I know nothing of the sport, but read a few obits of the legendary Roger Angell, who passed away at 101 this past week. Mark Stryker is a true fan, and linked to this extensive Angell profile of pitcher Bob Gibson, saying, “Here’s the best writing about the best in 1980.”
Again, I don’t really understand baseball, but found Angell’s take on Gibson nothing less than enthralling. One of the themes is race, and there are obvious parallels between Gibson and various jazz greats of the era.
Influences are interesting, especially when admitted in frank terms. From Dwight Garner’s New York Times obit:
The tone of his baseball writing, he once said, was inspired by a now canonical John Updike article, written in 1960, about Ted Williams’s final game at Fenway Park in Boston. “My own baseball writing was still two years away when I first read ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,’” Mr. Angell wrote, “and though it took me a while to become aware of it, John had already supplied my tone, while also seeming to invite me to try for a good sentence now and then, down the line.”
I dialed up the Updike on the New Yorker site. Again, to my surprise, I was intensely moved by a sportswriter waxing poetic about various long ago games, where statistical excellence is presented as a feat of honor. The essay builds to Williams’s final turn at bat, where the retiring player beat the odds and hit a home run.
John Updike’s imagery here is some of the most striking I’ve ever read.
This was almost certainly his last time to come to the plate in Fenway Park, and instead of merely cheering, as we had at his three previous appearances, we stood, all of us—stood and applauded. Have you ever heard applause in a ballpark? Just applause—no calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the edge of the sand. It was a sombre and considered tumult. There was not a boo in it. It seemed to renew itself out of a shifting set of memories as the kid, the Marine, the veteran of feuds and failures and injuries, the friend of children, and the enduring old pro evolved down the bright tunnel of twenty-one summers toward this moment. At last, the umpire signalled for Fisher to pitch; with the other players, he had been frozen in position. Only Williams had moved during the ovation, switching his hat impatiently, ignoring everything except his cherished task. Fisher wound up, and the applause sank into a hush.
Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.
Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.