Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Memories in the Mind and on the Page

[gary daily col. 48 January 5, 2003]

"What do Henry Ford, John F. Kennedy and Ted Williams have in common?"
-Ira Berkow quoting a newspaper story

What year was it?

Sitting high up in the upper-deck of Comiskey Park on Chicago’s south side, it might have been 1950. A kid with kid friends at the ball game. It was the wrong ball game. I was a Cub fan surrounded by White Sox antagonists. But the White Sox were playing the Boston Red Sox in a double-header that day. I might act the mindless fan cheering for the lumbering Hank Sauer and the Cubs, but I was no fool. Seeing the Red Sox meant seeing Ted Williams.

Williams didn’t disappoint. The next day sports writers filled their columns with the clichés I grew up on and loved with a shallow and intense blindness. They reported on how the “Splendid Splinter” had “poled” two home runs into the “far reaches” of the upper-right field bleachers. Who won those two games? Who cares? The “Splendid Splinter” put one of those homers only a few rows from where I was sitting. I don’t quite remember it like it was yesterday, but it’s all too fresh to have happened over fifty years ago.

For the past seven years the Sunday “New York Times Magazine” section runs an end of the year feature that “look[s] back at noteworthy lives that ended in the last year.” Mistitled “The Lives They Lived,” it really serves as a vehicle for some fine writers to speak to readers about how these individual lives seized and stimulated their imaginations.

An example. Here’s one of America’s finest living novelists, John Updike on the baseball legend Ted Williams. He’s describing Ted Williams’ swing. No, that should be: “The Swing.”

“When an athlete or opera singer or exhilarating personality dies, it is the live performance we remember, . . . perceived from however far back a row in the audience. The [Williams] swing--the coiled wait, the popped hip, the long and graceful follow-through that left his body yearning toward first base--was a grand motion, never a lunge or hasty fending or a minimalist Ruthian swat; it took up a lot of space and seemed fully serious in its sweep.”

Many decades after that afternoon in Comiskey Park, on a trip to Key West, Florida, I was hit hard by a hunger attack for Key Lime pie. Serendipity. Within a mile I spotted a sign modestly announcing the most famous, the most authentic, the most sought after Key Lime pie in the Keys. (If you want to look for it, I think it was on Marathon Key.) I pulled into the lot of this coffee and pie shop. It was barely the size of a modest two-car garage. The pie lived up to the road sign hype.

And there were extras with the pie. The walls of this fine establishment were filled with many photographs signed by Ted Williams. Williams in uniforms--his Red Sox flannels and in his military fighter pilot gear of two wars, The Big One, WWII, and The Forgotten One, Korea. I read that Williams once crash landed a burning plane and escaped from it just minutes before it blew up. When asked about his frightening experience by a reporter he said, "Hell, yes, I was scared." I believe him, but it’s still hard for me to imagine this guy ever being scared of anything.

Photographs also showed Williams in his fishing uniform. He was an obsessive, world-class fisherman. It turned out Williams’ fishing camp was in the area. No bonefish was safe when he was on the nearby waters. Williams was a regular at this great Key Lime pie stop. The guy behind the counter described him as easy going, relaxed, a nice guy. None of that “Terrible Ted” stuff the press loved to hang around his neck. At least that’s what the pie man told me. I trust him. He had the pictures on the wall and the signs on the road had been backed up by the pie on the plate.

I’m saddened now when I think of Ted Williams cryonically frozen somewhere off in the desert reaches of Arizona. I’d rather think back to one of those fishing pictures hanging on the knotty-pine wall of his neighbor’s pie shop. I remember one that was the standard issue fisherman pose, a trophy type denizen-of-the-deep-hanging-on-a-hook shot. In the picture Ted Williams looks intense, but satisfied. In profile, the fish stares out with one great eye, either surprised or proud at having given it all up to someone of the Splendid Splinter’s stature. That’s probably how many a pitcher felt after Ted Williams gracefully lashed their best pitch against an outfield wall or into the stands.

Most of all, I like to look at photos of The Swing. But now I also have the words of John Updike. Only an artist of Updike's caliber could dissect that swing yet keep it whole. He freezes the tension, the motion, the classic grace of The Swing in words and endows it with a dynamic equipoise. It's Updike's words, not the photograph, that show us the Williams swing as a work of art. A fluid picture replayed in our mind's eye--the "long and graceful follow-through," the lean athlete's body "yearning toward first base."

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