With David Halberstam
Tuesday, May 20, 2003; 2 p.m. ET
David Halberstam's latest book, "The Teammates," begins with the story of a 1,300-mile road trip by Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky to visit their friend and teammate Ted Williams, knowing that he is dying. Bobby Doerr, the fourth member of this close group -- "my guys," Williams used to call them -- is unable to be with them because he is back in Oregon tending to his wife of sixty-three years, Monica, who has suffered her second stroke. The book also chronicles their memories of their years together as teammates on the Red Sox.
Halberstam was online to talk about the book and America's pastime on Tuesday, May 20.
The transcript follows.
Halberstam is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of books including "Firehouse"; "War In a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals"; "The Best & the Brightest"; "The Powers That Be"; "The Children"; "October 1964"; "The Fifties"; and "Summer of 49," about the Yankee-Red Sox pennant race. He is a member of the elective Society of American Historians.
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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Dear Mr. Halberstam:
I cannot wait to read your book. In your time with these men, did you get an impression that they realize they lived in a better time? That is, players had more integrity, grit, hustle, sense of pride about their play. This stands in contrast to the modern players who command ridiculous salaries and follow their own bliss?
David Halberstam: Well I don't know that it was a better time; it was a different time. If you hustled, it was involuntary because you didn't have guaranteed contracts and you didn't have free agency. I don't think there's any doubt that athletes today are bigger, stronger and faster -- and weaker in fundamentals, more often than not. And there's less incentive, by and large, today, for improving once you've hit a certain plateau, because of the guaranteed contracts. The athlete who continues to push himself to excel is relatively rare.
I do think that athletes today work hard and play hard. Any number of the best of them in all sports work out year-round, as few athletes did in the previous era. But there's no doubt that the quantum leap in salaries separates today's athletes far more from the rest of the society, and makes them seem far less accountable to the fans.
Independence, Mo.: Mr. Halberstam:
I haven't read your book, but no doubt I need to put it on my list to read.
Two things for you if I may:
One is your perspective on all the infighting by Ted William's family following his death over the disposition of his body. The other, I'm curious if there were really any ball players that Williams was in awe of? I recall the scene at the All-Star game when some of today's greats just seemed awestruck by him and it was a moving moment when I think he, the players and the fans all seemed to connect for a moment and felt a part of something special about the game.
David Halberstam: I think there's a great sadness about the family squabbling fight within the family over whether Ted was going to be cremated, as most of his older friends felt he wanted to be, or whether he was going to be frozen. But that's a reflection in some ways of his failure as husband and father. He did many things brilliantly. He was a marvelous baseball player, a marvelous fisherman, a great fighter pilot and a wonderful teammate. But he did not do domesticity well. He was too impatient, I suspect, for the complicated role of father, which demand above all else, patience.
He loved the power of Jimmy Foxx, known as Double X because he was so strong. And he thought Joe DiMaggio was a great all-around player. I think he thought that he was a better hitter than DiMaggio, but that DiMaggio was a better all-around player. And I'm told he really loved Shoeless Joe Jackson, that he thought Joe Jackson had been a great player.
Washington, D.C.: Was it hard to write this book, given the admittedly odd history of Ted Williams?
David Halberstam: No, I thought it was great fun doing it -- great sweetness to it. I told my friend Russell Baker, the wonderful New York Times humorist and columnist what I was doing, and he looked at me and said, "Halberstam, that's not working, that's stealing."
I think what made it easier was that I'd dealt with three of the principals -- Dominic DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky -- 15 years ago, doing a book called "Summer of '49," and I think they respected the book. And therefore when I started this book I had their full cooperation. I didn't want to do the book unless they were really on board. And to my surprise, all three were almost more enthusiastic than I was. They understood that it wasn't just about baseball, but also about friendship. Working as a journalist should always be that pleasant.
New York, N.Y.: Did you interview the principals for this book? After all these years, how was their recall of the seasons they played together?
David Halberstam: I interviewed all three of them at great length -- I think I have something like 31 pages of single-spaced notes from the interviews. The interviews were long and generous on their part, and open, and I think their recall was generally terrific. My recall, about some things in Vietnam 40 years ago, will slip occasionally, like all of us. But these are men all in their 80s and their recall was terrific.
I think that each of them is comfortable where he is in his life, happy with where he is and understands the resonance of having played for the Red Sox in that era endures.
Bethesda, Md.: David,
Give us an idea of the personality differences and similarities between brothers Dom and Joe DiMaggio.
Also, Dom had consistently good statistics throughout his career, yet, he too lost prime years to World War Two and didn't play as long as some Hall of Famers. Why do you think he's not in the Hall of Fame??
David Halberstam: I'm not an expert on the Hall of Fame and who gets in and who doesn't -- part of is probably that he was an outfielder and not a power hitter. He's a seven-time All-Star, and he was obviously in the elite of fine ball players. My presumption is that power numbers matter. That would be my suspicion.
