Famed writer and essayist John Updike died early on Tuesday at 76. Best known, perhaps, for his series of Rabbit novels, Updike was also a longtime writer for The New Yorker, where he wrote about a wide range of topics, among them baseball.
In an age where the most common sportswriting were columns sports traditionalists like Red Smith or Jimmy Cannon, writers who wrote short columns and carried on the legacy of Grantland Rice, Updike wrote long form essays on the game.
Perhaps the most famous was "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", a six-thousand plus word look at the final game of Ted Williams, a piece that is often cited as one of the best pieces of baseball writing ever. The piece – widely available online – is good enough that I don’t feel a need to recite it; honestly, just read it yourself. It’s that good.
Of course, there was more to Updike then just that piece, though it’s all that’s commonly remembered. He wrote further essays, poems and other assorted pieces of reporting on the sport over the years, although none were quite as good.
Still, though, many writers have followed in his wake, writing smart, literate pieces on sports: Roger Angell, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Richard Be Cramer, David Halberstam, etc. Some of these writers took the formula and improved it – Angell first started writing about baseball two years after “Hub Fans” and has become perhaps the best essayist on the sport - while others used it’s impact to create their own pieces; without Updike’s piece, would there have been a market for talented profile writers as Talese or Cramer to write on athletes?
I’d go so far as to say that even now, the wake from that piece is still being felt: would a website like Free Darko, which mixes intelligent analysis with smart, literate prose, exist without Updike?
As Salon.com’s King Kaufman pointed out, the similarities between the media in 1960 and today aren’t as pronounced as they seem; columnists still rip on famous athletes for arbitrary reasons.
It’s the intelligent kind of writing like Updike’s that stands the test of time. He was still remembered; Huck Finnegan, whose scathing column on Ted Williams helped to inspire “Hub Kids” has been all but forgotten.