Boston Bids Adieu
September 28, 1941: On the final day of the season in Philadelphia, Ted Williams goes six for eight in a doubleheader against Connie Mack’s Athletics to finish the season batting .406, the last time a player achieved that mark.
Nineteen years later, September 28, 1960: In Williams’ last at-bat at Boston’s Fenway Park, he hit a home run – number 521 in his Hall of Fame career.
His first game was 21 years earlier, but as most fans know he didn’t play all 21 seasons; he enlisted in the Navy in WWII, he trained as a fighter pilot from 1943-45, but the war ended before he saw action. Several years later, the Marine Corps needed pilots, and Williams was again called to service, this time flying 39 combat missions over Korea in 1951 and 1952.
Williams’ last game became his last game. The Red Sox were scheduled to face the Yankees in New York for the final three games of the season, but “The Kid” decided to hang up his spikes after the game on the the 28th ended, ensuring his last-at bat would be a home run.
On that Wednesday, the Sox’s final home game, the contest began at 2:18 p.m. under what the official scorecard described as “gloomy and overcast” skies.
Massachusetts native Pete Filicetti made sure he was listening to this game between the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. “I was in New York City at the time, involved in graduate study at Fordham University. Knowing this was his last game, I made sure I scheduled my time to listen to the game,” he said.
“I also remember Williams, who disliked Joe DiMaggio, saying he was not going to stick around like DiMaggio, who batted below .300 in his final year.”
For the 1960 season, Williams batted .316 (compared to .254 the previous year) and belted 29 home runs.
“Williams hated that DiMaggio would always insist that be introduced at events as the greatest living baseball player,” said Filicetti. “In spite of his difficulties with the fans at Fenway, they were holding a big ceremony for him that day, and that he would not go to New York. The Red Sox were very bad that year, and a trip to New York, I believe, would not be in the cards for Williams.”
There was also a great deal of speculation in the press that this would be his last game, recalled Fillicetti. “I could not imagine Williams wanting to play his last game in Yankee Stadium,” he added. “He was still having nightmares of Jerry Coleman hitting that bases-loaded blooper in right field with Zeke Zarilla just missing it in 1949 and the Yankees winning the pennant.”
He listened to the game alone in his room in the city’s International House, where he was living while earning a graduate degree in psychology. “There were no other Red Sox fans to enjoy the game with,” he said. “I was very happy he was able to go out this way. He was my favorite player and had contributed so much to baseball and his country. One of the most revered players of his era and beyond. Who will ever forget that great moment years later at the All-Star Game at Fenway when he was brought up to the mound in a wheelchair and all the players gathered around him?” Filicetti recalled.
“I saw Williams play many, many times. I lived in North Adams MA, and they had train excursions to Fenway for Sunday doubleheaders. I did not miss any. I got to see him play on several other occasions as I grew up. I also remember as a child growing up listening to every game on the radio and recording the games in my scorebook,” said Filicetti.
Only 10,544 fans were at Fenway that afternoon. Williams might or might not have been the greatest hitter who ever lived, but his acrimonious relationship with Boston’s fans was nothing like DiMaggio’s, with his followers in New York and around the country (and particularly Italian-Americans), who hero-worshipped him.
Williams’ greatest accomplishment, hitting .406 in 1941, has been somewhat overshadowed by DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, one of the ultimate baseball numbers in a sport that lives by numbers.
One fan at the game was a young New Yorker writer named John Updike, a baseball and Boston Red Sox aficionado. One of the few novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize twice for fiction, Updike’s article on this game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” is considered a classic of baseball literature. (And because it’s better than anything I could write about Williams’ last game, I’m going to quote from it at length.)
The Sox were trailing the Orioles 4-2 in the bottom of the 8th. With one out, Williams came to the plate to face Oriole pitcher Jack Fisher. Then the magic happened.
“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 ball park? Just applause – no name 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 somber and considered tumult.
Pete Falcetti's ball signed by Boston greats, including The Splendid Splinter himself.
“Fisher … 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, 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.”
As Williams circled the bases, the crowd erupted into a cheer. It would have been a fitting farewell if Williams had tipped his cap to acknowledge the fans’ ovation. In interviews, Williams said he thought about doffing the cap, but was 20 percent for it, and 80 percent against it, so it stayed on.
That made the score 4-3. Williams went out to his spot in left field to start the ninth, but his manager replaced him, giving Williams another chance to be cheered as he left the field for the last time. Thanks to some sloppy play by Baltimore, the Red Sox scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win by a score 5-4, as meaningless a fact as what Thomas Jefferson wore when he wrote the Declaration of Independence or what Neil Armstrong ate in the lunar module after he first walked on the moon.
As Williams concluded his career, Updike finished his piece with this, unintentionally showing how the devoted fan Pete Filicetti was prescient about Williams leaving the game: “On the car radio as I drove home I heard that Williams had decided not to accompany the team to New York. So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.”