I think Joe was withdrawn, self-isolating from almost everyone around him, including, tragically, his own son. A very difficult man, I think, to sustain a friendship with, and probably painfully lonely. Dominic, to me, is an extremely elegant man with an utterly admirable family life -- a great richness there -- I think he and Emily have been married something like 55 years. They have wonderful grown children and grandchildren. He has been, I think, more successful in his post-sports career than almost any athlete I can think of. Here's a man who never went to college, and yet when his baseball career is over, and he knows the Red Sox want to trade him, he just walks out on his own, goes into business, and becomes a quite successful manufacturer of these vinyl rugs for cars -- he becomes a genuine millionaire. I think he's an elegant man who's led a very elegant life with a great sense of community involvement. And no small part of that is a reflection of the strength of his wife Emily. I think all three men married exceptional women who stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
David Halberstam: I think Dominic is a man of uncommonly strong interior spiritual strength. Of great character.
Long Beach, Calif., Blair Field: Is baseball, like patriotism, sometimes the refuge for scoundrels? For instance, I could not imagine George Will playing baseball, nor could I envision him as anyone's teammate. Dennis Miller performed the same task for football, in that it is impossible to imagine him playing the game.
Can you catch? Ever thrown anyone out? Can you take two and go to right?
David Halberstam: I think I was a pretty good sandlot player. I bat left, throw left. I'm about 6'3", and I was given tips on hitting by Theodore "Samuel" Williams, albeit when I was 54 years old, so my chance of making the bigs was relatively limited. But I think I was a pretty good sandlot player. And I'm supposed to throw out the first ball at a minor league game later this week. So people better watch out -- I might try for a late career. Bats left, throws left, 6'3", 195 pounds.
Louisville, Ky.: As someone who clearly continues to draw from his experiences as a reporter in the middle of the country, don't you think that you and the others who have addressed post-World War II baseball history have been a little regionally selective about it? I'm a Red Sox fan and can appreciate the whole premise behind "The Teammates," but to me the most interesting sports writing you've done is about the 1964 Cardinals, and specifically because it hadn't been done to death. Isn't there a story to tell us about the 1946 Cardinals, for instance?
David Halberstam: Well, the '46 Cardinals are in this book. Country Slaughter is going from first to home on a pretty dinky hit by Harry Walker, and Harry "The Cat" Brecheen is giving the Red Sox fits, so I think I'm not short-changing the Cardinals in this one.
Vienna, Va.: David --
Are you signing books locally any time soon? If so, when and where?
David Halberstam: Not to my knowledge yet, but that could change. I'm sorry I don't know right now what my schedule is -- if we get some bookings down there, I'll be down there.
David Halberstam: Re: My baseball career: Into my 60s, I played softball game in Nantucket, and I could still shift my feet and hit into left field. I have retired from it, however.
Farnham, Va.: Mr. Halberstam,
First I would like to say that I enjoyed your book "War In A Time of Peace" very much. I loved the perspective with details supporting an over-all view and a sense of the past and the future. My question is: As a writer, what is the biggest similarity in writing a newspaper article and a book; and what is the biggest difference. Also, as a reporter and author how does your feeling of connection or involvement for a sports topic compare to your feeling for a political one.
David Halberstam: The tempo is so different in a book, and in newspapers you're telling what happened that day with great immediacy under acute deadline pressures. For a book, your responsibility by and large is to tell why something happened, to explain the players, the issue at hand, and the genesis of a crisis. In terms of similarity, I think you're always supposed to do your best work. You're trying to answer a certain set of questions, and the charge, it seems to me, is similar in this sense. In an age where you're competing with television, which delivers information with images, and is therefore easier for someone who's staying at home, the responsibility now more than ever is to try and deliver that information in a way that is highly readable and somewhat entertaining. You dare not bore, if at all possible, in an age where there's so much competing information. Therefore, the challenge is to take something that's complicated and serious and make it readable for ordinary people.
It's easier in the world of sports -- you're less burdened by the shadow of history. It's generally more fun. Someone asked me that same question the other night at a bookstore where I was doing a signing, and I answered that if it were one of my more allegedly serious books about politics, I'd have had to wear a tie that night. That's the difference.
Attalla, Ala.: My dad died in '99. He loved the Red Sox. The All Star game in '90s when Yaz had retired and was coaching third base, my dad stands up watching the TV when they announced Yaz's name and started crying.
You're a great guy and I understand you knew Will Campbell as cub reporter doing the Civil Rights gig.
I Read "Breaks of the Game" and "Playing for Keeps" and will read this one. Thanks for your great work.
Stephen Fox, Collinsville, Ala., posting from a library in Attalla
David Halberstam: You're lucky that you had a father who cared so much about a team that does such a good job of breaking hearts. I've got a great friend, Marty Nolan, former editor of the editorial page of the Boston Globe, than who there is not a more devoted Red Sox fan. And he was the one who came up with the great saying of the Red Sox, "They killed my father, and now they're coming after me."
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Halberstam --
My father has a baseball (probably from spring training) signed by the 1941 Red Sox. Among the names on the ball are three of the subjects of your book: Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr. We've been able to identify every name except for one: Red Walsh. I was wondering if Red Walsh's name ever came up in your research for your book?
