Opening Day: “An Indefensible Hope”

For my Twins and most other major league teams, today is Opening Day: the time each year when I’m reminded again that I love baseball far above every other sport — and that it’s hard to explain that love to non-fans. For example, the fact that baseball could inspire a writer as acclaimed as John Updike to do some of his best work speaks volumes about the National Pastime: why I love it, and why others roll their eyes at people like me.

Ted Williams 1940 baseball card
Williams near the other end of his career, as a second-year player in 1940 – Wikimedia

Consider Updike’s 1960 New Yorker essay on Ted Williams’ last game (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu“). Within three sentences, Updike has already described Fenway Park as “a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.” And he’s exactly right to do so… But that’s just the first classical reference in an essay that goes on to liken Williams to Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.

And to compare him to works by both Donatello and Leonardo.

And to use “Wordsworthian” as an adjective. And to record a joke about Thomas Aquinas.

As you may have heard, baseball is “the thinking man’s game.”

But even if you find such allusions pretentious, stick with Updike’s essay. You’ll eventually come to his riveting account of the 41-year old Williams stepping into the batter’s box in the 8th inning of an otherwise meaningless game:

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.

As a historian, I appreciate how Updike has all those memories of the past (each hearkening back to earlier sections of the essay) converging in a single moment. That’s a big part of baseball’s appeal for me: everything that happens adds a layer to the archeology of a game that would be recognizable to Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama alike.

But it’s not the past, but what Updike has to say about the future on the other side of that moment that is most important:

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. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

I know I should resist the temptation to make too much of this. (Brilliantly, Updike waits two more paragraphs before thinking to add that Williams’ 521st home run “had, quite incidentally, made the score 4–3.”) And maybe it’s just that this Opening Day falls in Eastertide, but I’d rest my apology for baseball — like my apology for faith — on the idea that “there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope….”

Indefensible because baseball so regularly dashes hopes. The year Williams retired, American League batters made outs twice as often as they reached base safely. Owner of the highest on-base percentage in major league history, Williams grounded, lined, popped, flied, or was struck out about 5,000 times in his career. When he did reach, it was as likely as not because someone else had failed — a pitcher’s flat curveball or an outfielder’s slow read dashing another fan’s hope.

“It looks easy from a distance,” wrote Updike in his other most famous piece about the game, but

…Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody’s right,
beginning with baseball.

Ted Williams with Richard Nixon at Opening Day, 1969
Less famously, Ted Williams managed the Washington Senators to an 86-76 record during the 1969 season, which opened with Pres. Richard Nixon throwing out the first pitch (Williams is in the white uniform in the center of the photo with his back to the camera) – U.S. National Archives

At-bat after at-bat, game after game, season after season, baseball players fail and baseball fans experience disappointment. It’s not like other sports. Managers can’t “scheme” their way around failure. You can’t feed the hot hand in a batting order. Sure, players go on hot streaks — all of which run headlong into Updike’s insight that “Baseball is a game of the long season, of relentless and gradual averaging-out.”

None of it matters.

In the soggy September air of an exhausted season and in the fresh April breezes of Opening Day, at the end of a player’s career and the beginning of a team’s season, a “density of expectation” hangs over baseball. Moments as short as a left-handed swing and as long as the Cubs’ wait to return to the World Series: they start, indefensibly, in hope and end, indescribably, in joy.

Play ball!

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