Classic book review: Summer of '49

Since reviewing The Boys of Summer here in November, I have been meaning to write about more classic baseball books that I have read.  There are a few classics.  Ball Four comes to mind, as does The Glory of Their Times, Ken Burns Baseball and a recent addition, Game of Shadows.  But if The Boys of Summer is the best baseball book ever — and it’s probably either that or The Glory of Their Times — the next runner-up might be Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam.

I read it and Ball Four around the same time during my senior year of college.  I wasn’t required to read either book, though for me, it wasn’t strictly pleasure reading; this was during a period when I figured I was going to be a sportswriter after graduating, and I wanted to read as many great pieces of sports writing as I could.  I’m glad I read both books.

I found Summer of ’49 compelling for a number of reasons.  Halberstam, a Harvard graduate who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting the Vietnam War for The New York Times, deftly recreated the 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and eventual World Series champion New York Yankees.  A skilled reporter who began writing sports books in his forties, Halberstam interviewed nearly every living member of those Red Sox and Yankee teams, with the exception of Joe DiMaggio, who resisted participating.  Halberstam more than made due with the others, though.  The book ends with a beautiful, vivid recollection from Ted Williams that I won’t spoil here.

But the book is far from just a rehash of box scores with some quotes from a few players.  I could have written that– any half-competent hack could have, really.  Halberstam made his work distinct with anecdotes at once crisply written, original and funny.  Nearly five years on from finishing the book, I didn’t have to look long to find one such example, that comes from page 143.  Halberstam wrote:

Lefty Grove, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the sport, had also come to Boston near the end of his career.  Grove kept a bottle of whiskey in his locker.  He was given to tantrums, though as Ted Williams noted, his tantrums were always beautifully controlled.  If he smashed his locker after a tough loss, he always did it with his right hand.

I remember thinking as I read the book that it didn’t seem perfect.  Structure-wise, it’s really just a chronology of the ’49 season with a lot of interviews interspersed, which is how many baseball books are written, not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. I would just submit that the greatest art is sometimes innovative, like Citizen Kane, a film decades ahead of its time when it debuted in 1941.  But the fact Summer of ’49 even has me thinking in these terms says something.  I’ll probably read the book again at some point, even if simply in preparation to write a historical baseball book of my own and see how it’s best done.

I was disheartened when Halberstam died in a car accident in 2007 at 73, though I admire how he went: His obituary in The Times noted he was en route to interview former NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book when the car he was riding in got broadsided.  Great sportswriters always seem to be working right up until the time of their death, from Jim Murray to Shirley Povich to Red Smith.  While I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious to include myself in this equation, I hope I’m still writing decades from now.