Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 1999 /19 Mar-Cheshvan 5760
decisions that define
who we are
FOR SOME OF US, at least, the one indelible moment of
the last World Series of the 20th Century will not
consist of anything that happened on the field of
play, or of anything surrounding the Pete Rose
Instead, the moment that will live in time will be the
mind's lasting picture of Ted Williams, 81, being
helped to a chair set up near the pitcher's mound on
the baseball diamond in Atlanta, then, frail and
smiling, listening to the crowd salute him as a
member of the honorary team voted to be the best
ballplayers of the century.
For those too young to remember Williams' career,
the sight of the old man in the chair may be
deceptive, a false-light replacement for who he
really was. Williams was brittle, was combative, was
tough, arrogant; when he first came up to the Major
Leagues, he matter-of-factly proclaimed: "All I want
out of life is that when I walk down the street folks
will say `There goes the greatest hitter who ever
lived.' " He refused to cater to or even acknowledge
the Boston fans who paid to come watch him play,
routinely declining to tip his cap in response to their
cheers; he despised the sportswriters who
chronicled his work, and did not attempt to disguise
his contempt for them. He was not an easy man.
But he was--in the very highest sense of this
word--a craftsman. He honored his craft, which was
hitting baseballs, he cared for it more than he cared
for anything else, he chose to communicate most
intimately only with it. He lived for it.
The best sports story ever written is very likely John
Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," an account of
Williams' last game ever, on the afternoon of
Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960, when his Red Sox
played the Baltimore Orioles in Fenway Park. On
that day--and this is remarkable--only 10,454
customers showed up to witness the final baseball
game of Ted Williams' life.
In his last at-bat, Williams hit a home run--and there
is one paragraph in John Updike's account of that hit
that is often, with ample reason, quoted in
Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran
around the square of bases at the center of our
beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out
home runs--hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our
praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't
tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted
"We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the
dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some
seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of
immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved.
But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said
that the other players, and even the umpires on the
field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in
some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer
As unforgettable as that passage is, it is not the one
I think about when I consider Ted Williams, and
what he stood for. Hitting a home run in the last
at-bat of a superlative career is the stuff of heroes,
But there is another line in Updike's story that, I
believe, speaks even more eloquently not only about
Ted Williams' career, but about how all the rest of
us should regard our own days at work. Updike
For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the
game on a 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
That's it--right there. The rest of us will never be,
can never be, Ted Williams--we will never hear
those kinds of cheers.
But the tissue-thin difference between a thing done
well and a thing done ill--the quiet, private
determination to do one's best not because anyone is
watching, not because anyone will ever know, but
because you are watching, because you will
know--few parts of life are more important.
The highest moments in your life, and the lowest, are
what tend to define you--in the eyes of others, and
sometimes in your own. But that can be as deceiving
as the sight of an 81-year-old man sitting in a chair
on a ballfield on a chilly Atlanta night. Who are we,
really--each of us, Ted Williams, you, I? Who is our
truest self, and where do we find that truth?
In those tissue-thin moments, when the decision is
made. To do something well. To be our
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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