(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 28, 2003)
Even if times are tough again this year, Halberstam's wonderful reminiscence of the glory days of Red Sox baseball, from just after World War II through the early 1950's, should keep all baseball fans happy. Including all the excitement of the 1946 World Series between Boston and the St. Louis Cardinals, the book also brings back an era, more than a half-century ago, when close and supportive friendships developed between players who spent their careers on the same teams, all playing a game they loved simply because they loved (and just happened to be very good at) it. In this story of the sixty-year friendship of baseball greats Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky of the Boston Red Sox, we are reminded of the kind of friendship which was possible in an era in which players were people, not commodities. By presenting the very human qualities that attracted this foursome to each other and cemented their friendship for the rest of their lives, Halberstam also shows why they are all regarded with such affection.
Warm and nostalgic, the book opens in October, 2001, as Dom DiMaggio, accompanied by Boston writer Dick Flavin and Johnny Pesky, makes a melancholy car trip to Florida to pay a last visit to Ted Williams, who is dying. DiMaggio, who lives in Florida during the winter, has become a particularly close friend of Williams in retirement and in his final illness. Bobby Doerr, who is unable to make the trip because of his wife's health, has remained in touch with them all, and as the men drive from Boston to Florida, they reminisce about their playing days, recalling anecdotes and talking about their lives, post-baseball.
Emphasizing the values these players brought with them to the game, Halberstam describes them first as teenagers and tells why baseball was attractive to them. Ted Williams found baseball an escape from a terrible home life. Dom DiMaggio followed two older brothers who were stars in the game. For Johnny Pesky, who started as the clubhouse boy for a minor league team in Portland, Oregon, a baseball career was a family decision; and for Bobby Doerr, it was a result of his all-star performance in American Legion ball, and, not incidentally, the fact that Ty Cobb himself had kept track of his progress.
All four players were from the West Coast, all were about the same age, and all arrived in Boston to begin their careers within the same two-year period, quickly becoming fast friends, interdependent on each other. "Their lives were forever linked through a thousand box scores, through long hours of traveling on trains together, through shared moments of triumph, and even more in the case of the Red Sox, through shared moments of disappointment "
Ted Williams, "the undisputed champion of contentiousness," was the most dominant of the group. Loud, argumentative, and driven, he was "quite possibly the most blasphemous player of all time." But as Pesky says, "It was like there was a star on the top of his head, pulling everyone toward him like a beacon, and letting everyone around him know that he was special in some marvelous way." Bobby Doerr was Williams's closest friend and roommate, "a kind of ambassador from Ted to the rest of the world, explaining him, pointing out that he meant no harm and that, yes, he really was likable." Doerr himself was "very simply among the nicest and most balanced men . centered, straight and old-fashioned, a square," a man who never cursed and never lost his temper, and the only man in whom Williams confided--or trusted enough to allow him to make suggestions when he had a rare batting slump.
Dom DiMaggio, the son of Italian immigrants and the brother of Vince and Joe, was the consummate worker, a smart player who had been "forced to study everything carefully when he was young in order to maximize his chances and athletic abilities." Small and younger-looking even than Johnny Pesky, he had fought prejudices throughout his career because of his ethnicity and his need for eyeglasses, almost unheard of among pro baseball players. Conscientious and talented, he was seven times an All-Star, and became, in Johnny Pesky's words, "the almost perfect baseball player: so smart and so talented .[H]e never made a mistake I will never understand why he is not in Cooperstown." (Nor does Halberstam, who also believes that Pesky belongs there in the Hall of Fame, too.)
Johnny Pesky, son of Croatian immigrants, was honest and unpretentious, and despite his fame, "he never [as a senior citizen] became hard and grizzled, but instead remained kind, caring, almost innocent," an inspiration to young players coming up. The only one of the four who has stayed in baseball for his entire life, Pesky is still in a Boston uniform as a coach for the Red Sox. "I'm a baseball man, and it's all I'll ever be," he once declared to DiMaggio. "I'll wear the uniform until I die, and then they'll probably have to cut it off me." Now in his eighties, Pesky is still at Fenway Park, "hitting fungos to men who might well be his grandchildren," an immensely popular man and a Red Sox icon for sixty years.
