John Updike’s classic “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is a brief valedictory to Ted Williams that has just been reprinted by the Library of America. Considering that the price, $15, is half of what I spent on hot dogs and a few overpriced Yuenglings at the ballpark the other day, it’s the best bargain in baseball.
Every fan of the game -- and every admirer of great writing -- should own this slim book. Indeed, the measure of your devotion to baseball and to literature may be whether you can complete this sentence, the finest opening of any sports writing not produced by Grantland Rice: “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a ...” (Answer below.)
Updike describes those 1960 Red Sox as a “jangling medley of incompetent youth and aging competence” and reminds us that when Williams came to bat in the eighth inning of his last game at Fenway, he was greeted with “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, he said, a “somber and considered tumult.” That, and not the ferocious roar from the stands in the more violent sports of hockey and football, is the essence of the thinking fan’s athletic crowd.
In that crowd, by the way, everyone knows that “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.” You could look it up in this lyric little book, if for reasons beyond comprehension you do not know it by heart.
Tennis, too, is a game of elegance and elegies, and Patrick McEnroe has just served up “Hardcourt Confidential” (Hyperion, $25.99). While not as hard-hitting or confidential as the title suggests, it offers insight into a game that, like baseball, is steeped in tradition and taboos.
McEnroe -- brother of a tennis legend, onetime Grand Slam doubles champ, current U.S. Davis Cup captain and ESPN commentator -- offers glimpses into the hidden lives and hidden codes of the game.
In a book that mixes a little biography, a little history, a little philosophy and a gallon of gossip, McEnroe tells us Steffi Graf was a lousy socializer, Serena Williams has the same service motion as a man, Roger Federer is the picture of relaxation and Rafael Nadal often employs the mind game of making opponents wait for him -- between points, in the locker room, sometimes even retreating to the bathroom when a match is about to begin.
There are lessons learned from the titans of the game. “Most great champions have a broad and deep stubborn streak, and all of them want to win on their own terms, as if adjusting or adapting to an opponent is somehow a confession of weakness,” he says. “The last thing a champion wants to do is let an opponent ... feel that he’s forcing you to get out of your comfort zone and making you try things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.”
Translation from jock talk: The dominant players dominate every aspect of the game, especially its rhythm.
Now from the most beloved of summer games to the stupidest. That’s not meant as an insult to Rick Reilly, the well-known columnist whose new book is “Sports From Hell” (Doubleday/ESPN Books, $26).
After 31 years covering terrific sports events, Reilly set out to “find the single stupidest idea for sporting competition the world had ever devised.”
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Reilly examines such well-loved classics of athleticism as the World Sauna Championships. There’s a drinking game called hockey (spill a drink, someone yells “Zamboni!” and you try to suck up the liquid from the table) and bull poker (four people are at a card table when a 2,000-pound bull is released -- the winner is the last fool at the table).
The stupidest? Easy: Chess boxing. Two guys alternate playing chess and boxing, until one is checkmated or KO’d. Nice mix of brain and brawn. Completely senseless. You will not see this on network television anytime soon.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)