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Ted Williams’s last game

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Here’s a bit of cultural arcana that illustrates how much the media ecosystem has changed over the past six decades.

When Ted Williams played the final game of his career at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960, there were only 10,454 people in the stands. Now it’s true that it wasn’t known prior to the game that this would be the last game of his career — it was only guaranteed to be his last game before the home fans. Williams decided not to go to New York for the three-game series that weekend against the Yankees. Williams claimed in his autobiography that he made that decision before the game, but it seems more probable he made the decision after he hit the famous home run in his last at-bat at Fenway, which inspired John Updike’s famous essay in the New Yorker, the last line of which is:

So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.

Williams had announced he would retire at the end of the season on the previous Sunday — an announcement which was in no way a surprise, even though at 42 he was still a fantastic hitter (his slash line for 1960: .316/.451/.645 adjusted OPS 190 [!]). Yet Fenway was less than one third full to witness the last game of the greatest player in the franchise’s history, if you don’t count Babe Ruth, which you really shouldn’t obviously.

A side note here is that in 1960 the Red Sox played only 19 of their 81 home games at night, which obviously didn’t help attendance on a Wednesday afternoon at the end of September for a team 31 games out of the pennant race. Still, Teddy Ballgame of the MFL last game at Fenway! I mean I know people had jobs and Boston isn’t a big college town, but still.

Perhaps even more surprising, the media presence at the game was also minimal. Apparently only two press photographers were at the game — an AP pool photographer and a freelancer who filmed Williams’s Ruthian feat.

Keep in mind that, 63 years ago, the position of major league baseball in the sports media ecosystem was vastly more dominant than it is today. The NFL was only beginning to become a big deal, after spending its first four decades very much in the shadow of college football, and was still a comparatively tiny enterprise, compared to what it would eventually become. The NBA was 12 years old. The NHL existed in six cities. And so forth.

And Ted Williams was, with Joe DiMaggio, one of the two undisputed mega-stars of the game over the previous 20-plus years. He was, comparatively speaking, a bigger deal in American sports in the 1940s and 1950s than Tom Brady and LeBron James (let alone Mike Trout) are today.

What would happen in a similar situation today, of course, would be that ESPN et. al. would run weeks of coverage about Williams’s impending last game at Fenway, and his final series the following weekend at Yankee Stadium. Stubhub would be scalping tickets for these games at Taylor Swift-level prices. After Williams’s home run in his last Fenway at bat, Netflix would announce it had a series about Williams’s last season ready to drop. Etc. etc. etc.

Nobody anywhere in or around the sports world would be allowed to forget for a second that this was all A Big Deal, in other words.

I really don’t have a larger point here, or maybe I do, but it’s lunch time.

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