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Book Review: The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship by David Halberstam

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Last week it was Selena Roberts and her A-Rod expose.  Today it's Jeff Pearlman and Roger Clemens.  Earlier this year, future Hall of Famer Joe Torre's The Yankee Years drew its share of controversy and criticism.  Baseball and baseball books used to be a lot more fun.  Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam's The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship is one of those books, in part because it's written about four men who played during that time.

Those four men — Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky — did more than play baseball together, and Halberstam crafts a book that takes readers on the diamond and beyond.  Baseball made them teammates, but this story doesn't end when Ted Williams hit his 521st home run in the final at bat of his career in 1960, or when Doerr, Pesky, or DiMaggio hung up their cleats.  They shared the highs and lows that are part of the beauty of baseball at a time when the game was the crown jewel of American sports; America loved baseball, and baseball — with the occasional exception of Theodore Samuel Williams — loved America back.  Halberstam's story doesn't end there.  In fact, it doesn't really even begin there. 

The Teammates opens with Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and their friend Dick Flavin making the decision to travel to Florida to visit an ailing Williams one last time before he passes.  Plans for the visit happened shortly after September 11, 2001, and no one was eager to board an airplane.  DiMaggio, at this point in his 80s, was having a tough time selling his wife, Emily, on a solo roadie from New England to Florida so the younger Flavin stepped forward and then Pesky signed on to share the journey.  Doerr wanted to make the roadtrip with his teammates and friends but was living in the Portland, Oregon area and caring for his wife, Monica, who was weakened by multiple sclerosis and two strokes. 

The book begins with this trip, but quickly digresses taking us back in time into the early years of all four of these former Red Sox teammates.  We get a glimpse into the DiMaggio house and Dominic's more famous older brother, Joe.  We learn about John Paveskovich becoming the much beloved Johnny Pesky.  We learn that Bobby Doerr was regarded as the kindest man most people ever met.  We also get a glimpse into the turbulent life of the complicated, profane, blaspehmous Ted Williams, a man who used the phrase 'goddamn' as a noun, verb, adverb, conjunction, and punctuation.

These four men played together and with others, but these four remained close long after the game was over.  Why was that?  Halberstam doesn't openly ask it, nor does he definitely answer it but he does leave us clues and the answer is both obvious and hidden.  The reason?  Ted Williams. 

No, these friendships and this loyalty were not created because Ted was as great a man off the field as he was a player on it.  We see candid glimpses his perpetual frustration manifest itself in angry outbursts, infantile tantrums, and a lack of graciousness.  In part what binds these four together is the way the other three — DiMaggio, Doerr, and Pesky — see beyond the frustration and accept Williams. 

We also see a certain odd charm in Williams' relentlessness.  This is a man who never lost an argument in his entire life because he had the good sense to never be wrong.  We see a man who used a celebration of his greatness — his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York — to take up the cause for the induction of players who played in the Negro Leagues prior to Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Acceptance eluded Williams most of his life and yet here, at the pinnacle of acceptance, he shed light on the greatness of others because it was just one of the myriad things about which he, Ted Williams, was right.

Halberstam devotes plenty of attention to Williams, but we also learn about each of these four men.  We learn of Doerr's devotion to his wife through her battle with MS.  We learn of Johnny Pesky's 'Friendship Dinner' and the ambassador for all things Red Sox he would become despite being the only member of the four to play elsewhere in his career.  We get a glimpse into what it was like for Dominic DiMaggio to not only overcome the huge shadow of his older brother and more famous teammate, but his fight just to get a chance to play baseball at all.  As Flavin tells Halberstam, "I think both Ted and Joe were aware of it, how well he had dealt with his life, and what a complete life it had been, and Ted to his credit admired him for it, and Joe, I am afraid, resented him for it."

The Teammates is like a museum, but it's more than just an exhibition of baseball.  We observe friendship, loyalty, adversity, and mortality.  The book begins with the sadness of the inevitable and encroaching end of Williams' life, but rather than focusing on the end celebrates the lives and relationships.  Its appeal will primarily be for baseball fans, but there's something far richer here than debates about the designated hitter or endless recitations of statistics. 

The Teammates fires the romantic notions so many have about baseball's past, notions that have been violently stripped away over the past several years. The Teammates not only nourishes readers with tales that extend beyond the diamond, it reminds us that our love and faith were once well placed.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    The monster finally allowed me to finish. Nice review, Sir Josh. Sounds like a good book. I’ll add it to my list even though I haven’t watched the game in years.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh Hathaway

    Well, these games all finished decades ago so recent history is not needed. Besides, this is Halberstam. That’s a good read no matter what he’s writing about. Thanks for reading, Sir Brewster. My new Kindle is the jam.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Fitting and timely, due to DiMaggio’s passing last week.

    Another recommended baseball author: Joe Posnanski. He’s got two books on my to-read list.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh Hathaway

    Thanks, Suss. It’s strange how things come together, isn’t it?

    Thanks, also, for the tip. I’ll check the Kindle store and see if the Posnanski titles are available. Maraniss’ bio of Clemente is high on my list of next books to check out. I also want to read his bio of Lombardi.

  • http://www.confessionsofafanboy.com Josh Hathaway

    Okay, Kindle readers, Posnanski’s book about the great Buck O’Neill is available through the Kindle store. I’m adding that to my reading list.

  • Bliffle

    Good article! Very interesting.

    A writer (whom I had reason to respect, tho I can’t remember the name) said that Williams was the ONLY man he knew of or had heard about who could do three mens things better than any other man, and that was Williams: hit a baseball, cast a fly, and fly a fighter plane.

  • http://whizball.blogspot.com Aaron Whitehead

    Very well said. I’m very tempted to pick up the book.
    There has been a lot of lost faith in the game of baseball lately. One important point, as I see it, is to respect and admire people in spite of their flaws, rather than putting them on a pedestal and pretending they don’t have flaws.