1991.
His farewell reflected a blurry line between fact and fiction, the way it should be. John Wayne made a career playing the persona of Ted Williams, the man who dominated every room he ever entered. Updike, one of the most literate men of letters in the 20th century, had to take the T over from Cambridge to elevate a Jack Fisher gopher ball -- and, remember, a year later Fisher gave up Roger Maris's 60th -- to a scene from "Henry V."
Updike's essay changed sportswriting and may have spurred The New Yorker to allow us the brilliant prose of Roger Angell. The farewell began the rehabilitation of the tempestuous Williams in New Englanders' eyes, to where he stands as the region's most memorable icon.
Oh, it was decades before he was at peace with the Boston media, but he'd long passed all that behind. Baseball's African-Americans have never forgotten that when Williams made his induction speech in Cooperstown, he was the first to plead the case of the Negro League players; the Boston media wrote more about whether or not he cursed in his speech.
Teenagers named Wade Boggs and Joey Votto carried Williams' book, "The Science of Hitting," with them.
Ted Williams was 42 on Sept. 28, 1960, and the home run left him with a farewell season of a .316 average, 29 homers, .451 on-base percentage and 1.096 OPS. He knew when it was time to leave, and he left on his own terms, without fanfane, without so much as a tipped cap -- just with a towering drive that turned around the winds that howled in from the Maritimes.
He always wanted to be the best damned hitter who ever lived, and he walked away proving it, with no regrets, no tears goodbye.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.