Splendid Splinter's final at-bat was poetic end

Splendid Splinter's final at-bat was poetic end

On Sept. 28, 1960, the world swung between anticipation and dread, people everywhere holding their breath with hope or fear. It was an exciting place and time, but little of the excitement wafted over Fenway Park on that gray Wednesday afternoon.

In two weeks, on Oct. 12, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would be banging his shoe atop a desk at the United Nations, threatening to bury us. On Oct. 13, the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates would play what is still considered "The Greatest Game Ever" -- Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.

In Boston, there was no Red Sox Nation yet. Had it existed, it certainly would've been a tiny country. So on Sept. 28, only a sparse crowd of 10,455 filed into Fenway Park to bid farewell to summer in the season's final home game.

They came to send the seventh-place Red Sox off to a winter's hibernation, and Ted Williams off to retirement.

Teddy Ballgame was 42. He had extended a career that had begun in 1939 into a fourth decade. He was a splendid 42. Two years earlier, he had earned his sixth American League batting title, at the age of 40.

Travel, the constant battles with the Boston media and the ineptitude of the Red Sox had worn on him and told him it was time to recede into the baseball version of that good night against which Dylan Thomas raged, but, even now, he was batting .316 as he stood in to face Baltimore left-hander Steve Barber in the bottom of the first.

Williams walked.

Jack Fisher was the Orioles pitcher by the time Williams next stepped into the batter's box, in the third. He lifted an easy fly ball to center. In the fifth, same matchup, similar result -- except this time, the fly went to right and looked promising until dying an honorable death on the warning track.

In the eighth inning, Fisher was still on the mound, ennui still gripped Fenway Park. Baltimore led, 4-2. Not that it mattered. Nothing seemed to matter ... until the intimate crowd responded to the realization that Williams was striding to the plate in the Red Sox's home whites for the final time.

Even then, the greeting was relatively tepid; polite, not hysteric. As one, the house stood and applauded -- a standing acknowledgment more than a standing ovation.

Williams' swing ruptured the serenity.

As the ball off his bat soared toward center, clearly beyond the restraining capability of the wall out there, the fans out-roared their numbers. Unaffected, Williams ran out No. 521 as he had run out the other 520 ... lanky strides, head bopping, a handshake with the on-deck batter, then disappearance into the dugout.

The fans clamored for a curtain call.

Taking this all in from his box seat was a young John Updike, who, as noted in the New York Times, had fortuitously ventured to Fenway Park after his social plans for the day had fallen through. In the author's ensuing seminal essay, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," Updike wrote, "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 never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters."

Williams had removed his uniform -- and mentally removed himself from the game forever -- by the time Willie Tasby won the game for the Red Sox in the bottom of the ninth with a ridiculous walk-off two-run infield grounder, thrown away by the Baltimore second baseman.

The Red Sox had one more series on that season's schedule, three games in Yankee Stadium. Williams would not be there, having already decided to give his matchless career that perfect coda.

Updike concluded his story, which originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 1960, issue of The New Yorker, with a final bow to Williams: "On the car radio as I drove home, I heard that Williams was not going to accompany the team to New York. So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit."

The author's famous words were recently reissued in a 64-page edition, including an introduction written by Updike, by the Library of America.

"I used to hear my dad talk about him, and he always said he was the greatest hitter that he ever saw," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "I met him when I was a kid. This was a little bit before me with the Red Sox.

"He was managing the Senators. That would be about 1969-70. My dad made me walk over to their dugout, I was like 10 years old. He said, 'Go introduce yourself to him, tell him who you are.' Years later, he said, 'I wanted you to shake the hand of the greatest hitter that ever played.' My dad has a picture wall at home that he had passed on to me. He has a picture of when he was 18 years old, playing in an All-Star Game in New York City, and Ted Williams was the Major Leaguer that came to be at the game. Then when my dad played his first game in Boston, somebody had brought Ted over to the dugout to talk to my dad. So he has pictures of both those. They're pretty cool pictures."

"He pretty much is the franchise," said catcher Jason Varitek. "He's the biggest-name person to excel as a man of the country, as a human being and as a great player in that uniform.

"When you're of that kind of stature, it's pretty special. If you're anybody, it's pretty special. Nobody's still done what he's done."

Neither the Splendid Splinter nor the author he inspired to such eloquence are still with us. But the late Updike's words will never leave us:

"Williams' last word had been so exquisitely chosen, such a perfect fusion of expectation, intention, and execution, that already it felt a little unreal in my head ..."

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @TomDinger on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.