Though it is the human qualities of these men which make this book unique and elevate it above the statistics and baseball lore so prevalent in other baseball histories, Halberstam does give fascinating statistics and a particularly vibrant retelling of the seventh game in the 1946 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. DiMaggio, who had tied up the game in the final innings with a hit, popped a hamstring and had to be replaced. Traditional wisdom has suggested that in the crucial play of the game, Pesky, the shortstop, held the ball a fraction of a second too long before throwing home, allowing the winning run to score and costing Boston the World Series. Halberstam believes this is wrong and provides information from other players who corroborate this. But Pesky himself says, "You can't argue with people about what they thought they saw even if they didn't see it," and remains to this day unaffected by what others think.
Imbuing this loving reminiscence of a time gone by with warmth and humor, Halberstam presents four characters who are engaging even when, in the case, of Williams, they may be frustratingly disagreeable. Stories and anecdotes, sometimes told by players themselves, make the men individually come alive and show the depth of their rare friendship. As the stories of Williams, Doerr, DiMaggio, and Pesky are brought up to the present, the reader experiences bittersweet moments. In old age these icons have become as human as the rest of us, of course, subject to the same deterioration and physical problems. In Halberstam's sensitive rendering of their abiding relationship, however, we see them as men who have always recognized and preserved the most important of human values, and in that respect they continue to serve as heroes and exemplars to fans of baseball throughout the country.
- Amazon readers rating: from 72 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era (1965)
- The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (1969)
- Ho (1971)
- The Best and the Brightest (1972)
- The Powers That Be (1979)
- The Reckoning (1986)
- The Next Century (1991)
- The Fifties (1993)
- The Children (1998)
- War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals (2001)
- The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (September 2007)
- Firehouse (2002)
Sports in America:
- The Breaks of the Game (1981)
- The Amateurs (1985)
- Summer of '49 (1989)
- October 1964 (1994)
- Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World That He Made (1999)
- Sports on New York Radio: A Play-By-Play History (1999)
- The Teammates (May 2003)
- The Education of a Coach (November 2005)
- Everything They Had (May 2008)
- Best American Sports Writing of the Century (1999)
- Defining a Nation: Our America and the Source of Its Strength (2006)
- One Very Hot Day (1967)
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- Wikipedia page on David Halberstam
- Royce Carlton biography on David Halbertstam
- Washington Post interview with Halberstam on Iraq
- New York State Writers Institute on David Halberstam
- Bookpage 1998 interview with David Halberstam
- Some comments on David Halberstam and his works
- Salon.com interview with David Halberstam on Playing for Keeps
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About the Author:
David Halberstam is a nonfiction writer, historian and a legendary figure in American journalism. He earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1955 and his reporting career began in Mississippi at the West Point Daily Times Leader, where he spent one year before moving on to the Nashville Tennesseean. In 1960 he joined the staff of the New York Times. Halberstam's first wartime reporting came in 1962 in the Congo. He then asked to be assigned to Vietnam to cover America's involvement in Southeast Asia. Two years later, at age 30, he received a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting which questioned U.S. involvement in the war. Halberstam also served as New York Times correspondent in Poland where his reporting led to the country's Communist regime ordering him out of the country.
Halberstam has authored over 16 books, most all which have been best sellers. Halberstam's trilogy of books on power in America, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be and The Reckoning have won innumerable awards and is said to have helped define the latter part of this century more than any journalistic works. He is also an authority on sports in America, which has been the subject of many of his books, with topics ranging from amateur rowing to major league baseball and basketball.Halberstam is the recipient of 14 honorary degrees and was the George Mason University Heritage Chair in Writing in 1994-95.
David Halberstam was killed in a three car accident on April 23, 2007 in Menlo Park at the age of 73 years old. He lived in New York City.