Summer of ‘49
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It could be a coincidence, but as each of our major wars winds down we seem to become more and more mesmerized by baseball, and the cold war so far has proved no exception. To a nervous system set on high, peace can be an awful anticlimax; suddenly a section seems to be missing from the papers and there’s nothing special to wait for. This is it, the thing you’ve been praying for. So what do you do with it?
In this troubled state, baseball seems to constitute a quite serviceable halfway house to the longueurs of peacetime: alternately laid back and explosive, riveting and dull, it also comes to you every day like a soap opera (our other games would kill you if you played them every day), bringing a fresh mouthful of information each time, for six mind-numbing months on end. And it bears the further overwhelming recommendation of being considered terrifically American, though this I’ve never quite figured: it is one of those dogmas one accepts without fully understanding.
The mere fact of books on the subject by David Halberstam and George V. Higgins, and one to come by George Will, suggests the spectrum this baseball mania cuts across. Conservatives, having done so much in recent years to kill or stun political enthusiasm in America, might be presumed to have a special interest in finding some other focus of attention, a playtime equivalent of disarmament and reconversion, but liberals like baseball too, possibly because doing so proves that they’re as American as anyone else: it is like having an alternative pledge of allegiance, complete with a backup anthem that even a Bolshevik can sing along with. Ethel Rosenberg in her last days talked about her “beloved Dodgers” in what I take to be an informal plea bargain, though the poor woman probably meant it. Her fate suggests that maybe one can overrate the importance of baseball in America, which brings us to our first witness.
David Halberstam is a loud writer, he can’t seem to help it. When he tries to lower his voice, it reminds one of Jiggs trying to sneak past Maggie on a moonlit night, with every floorboard betraying him. All Halberstam’s effects are big, which can lead to great bathos, not to say occasional risibility, when the subject is too small for him, but he can be unlaughably powerful when he hits it right, as he did with the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest.
Nor do all his best subjects have to be quite as ostensibly major as that: his book The Amateurs was a small-framed study of a group of oarsmen bent on making the US Olympic team, and for the occasion his hyperintensity precisely matched their own. Rowing is an exhausting, hard-breathing affair, and one sensed Halberstam’s own heart bursting as he crossed the finish line, a thrillingly appropriate performance.
And even when his subject is perhaps not quite as big …
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