David Halberstam: No, he didn't. I've never heard the name, but is he in the baseball encyclopedia? If not you might want to contact the Red Sox -- write to Dick Bresciani, c/o the Red Sox, and maybe he can help you out. He's a very good guy.
Herndon, Va. : Mr. Halberstam: Did those outstanding Red Sox players every make any complaints about Red Sox racist management condemning the team to mediocrity by being the last team to recruit black players?
David Halberstam: Three of the four were essentially on their way out by the time the black players were coming in -- Pesky, Doerr and Dominic -- their careers were ending right around the early '50s. Ted played for an additional decade, and because of the Red Sox management's racism, he never played for 10 years alongside Willie Mays, because the Red Sox had the first shot at Willie, and chose, for reasons of racism, not to go after him when he was playing for the old Birmingham Black Barons. They played in a park owned by the White Barons, and that was a Red Sox farm team. And everyone down there knew how good young Willie was, and the scout George Digby went over, fell in love with him, knew he was going to be a great great player, but they wouldn't sign him. Ted had to know -- Ted was not the kind of guy who complained about his own management, because he got on reasonably well, I think with Mr. Yawkey. But by failing to sign Willie and other great young black ball players, they condemned the team to mediocrity for a generation. And Ted himself, when he went into the Hall of Fame at a time when Willie Mays was breaking many of his records, deliberately went out of his way to encourage Willie, and say keep going Willie, break them all -- that's what makes baseball great: the ability of someone not only to be just as good as someone else, but better, no matter his background. And Ted was wonderfully color-blind.
Bethesda, Md.: One often hears the '40s and '50s being called the golden age of baseball. However, from my understanding really this was only a golden age if you happened to live in New York (and possibly Boston). The economics of the game were different but was it really better when many of the teams were basically farm teams for the Yankees with no chance of winning? It's seems to me that the game was greatly benefited when other markets had a chance at the World Series -- rather than New York, and basically the Yankees, always winning. If we think the Yankees always win now think about their 10 Series wins under Stengel. Thoughts?
David Halberstam: I think that's a very legitimate question -- it was a golden age of baseball if you lived in New York, because you had the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Giants -- you often had a Subway Series. There were vast parts of the country where you didn't have baseball at all -- Washington was considered a southern city, and St. Louis was a far western one. I think expansion helped the game; it brought it to the entire country. The problem, it seems to me, now, is that you've got too many teams, and I think a number of them are mired in a kind of permanently depressed status. And so the game, once again, has an economic imbalance to it. but it's a good thing that it's truly more national now.
Texas: How much do you think the relative popularity of baseball within the U.S. varies from one region to another? I ask because here in Texas, I get the impression that baseball is not that popular. (Maybe because our two professional teams haven't traditionally been that notable.) Certainly, on trips to New York I have been struck by the fact that everybody seems to be talking baseball, and where you stand Yankees/Mets is a non-trivial part of your identity. Is this just a consequence of the overall decline in enthusiasm for pro baseball, or has it always been a regional thing?
David Halberstam: I think geography has some meaning in sports. I think certain teams and areas are geographically very good baseball towns, and areas like Texas are more football. In Boston, for instance, baseball is very important, because it comes with the spring after a very hard winter. And therefore baseball has a resonance that it doesn't have in, say, San Diego.
I think there are regional attitudes, and regional traditions. There's an awful lot of people like to go to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park because they went with their fathers, so it gets in the bloodstream. Baseball is our most rooted sport, and it's more rooted in some cities than in others.
Lenexa, Kan.: Mr. Halberstam: Big fan -- a pleasure. As you show, the Red Sox spark great passion -- even Updike moved from Shillington in part to be closer to Ted Williams -- and have broken more hearts than Don Juan. Just wondering if you know Jon Anderson's poem "Summer Deaths" -- recalling one boy's heartbreak (excerpted):
Williams, Stephens, Doerr,
Tebbetts, Parnell or
Kinder: men, you lost
it all by just one game.
One! Damn! One! Every
year it was the same
David Halberstam: Pretty good, pretty good.
Tucson, Ariz.: What was the average salary of the players and how good would they be if they were playing today?
David Halberstam: I suspect in the middle of their careers, that is, when I guess the immediate return from World War II, they were making about $15,000-$20,000, other than Ted, who would have been making a good deal more. And if they were playing today and were still stars, Ted would be making $17 million or $20 million a year, and the others would be at $6 million and $7 million and $8 million a year, I guess.
Arlington, Va.: Where do you think it makes the most sense for MLB to relocate the Expos, if they decide to relocate the team?
David Halberstam: I'd say in the suburban Washington area, in Virginia. I read The Washington Post regularly, and that's where they seem to think it should go. I think Washington should have a team. I grew up in a time when it was said of Washington, first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. They [Washington] should have a team, and Peter Angelos should not be abler to mismanage the Baltimore Orioles and at the same time block Washington from having a team.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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