Monday, April 1, 2024

 APRIL 2024

- "SUMMER OF '49" -
David Halberstam Remembers the Way We Were
By Rev Protodeacon George A. Haloulakos

In 1989, Pulitzer Prize winning author David Halberstam published an instant classic -- Summer of '49 -- a wonderful narrative of the 1949 American League pennant race in which two legendary franchises, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, battled each other to a winner-take-all final contest in the regular season.  But more importantly, Halberstam provides a revealing, insightful look at a vastly different America through the prism of two iconic baseball teams at the height of their prowess on the diamond.  In this time capsule, the reader gets a first hand account of when games were played during the day while being broadcast on radio instead of television; train travel was the norm as St Louis was viewed as a western city; management determined salaries, not agents and players; alcohol, not drugs, was the most troublesome addiction.  Halberstam's superb journalistic skills enabled him to gather nearly all of his information from in-person, primary research interviews with virtually all the Yankee and Red Sox players along with players from other major league teams, executives, radio announcers, publicists, relatives and family members of the various baseball players.  It is a fusion of oral history with a rich tapestry of secondary research support (listed in the bibliography).
With springtime now in bloom and baseball underway, reading or perhaps re-reading Summer of '49 provides an insightful if not brilliant look at a special moment in time when legends and heroes of the game held a very special place in our nation's history.  Unlike the tedious, sequential and oft-heavy analytical content that dominates sports history, Halberstam's book transcends all of that, and more.  While today's analytical retelling of baseball history with Wins Above Replacement, Win Shares and so forth are interesting from a statistical perspective, Halberstam gives us deeper, more penetrating understanding on the players themselves while simultaneously offering the same on the post World War II period in our nation's history.  Only the most relevant or time honored metrics (namely wins and losses) are included in the narrative.  This makes for a more compelling read in learning about the people themselves because Halberstam provides a full-dimensional look at the various players.

Here is a small sampling that I hope will engender interest in wanting to read the book:
> Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were even larger than life figures off the playing field as DiMaggio personified what it meant to create a life built on-and-around a carefully crafted, refined personal celebrity brand while Williams was a decorated combat aviator in both World War II and the Korean War.  DiMaggio's record of hitting safely in 56-consecutive games and Williams as the last .400 hitter are merely tips of the iceberg for these titanic legendary players.

> The Boston Red Sox had a fabulous collection of individual star-laden talent, but it was the Yankees who reigned supreme as the best team on a foundation of role players integrated with a nucleus of stars plus a trio of starting pitchers (Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds and Eddie Lopat) who provided the on-field and locker room leadership connected with athletic dynasties.  This was, and is unusual, because such leadership is typically associated with everyday players, not pitchers!  Moreover, Halberstam documents that the Red Sox had a vastly larger payroll than the Yankees, but their Return on Investment was virtually nil in comparison to the dynastic New Yorkers.

> The evolution of advertising (with Ballantine Beer as a case study), the flight to the suburbs, the breaking down of racial and institutional barriers, the baby boom generation that began in 1945 are all examined in a thoughtful, sometimes meandering fashion tracking the weekly progress of the 1949 season simultaneously with a look back at how each of the players reached this point in their lives.  Despite the multiple tracking, Halberstam is able to tie everything together as the two teams prepare for their winner-take-all final game of the season.

> While examining the institutional barriers of the period, Halberstam also provides an equally keen understanding about the subtle but equally impactful social attitudes from that era on race and ethnicity that not only includes the trials and tribulations of Yankee World Series rivals Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Ray Campanella (Brooklyn Dodgers) but for star Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds (Native American), his pitching cohort and roommate Eddie Lopat (who was of Polish descent and with the legal name Lopatynski).  Also discussed are the burden of exceedingly high expectations placed upon first generation Americans of Italian descent to fulfill the dreams and ambitions of their parents and families ("Yankee Clipper" Joe DiMaggio and his brother Dominic, who was a 7-time All-Star with the Red Sox plus Vic Raschi the pitching ace of the Yankee staff and his battery mate Yogi Berra) and others.

> Celebrity radio broadcasters Mel Allen (Yankees), Curt Gowdy (Red Sox) and Red Barber (Dodgers and Yankees) are shown to have played an integral if not historic role in helping to inform and educate their nationwide listening audiences about the changes on-and-off the playing field while pitching the products of the major advertisers.
Thirty five years after its publication, the remarkable hold of the Summer of '49 on the public imagination and its importance in our nation's history is best captured with this photograph of President George Herbert Walker Bush (decorated World War II aviator and a star player for Yale in the College World Series) and his contemporaries from America's Greatest Generation, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, at a special White House ceremony.

Summer of '49 is truly an inspiring, educational and informative book that encompasses a love for history, biography and baseball all in a single volume!  Celebrate springtime with this classic look at the summer game while also learning something new about the history of our great nation.

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