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Review of “The Summer of ‘49” by David Halberstam

Old-time baseball players and fans love to denigrate the modern ballplayer. “Baseball today is not what it should be,” one old-timer once wrote. “The players do not try to learn all the fine points of the game as in the days of old, but simply try to get by. They content themselves if they get a couple of hits every day or play an errorless game… It’s positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it, too.”

These judgments usually treat the same themes: greed, selfishness, and lack of fundamentals. But they’re nothing new; the statement above (from Bill Joyce, third baseman and manager) was written in 1916. You can find remarks like Joyce’s in articles and autobiographies throughout baseball history, always saying the same thing: “Things were much better in my day.” These athletes and fans look upon every era but their own with disdain and condescension. Thirty or forty years ago, the Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig period (1920-40) was the celebrated one. Thirty years from now, nostalgia for the eighties and nineties will probably be in vogue.

When today’s old-timers talk of the old days, their conversation almost inevitably turns to what is now called The Golden Age of Baseball, the period in the game beginning in 1946 (when players returned from the War) until 1958, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants decided to continue their rivalry in California. That era saw many of the most memorable and significant events in the game’s history: in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier; that same year, the second Yankee Dynasty began with its first of ten pennants and eight championships in a twelve-year span; in 1951, Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to win the pennant for the Giants; in 1954, Willie Mays made his spectacular World Series catch; in 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. New York still had three teams. Schoolchildren and bar patrons debated who was the best center fielder—Willie, Mickey, or the Duke. Yogi Berra was still a great catcher, not a cartoon character.

FOREVER IMMORTALIZED

The era of the 1950s has been forever immortalized in print—Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer; Charles Einstein’s Willie’s Time; Jules Tygiel’s study of the entry of blacks into the major leagues called Baseball’s Great Experiment; Donald Honig’s Baseball in the Fifties; plus the great biographies and autobiographies about the people of the era, like Leo Durocher, Bill Veeck, Ted Williams, and Casey Stengel.

Here is another book about the time period: David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49. Its subject is the pennant race of 1949 between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox which wasn’t decided until the last game of the season. Considering all that has been said and written about this era already, a question arises: Is there really is any value to another book telling us what a legend Joe DiMaggio was, or what a great hitter Ted Williams was, or what a great team the Yankees were? The answer, however, is, yes, if David Halberstam is the writer. With a simple and unpretentious style, Halberstam writes an altogether enjoyable work that doesn’t idealize the time, or whine for the “good ol’ days,” or wish for a “return to innocence.”

Exhaustively researched, the book is full of stories and facts and insights that will surprise and delight both the casual and the most relentless student of baseball history.

1949: THE PERFECT CHOICE

In many ways 1949 was the perfect year for a book like Halberstam’s, because it marked a turning point in the history of American sport (which is part of why he chose it). Baseball was still the number one spectator sport, but professional basketball and football were beginning to gain acceptance. Television was in its infancy. Two baseball strategies that are now common practice were first being introduced: the platoon system and the use of a bullpen ace. The impact of black ballplayers was only beginning to be felt.

But probably the best reasons for Halberstam to choose 1949 were, first, that it was a terrific, dramatic pennant race between two hated rivals; and, second, perhaps most importantly, as he explains in the author’s note, Halberstam was fifteen years old that summer and a devoted Yankee fan. The men he describes in his book were his heroes, and he lived and died with the fortunes of his favorite players.

Halberstam traces the endeavors of the Red Sox and Yankees for an entire year, from the end of the 1948 season through 1949. During the summer of ‘49, the two teams staged one of the classic pennant races of all time. The Sox struggled at the beginning, while the Yankees, despite playing without an injured DiMaggio, took a commanding early lead. But Boston chipped away at the lead until the final day of the season, when the two teams met to decide the pennant. However, the book isn’t only about the pennant race, and knowing the outcome of the story doesn’t detract from the book’s success; most baseball fans, after all, would know that 1949 was the first year of New York’s five straight championships. Halberstam writes not to create drama, but rather to reveal characters and to give us an extended glimpse of baseball during The Golden Age. He interviewed almost every living member of those teams and several people on the outside—fans, broadcasters, baseball executives, writers, relatives of players—over a hundred in all. The one interview he couldn’t get, regrettably, was from the most important member of the Yankees: Joe DiMaggio. But you can hardly tell; the sections on DiMaggio are as complete as any other section, and they will only add to his legend.

