Summer of ‘49
Necessities: Racial Barriers in American Sports
Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers
Crash: The Life and Times of Dick Allen
The Story of My Life
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 as he thinks it is, his heavy brooding can still generate queer and interesting effects, as in the portraits in his new book, The Summer of ‘49, of baseball’s capo di capos, Joe DiMaggio whose morbid shyness translated into an air of overwhelming authority, and of the reprobate Red Sock, Ellis Kinder, whose idea of prepping for a big game was to drink all night the night before. In other cases Halberstam seems to be beating his chops over nothing much, as when he feels duty-bound to recite the subsequent careers of every single member of both the Boston and New York teams of 1949: enough auto dealerships is enough. And in all cases, the reader has to shoulder the task of deciding for himself what’s important and what isn’t: the author, one feels at despairing times, would be the last to know.
Baseball is, of course, a far cry from rowing (in baseball, to breathe hard is to have failed), and on the face of it, its pleasures might seem rather understated for Halberstam’s sledgehammer methods. But he has a knack of inflating things to his measure, somewhat in the manner of a March of Time newsreel, and within pages one has no doubt whatsoever that the American League pennant race of 1949, that cusp year in the reign of King Television, was one of the major turning points in our history.
And why not? My only quarrel is with the season he chooses: obviously our great watershed was the National League pennant race of 1942, as the brash upstarts from the West (St. Louis) toppled the old-money Easterners (Brooklyn and the Yankees), President Roosevelt gave baseball the green light, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung for the first time at ball games (or was that the next year?)—and above all I was almost the same age as David Halberstam was in 1949.
In other words, any number can play at this game, and so long as it is understood to be just that, a game, Halberstam plays it uncommonly well, recapturing as few of us still can the fevers of prepuberty and rephrasing them as a sharp-eyed, occasionally ironic adult (Halberstam’s boyishness cohabits with a fitfully sophisticated mind: he can never be dismissed out of hand). As an old investigative reporter, he is also accustomed to drilling somewhat wider and deeper than most sports writers, and he comes up with a richer lode of gossip. (Where else would you learn, for instance, that Johnny Lindell, the Yankee outfielder, used to whap unwary teammates with his member as they reclined on the training table? The sports pages just don’t cover stuff like that.) As for his baseball writing proper, I believe it on the whole profits from being aimed at a general audience rather than outright fans, and for sounding, if you will, just a little amateurish at times.
This may not seem like much of a virtue, but other kibitzers should make note of it. Most outsiders writing on this subject tend, out of piety, to adopt the stock phrases of newspaper accounts, as if there were no other way to describe a ball game. But the only justification for publishing books by outsiders (and I suppose for reviewing them) is to hear it told freshly. And in this respect The Summer of ‘49 is a modest sort of landmark: a book by a generalist who brings his own weapons of gusto and doggedness to the event and doesn’t rely on hand-me-downs (or bad poetry) to see him through.
And the result is some very satisfactory swashbuckling. A pennant race is not unlike a military campaign, so it gives Halberstam’s fearsome concentration plenty to play with, and few specialists if any have ever done more justice than he to the variables: namely, the big game versus the small one, the crucial series that proves inconclusive and the minor one that turns out disastrous, and all the streaks and slumps and injuries that curl their way through the season: and behind and around all this, the alternating rage, boredom, and glee of the personnel, which here includes not only the gypsies who play the game, but the alcoholic manager (Joe McCarthy) and the man-child owner (Tom Yawkey) of the Red Sox, and the pixilated manager (Casey Stengel) and the Scrooge-like general manager of the Yankees (George Weiss), and what seems like hundreds more. Halberstam has a voracious appetite for characters and he crams them in here with a savage excitement that can be contagious, if you feel like playing today. Otherwise, the treacherous question intrudes: all this about a game?
Possibly Halberstam wonders about this too, because he shows a regressive tendency to drag the outside world in by the tail in order to place the mere game in a larger context. “It  was the last moment of innocence in American life,” he quotes the announcer Curt Gowdy as saying, thus giving his stamp to at least the fifth date for this recurrent ritual that I’ve heard so far this year. Foreigners must be puzzled at how often we seem to lose our innocence around here, but it’s just something we do: if we ever really lost it, we probably wouldn’t go on about it so much (and we certainly wouldn’t make movies like the recent Field of Dreams, in which the denouement consists triumphantly of the hero playing catch with his dad).
Halberstam’s apparent approval of this inanity indicates that he isn’t thinking terribly hard for the occasion (what the hell, it’s only a baseball book). And this impression is confirmed a couple of other times. To wit: although the Red Sox lost the 1949 pennant heartbreakingly to a bloop hit by Jerry Coleman which left them almost catatonic with grief, he quotes without criticism Tommy Henrich’s obiter dictum that the Yankees actually won it because they wanted it more, and they wanted it more simply because they were underpaid.
This, after the author has just wrung our withers describing the tattered pitching arms that had tried to bolt the door for Boston, is a bit hard to take, even from an aside. Not only does it make no sense in terms of what he has just described so well himself, but its accuracy also depends on reducing all baseball history to a single year: otherwise one is left having to suppose that the Yankees were also paid less than the Indians and the White Sox, the Giants and the Dodgers, and all the other teams they humbled in those years, and the correct phrase should read, “Rich guys finish last,” a formulation that doesn’t even completely cover George Steinbrenner.
But this illustrates one of the less salubrious aspects of trying to write baseball books for a non-baseball audience: reflexively one reaches for explanations outside the game itself—economics, character, anything will do. By contrast, George V. Higgins in The Progress of the Seasons attempts to explain the same enigma—what’s wrong with the Red Sox, a question that every generation must answer in its own way—in purely baseball terms, and I doubt if there’s a non-fan left in the house after the first sentence (although there are other reasons for reading, or not reading, the book).
(The Progress of the Seasons is a good elbows-on-the-table, Here I Stand kind of baseball book, which sometimes leans a bit clumsily on the new numbers racket: for instance, the attempts to collate Red Sox performance with hours spent traveling—but in that case shouldn’t one first subtract the opponents’ flying time, not to mention the relative jet lag caused by flying East to West? And do we really want to go on with this? But insofar as baseball is used simply as background music to the passionate reticences of an Irish upbringing, the book has the effectiveness of a small, precise truth. This is exactly how it was.)