Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The writing fraternity grows smaller

For the second time this month, the writing community lost another giant. David Halberstam, one of journalism’s real treasures, was killed in a car crash in San Francisco, on Monday. He was 73.

Halberstam was a master at capturing the subtle nuances of whatever subject he chose to write about—sports, politics, war, the civil rights movement—setting him apart from the rest of his breed.

While not exclusively a sports guy, he was able to use athletics as a vehicle to get at the larger issues of the time he wrote about. Reading Halberstam helped ground us in the historical realities of the period he covered in each one of his 20 books. Rather than give his readers pap and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, Halberstam the journalist, dug into his subjects and provided context.

As others have noted, Halberstam recognized that history wasn’t formed in a vacuum. He was a “social historian,” placing his stories into the milieu of the period covered by whatever book he was writing at the time. His accounts of the ballplayers, soldiers and civil rights pioneers he wrote about were grounded in the day-to-day realities of the period portrayed. One of the best compliments that anyone could utter about Halberstam, in my opinion, is that he wrote “grass-roots”history; history of the people, for the people.

In October 1964, Halberstam used the burgeoning civil rights movement to contrast the two participants of that year’s World Series. On one hand, you had the New York Yankees, a team steeped in legend and mythology, with the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard and Roger Maris and the upstart St.Louis Cardinals, a team with up and coming stars like Lou Brock, Curt Flood, the brooding Bob Gibson and a young Tim McCarver (long before he became a boorish baseball announcer).

Like any Halberstam treatment, the season-long buildup to the World Series is filtered through the lens of society's pressing issues, this time, the fury of racial upheaval, as the old ways of segregation are about to change. Baseball, like any sport, can be a mirror, reflecting the mores and conventions of society. During this period, blacks and other non-whites were forced the indignity of living in substandard, segregated accommodations during spring training. While management wanted to ignore this and wish it away, players like Gibson and Flood, proud men, aware of who they were and what their skills represented to owners, were beginning to recognize and openly complain about the arrangements. Gibson, who later would become baseball’s most dominating pitcher, whose 1968 season would force baseball to lower the mound, was a young, untamed flamethrower in 1964. As his stock rose, Gibson would become more outspoken. Halberstam shows us the young Gibson, just finding his way. Flood would later challenge baseball’s antitrust clause, ultimately shortening his career. In 1964, we see the rage and fury that would later find its outlet in taking on baseball’s hallowed method of indentured servitude.

I used Halberstam’s The Fifties to help me understand the decade prior to my own birth, in 1962, in authenticating When Towns Had Teams. Because I was writing about a period of time that I only knew about from the stories of parents, grandparents and others, I wanted to have a sense of what this postwar era was really about. Halberstam helped guide me and give my own writing credibility.

In The Best and the Brightest, the hubris of Kennedy’s Camelot is on glorious display, as America’s defining conflict, the Vietnam War, is deconstructed in 816 glorious pages, Halberstam-style.

He clearly shows what happens when leaders—“the best and the brightest”—blinded by insularity, privilege and Ivy League educations, carelessly lead us into a conflict that they deem vital, but ultimately becomes a quagmire and a national disgrace. Vietnam is a shining example of what happens when bad decisions, dishonesty and sheer stupidity lead America into its most costly war at the time, in lives, civil unrest and political fallout, leading to a cynicism that the U.S. has yet to recover from. There are those who argue that we lost our soul in Vietnam and we’ll never recover it.

The great writers of history lend immediacy to the people, places and predilections that find their way into their prose. Halberstam certainly belongs in that category.

As men like Halberstam pass on, members of America’s “greatest generation,” I wonder what will become of the country and its culture that they’ve left us in charge of. I think a case can be made that while Halberstam’s American compadres were far from perfect, they might very well be the last great collective grouping that we’ll know. Part of this comes from the historical maelstrom that they were born into and the events that shaped them; the aftermath of the first World War and the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War and then, Vietnam.

Unlike the boomers, who came to question and then, turn it over to the marketers and our generation that decided to wallow in materialism, inflicting it on our own children, who struggle to decide whether they want to live in this world, or some make-believe alter-universe built on the deity of technology, the "greatest generation" faced issues of life and death. The raging debate for today's millenials is whether to download without getting caught. The World War II generation provided us with a model that subsequent generations have decided to mock and ultimately invalidate.

I was reminded of this today, while taking my lunch from work, as I tuned into Jim Rome’s radio program. Unbeknownst to me, Rome had interviewed Halberstam on several occasions. When I first turned the radio on, I knew that a guest was speaking. I didn’t know it was Halberstam, but I knew it was someone important, just as you always do, when greatness is at the podium.

Rome played several clips from various interviews, including Halberstam speaking of Ted Williams and how he first met him for an interview at his hotel in Florida. Williams apparently showed up at 8am, on the dot, as they had agreed. When Halberstam opened the door, Teddy Ballgame, in his characteristic gruff way bellowed, “You like just like your goddamn photograph!” Halberstam recounted that the interview lasted for 12 hours, with Williams talking about how he tried to teach “that goddamn Doerr” to uppercut the ball and he never did.

In thinking of Halberstam and Williams, men from a time fading fast from our memories, already clouded by unending technology and by the belief that speed and innovation trumps everything else, I’m reminded of the Major League All Star Game, July 14, 1999.

In rode arguably, the game’s greatest hitter, in a golf cart. As the cart made its way in from right field, with the 80-year-old legend waving to the adoring crowd, a group of major leaguers waited near the mound, like a bunch of little leaguers about to meet their idol. Carlton Fisk, another Red Sox great, heroic in his own right, but diminished by Williams, waited at the plate, to receive Williams’ ceremonial first pitch. Nomar, Big Mac (before his name had been tarnished by the steroid scandal), Tony Gwynn, Sosa, Larry Walker, all gathering around Teddy Ballgame. Williams wanted to talk baseball with all the players. Reports are that many of them got choked up, including Walker. Tears welled up in Ted’s eyes, as he understood the significance of the moment. Unlike so much that’s choreographed in athletic events in our era, the announcer’s pleas for the players to return to the dugouts went unheeded, as the players and Williams didn’t want this to end.

Finally, Ted threw his pitch and the cart took him to his seat alongside the commissioner, as one of baseball’s great moments had come to an end.

Williams has left us, as have many others from his era, including Halberstam. As their lives fade from view, the lamp that illuminates the deeds that defined them dims and I find myself wondering who among us will be able to keep it lit, however faintly it burns?

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