DIMAGGIO AND WILLIAMS

The two stars, of course, were DiMaggio and Williams, and Halberstam gives them the most space. But he doesn’t just rehash the old stories about two of the most written-about men in baseball history. He presents new ones, like the time rookie outfielder Hank Bauer called for a fly-ball in right-center field, normally DiMaggio’s domain. Between innings, Bauer noticed DiMaggio watching him curiously and asked if he had done anything wrong. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong,” DiMaggio replied, “but you’re the first son of a bitch who ever invaded my territory.” Or the time Williams was called out on strikes at Fenway Park—a rarity—and came back to the dugout ranting that the reason he was called out was that home plate was out of line. The next day, to humor him, his manager measured the plate—and it turned out Williams had been right.

What made Williams and DiMaggio so extraordinary, we learn from Halberstam, was that they set unusually high goals for themselves and never were satisfied until they achieved them. Since boyhood, Williams had the singular ambition to become the greatest hitter in baseball history. “No one can throw a fastball past me,” he liked to say. “God could come down from Heaven, and He couldn’t throw a fastball past me.” DiMaggio held himself up to similar standards, but for a different reason. Why did he play so hard when the games didn’t mean anything, sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once asked him. “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play before,” DiMaggio answered. And Halberstam doesn’t just talk about 1949; he takes us through their entire careers—their battles with the media, with injuries, with each other.

MORE THAN JUST THE STARS

Non-stars, though, as baseball fans know, have just as much effect on pennant races as the stars do. Halberstam includes in his history people like Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich, who was “not that strong, not that fast, and his arm was not that powerful.” But he, as much as anyone else, helped the team win by always playing well in the clutch, an ability for which he was dubbed “Old Reliable” by broadcaster Mel Allen. Henrich, the author admits, was the young Halberstam’s favorite player.

We also are introduced to one of the forgotten stars of the era: Dominic DiMaggio of the Sox. Known as “The Little Professor” for his spectacles (he was the first non-pitcher to wear glasses regularly), Dom was an exceptional center-fielder and lead-off hitter whose image has lost most of its luster because he played played behind two hefty shadows, brother Joe’s and teammate Williams’s. But Halberstam doesn’t let us forget him. He tells of the time Dom returned to the dugout angrily after being called out on strikes and from the top step yelled at the umpire, “I have never witnessed such incompetence in all my life!”

Each roster was made up of twenty-five men, plus perhaps ten or twelve others who played a little. Halberstam introduces us to every one of them, the drinkers, womanizers, country boys, city boys, the marginal players for whom 1949 will be their only season of glory. He makes us feel an intimate part of the team, traveling with them between games. And at the end of the book, he tells us what has become of them.

THE ENVY OF HIS FRIENDS

In his concluding note, Halberstam tells us how enjoyable it was to write this book, to interview his idols, to do research that many would consider fun. “I was the envy of my male friends who shared my enthusiasm for baseball in those years. Caught up in the more mundane tasks in journalism or Wall Street or the law, they would gladly have traded jobs with me.” And Halberstam, or practically any of his readers, would gladly have traded jobs with the men he interviewed.

What Summer of ‘49 does, more than anything else, is renew one’s love for baseball. Ted Williams, after reluctantly leaving the batting practice cage, once said, “Goddam, but this is fun. I could do this all day—and they pay me for it.”

I’m sure that’s what Halberstam was thinking while he wrote this book.


The Book of Baseball Literacy: 3rd Edition

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