As a long-suffering Boston Red Sox fan and David Halberstam devotee, I was thrilled with the idea of digging into his latest work, The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship (Hyperion). Halberstam's previous work virtually speaks for itself: The Best and the Brightest provided a large dose of political reality, while The Summer of '49 offered illuminating insights into the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. From a literary perspective, October, '64 was even more impressive, while The Fifties provided a document that was a summary, analysis and prophecy all rolled into one.
In The Teammates, Halberstam's selection of detail is poignant. At times his syntactic style approaches poetic eloquence. He provides insightful information and conclusions with both clarity and dramatic impact. He and George Will are perhaps the two most worthwhile of all current social commentators, and it's no small coincidence that they both excel when writing about baseball. Which is partly why The Teammates is a bit of a disappointment.
Not that there isn't plenty of valuable material here. Halberstam does provide background on the West Coast origins, and early years, of four crucial Boston players: Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky. And he does so adroitly, depicting them as products of an era in American history in which poverty was real, the work ethic commonplace, and opportunities for fame and fortune few.
Halberstam also accurately provides the context of the era in which they entered the Major Leagues -- an era that preceded television, Jackie Robinson and free agency. He portrays the forging of friendships, the ongoing pain of perennial second-place finishes, the demands of the unforgiving fans and media, the effect of the war years on their sensibilities, and their acceptance of Williams as the leader.
The author recounts with succinctness and insight the highlights of all four teammates' lives, both as ball players and as men. While Halberstam does share a few little-known elements of Williams' personality (such as his progressive civil rights posture), he repeats previously chronicled information: the scars left by Williams' impoverished childhood, the incendiary effects of his early-career brashness, his love-hate relationship with his own fans, etc.
It is in the portraits of the other three teammates, however, that Halberstam excels. He reveals Johnny Pesky's humble beginnings, his early struggles to reach the big leagues, his awareness of his disadvantageous stature of only 5-foot-9 and, most important of all, his lifelong commitment to both the Boston Red Sox and to Theodore Samuel Williams. Though it never brought him great wealth and caused him to be labeled by many as "the Goat," Pesky, or "Needle" (as the team members dubbed him), remained a company man in the best sense of the word.
Bobby Doerr, the quiet, loyal, somewhat underrated glue of that team, becomes a modest hero in Halberstam's prose. Doerr is pictured as always being there: the fearless, dependable second baseman; the clutch hitter in an illustrious lineup that also featured Jimmy Foxx and Joe Cronin; and the devoted friend and loving, vigilant husband. It is not just in Doerr's quiet handling of Williams' violent tantrums but also his care for his stricken spouse, Monica, that Halberstam tugs at the reader's heartstrings.
Halberstam is at his most effective in his description of Dominic DiMaggio. The author catalogues the obstacles the "Little Professor" had to surmount; long before he struggled in his brother Joe's shadow, Dom was an indigent child. Halberstam also follows Dom through his post-career rise to the top of the entrepreneurial ladder -- he was the only one of the four to become wealthy. Also, it is Dom who sticks by The Kid to the very end and who is able to help the fading Williams put his baseball and war achievements in their proper perspective. Dominic DiMaggio -- the friend, the seven-time All-Star and the truly self-made man -- is in fact the central figure in The Teammates.
Still, there are some nagging missteps that mitigate this work, principally a lack of corroborating detail from Halberstam. While he provides meaningful post-career anecdotes, there's not as much from their playing days-- their years in the Grapefruit League, their locker-room exchanges, or life on the road. Nor does Halberstam explore their relationships with other notable teammates such as Joe Cronin, Jimmy Foxx, Vern Stephens or Billy Dale Goodman. Halberstam chronicles in excruciating detail the scoring of the winning run by Enos Slaughter in the seventh game of the '46 World Series -- surely there were many more highlights which deserve some mention.
Again, these complaints are, as stated, minor ones, failing to detract from a dramatic second look at four men whose friendship superseded the box scores and league standings of that memorable era.
- David Halberstam's The Teammates might be a little thin on career anecdotes but still offers veteran Red Sox fans another fascinating reason to take one last look back.