Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu

There are collectible books — and then there’s anything published by the Library of America, the independent non-profit organization founded in 1979 that Newsweek called “the most important book-publishing project in our nation’s history.”

The goal of the Library of America (LOA) is to preserve the literary heritage of the United States by publishing and keeping permanently in print authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing, from anthologies of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to the acid-laced sci-fi musings of Philip K. Dick, each volume beautifully designed on high quality, acid-free paper, bound in a cloth cover and sewn to lay flat when opened. (Retail volumes come in a distinctive black dust jacket that you’ve no doubt seen on bookstore shelves; subscribers receive their books in a cream-colored slipcase edition.)

With the recent (April 2010) Special Publication of Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu: John Updike on Ted Williams, the LOA has outdone itself and created a classic for the ages, a fitting tribute to the controversial and prolific novelist and essayist (“Has the sonofabitch ever had one thought he didn’t put down on paper?” the late novelist David Foster Wallace once pondered in an essay savaging Updike) and a lyrical tone poem to baseball, the sport once heralded as America’s Pastime before Nike, Reebok and a handful of other shrewd promoters hijacked the NBA in a cynical and highly successful attempt to sell expensive branded sneakers to urban youth.

“Updike was a baseball writer only once,” wrote journalist Richard Ben Cramer, author of the outstanding biography Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, “yet he wrote the finest baseball story that I know of. He and Ted Williams shared a singular ambition: to be the best that ever played the game.”

Williams played 21 seasons as a left-fielder with the Boston Red Sox (interrupted by service twice as a Marine Corps pilot in World War II and the Korean War), leading the American League as a batter six times, winning the Triple Crown twice and achieving a career lifetime of 521 home runs. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.

Williams played professional ball in a day and age when players had colorful, novelistic names like Birdie Tebbetts, Johnny Pesky, Hack Wilson, Willie Tasby, and Pumpsie Green, and sportswriters like Huck Finnegan recorded their exploits on the field; modern baseball is an obscene corporate enterprise, best illustrated by the 2009 New York Yankees total payroll of $206 million (with $33 million going to slugger Alex Rodriguez and $16.5 million to pitcher A.J. Burnett in ‘09).

On September 28, 1960 Red Sox slugger Ted Williams stepped to the plate for his last at-bat in Boston’s Fenway Park, having recently announced his retirement. In a storybook ending to a fabled career – think the final at-bat of Roy Hobbs in The Natural – Williams belted a solo home run.

In the stands that afternoon was 28-year-old John Updike, already an established writer for the New Yorker, inspired by the moment to make his solo venture into the field of sports reporting; he describes his fellow spectators:

Two girls, one of them with pert buckteeth and eyes as black as vest buttons, the other with white skin and flesh-colored hair, like an underdeveloped photograph of a redhead, came and sat down on my right. On my other side was one of those frowning chestless young-old men who can frequently be seen, often wearing sailor hats, attending ball games alone. He did not once open his program but instead tapped it, rolled up, on his knee as he gave the game his disconsolate attention … there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a sufficient quantity of insouciance is saturated with enough insecurity; thick-necked Army officers with brass on their shoulders and steel in their stares; pepperings of priests; perfumed bouquets of Roxbury Fabian fans; shiny salesmen from Albany and Fall River; and those gray, hoarse men – taxi drivers, slaughterers, and bartenders – who will continue to click through the turnstiles long after everyone else has deserted to television.

Updike’s tribute in the New Yorker to Ted Williams’ historic last game in Fenway Park (originally printed on October 20, 1960) has been commemorated by the Library of America in a deluxe commemorative edition on the 50th anniversary of the dramatic exit of baseball’s greatest hitter.

At 64 pages, Hub Kids is a slim edition indeed but it contains a brief preface by Updike written within weeks of his passing in January 2009 and is one of the most aesthetically beautiful books I ever laid hand and eyes upon; three photos of the great Ted Williams adorn the book: one color photo on the dust jacket by Leslie Jones (The Kid Knocks Another One Out Of Fenway Park), a poignant black-and-white image on the frontispiece showing the slugger ascending from the dugout to the field on his final day, and a beautiful sepia-tone image that is spread across the front and back boards depicting Williams in freeze frame as he hits another one for the fences. Topping off the luxurious design are endpapers from the typewritten setting copy of Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu mailed by the author to the New Yorker on October 5, 1960, complete with strike-throughs and hand-written text changes by Updike.

The bottom line: for Updike fans and baseball fans alike this is an indispensable treasure.

As a dedicated bibliophile I have spent many long evenings studying the LOA print catalog or perusing the publisher’s website, longing for the day when I could afford the entire hardback collection of Library of America titles – the ultimate assemblage of American writing – and always realizing, forlornly, that the ineluctable workings of economic law that apply to the life of a freelance writer will probably never allow that dream to come to fruition.

Now, at the age of 51, infirmed and disabled for the last eight years with no hopeful sign of improvement, that collection will likely never grace my bookshelves, though a few LOA titles have found a home there. But in the meantime I will, like Williams in his prime, keep swinging for the fences and – who knows? – perhaps the next novel that I peck and claw at will be The One that will afford me an LOA collection. Until that time I have this volume to marvel at time and again, one of the most beautiful specimens of American publishing I have ever seen.

Hats off to the LOA and RIP John Updike.