Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28, 1960: Gods do not answer letters

***UPDATE - This event has been replaced. Go here for the new entry ***

BOSTON - He was an old man now, at the end of the line. Gone was the spindly slugger from San Diego who came into the American League in a flash and instantly established himself as the best hitter in the game. The man coming to plate now was 42 years old, and while he still had "it," he was also about to step off the stage for the final time.

Most people in Fenway Park knew that the game against Baltimore on September 28, 1960, would be Ted Williams' last game in Boston. The man who had debuted in 1939 and instantly started hitting, who had developed the ultimate love-hate relationship with the Boston fans and press, was stepping down after the season. What few people knew was that Williams had decided not to join the Red Sox for their final three-game series in New York to end the season, meaning that not only was this his final game in Boston, but it was his final game, period.

It was 19 years earlier to the day, September 28, 1941, when Williams entered the final day of the season with a batting average of .39955. Due to the laws of rounding up, his batting average would be listed as .400 if he had simply sat out the doubleheader. But Williams wouldn't think of it, wanting to get .400 legitimately, and he went out and put up a 6-for-8 line in the two games to seal what is still the final .400 season in Major League history.

Was he thinking of that day when he stepped to the plate in 1960? Was he reflecting on any other day from his career, now nearly over? Knowing Williams, probably not. His was a singluar focus: get a hit, preferably a home run. And so he played in the game after a short pre-game ceremony and tried to focus on the task at hand.

A first-inning walk, followed by two flyball outs, and Williams was almost done. As the outs ticked away, it was obvious that his eighth inning at bat would be his last, and so when his name was announced, the fans stood and applauded. They didnt' cheer. They just applauded, honoring the man for 21 years of memories, and hoping beyond hope for the one thing they dare not ask for.

And then it came. A majestic blast on a 1-1 pitch, a towering drive out towards the bullpen, a no-doubter. Williams had improbably, impossibly, hit a home run in his final at bat. And despite the racious cheers and clamoring from the fans, he ran around the bases with his head down, like always, refusing to tip his cap. When he got to the dugout, he ignored the pleas of his teammates who implored him to go take a curtain call, instead sitting in the dugout waiting to go back into the field.

And so he did, running out to left field in the top of the ninth, only to run back in the dugout as he was replaced, a chance for the fans to give him a final cheer. And again, he didn't acknowledge them. He never had, so why start now? His message to the fans had come before the game, and his final statement had been that home run. What more could he say?

Williams final game was captured brilliantly and perfectly by John Updike, who attended the game. His essay can be found here.

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