David Halberstam's sudden death has my friend Ethan Stock contemplating his most notable works about greatness and tragedy, and has me thinking about baseball. I read Summer of '49 a few years back, and even though I don't usually go for Golden Age of Baseball stuff, I enjoyed it very much. While he spent plenty of time talking about the titans such as DiMaggio and Williams, he seemed to take much more pleasure in discussing the lesser known players on those Yankees and Red Sox teams like Bobby Doerr, Chuck Stobbs, and Tommy Henrich. I learned quite a bit reading the book, which is something anyone with even a passing acquaintance with baseball can't say about many of the lesser books which lionize the sepia-toned 1940s and 50s.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Summer of '49 is the story of the game in transition. Two years after Jackie broke the barrier, two teams that would remain lily white for another six and ten years (the Yanks and Sox, respectively) were in a brutal pennant race that either would have ran away with back in August if they had simply had a Jackie, a Larry Doby, or a Don Newcombe on their roster. It's about two teams who were struggling to find a way to maintain gate revenue due to the advent of televised baseball, but who would one day become, by far, the two richest clubs in the game by virtue of owning their own television networks. It's easy to roll one's eyes when ESPN hypes an April match up between the Sox and Yanks like it was already ALCS time, but it's important not to forget how amazingly well-run these teams are nowadays and how easily they each could have fallen into the abyss if they had continued to approach things as they did in the 30s and 40s any longer than they did. The Washington Senators and St. Louis Browns could tell you disastrous that would have been if they had survived to tell the tale.
None of Halberstam's sports books are anywhere near as important as The Best and the Brightest or his other political and military works, but they are insightful and enjoyable reads. I suggest that this weekend we all set aside a moment to pour some Colt .45 on the ground and check out Summer of '49 from the library in honor of brother Halberstam.