The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

 

We Lose Another Great One

Less than two weeks after the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, the world of letters lost another giant on Monday when David Halberstam was killed in a car accident near San Francisco. Halberstam was 73 years old but had shown no sign of slowing down; the crash occurred as he was on his way to interview the great Y.A. Tittle for a book about the 1958 NFL Championship game. Tellingly, the New York Times did not have an obituary at the ready as it did for Mr. Vonnegut or most other accomplished men his age. With a book on the Korean War in the pipeline, and the football one on the front burner, the man was far from writing his final chapter. Damn.

Halberstam made his mark as a war reporter for the Times, sharing a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his unflinching coverage of the Vietnam War, coverage that called his patriotism into question. From the obit:
His reporting, along with that of several colleagues, left little doubt that a corrupt South Vietnamese government supported by the United States was no match for Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies. His dispatches infuriated American military commanders and policy makers in Washington, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground.

For that work, Mr. Halberstam shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1964. Eight years later, after leaving The Times, he chronicled what went wrong in Vietnam — how able and dedicated men propelled the United States into a war later deemed unwinnable — in a book whose title entered the language: “The Best and the Brightest.”

...President John F. Kennedy was so incensed by Mr. Halberstam’s war coverage that he strongly suggested to The Times’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, that the reporter be replaced. Mr. Sulzberger replied that Mr. Halberstam would stay where he was. He even had the reporter cancel a scheduled vacation so that no one would get the wrong idea.
Obviously, Halberstam's story resonates in these times, though it's clear the forces who question the patriotism of the messenger bearing the bad news now have the upper hand. Such bold reportage as Halberstam's is all too lacking today, enabling a submoronic president and his utterly corrupt administration to fight a war on false pretenses while blanketing a complicit and deferential press with lies that go largely unchallenged in the mainstream media. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald put it:
David Halberstam's death yesterday is certain to prompt all sorts of homage from our media stars describing Halberstam as a superior journalist, someone who embodied what journalism ought to be. And it is true that he was exactly that.

But modern American journalists -- as Halberstam himself repeatedly emphasized -- have become the precise antithesis of those values. The functions Halberstam and the best journalists of his generation fulfilled are exactly those that have been so fundamentally abandoned, repudiated and scorned by our nation's most prominent and influential media stars. And most legitimate media criticisms today are grounded in exactly that gaping discrepancy.
Halberstam generally alternated his books on heavy topics like wars, politics and industry with books on sports. While the latter were anything but puff pieces, Halberstam understood the limits of sport's power in the current age.

I read his Breaks of the Game, a book about the Bill Walton-era Portland Trailblazers of the '70s, back when I was in high school; it's been hailed as basketball's answer to The Boys of Summer, and while I wouldn't go that far, I can't list too many basketball books I'd read again if given the chance. Several years later, I devoured both Summer of '49 and October 1964, two of Halberstam's books on baseball. I've since learned that both have their share of minor errors, but the latter, which covers the rise of the Gibson-Brock-Flood Cardinals and the fall of the Yankee dynasty, remains a touchstone for its illuminating narrative of the impact of integration on the two teams and their respective leagues. I touched on a bit of the Red Sox shameful history of racism here last week. The Yankees, who finally integrated in 1955 with Elston Howard, were no saints in that department either; their reward for GM George Weiss' myopic racism and failure to pursue talented black players was a decade of irrelevance. Another of Halberstam's baseball books, The Teammates remains on my shelf, unread, awaiting its turn at bat.

But the first Halberstam book I pulled off my shelf when I heard the sad news was one he edited, The Best American Sports Writing of the Century. Back in 1999, when it came out, I went to the Union Square Barnes and Noble for a signing featuring him and four of writers represented in the book, Ira Berkow, George Plimpton, Dick Schaap, and Gay Talese. Schaap died in 2001, Plimpton in 2003, and now Halberstam -- perhaps they're all somewhere in the afterlife, talking about ballgames past, telling stories as only they could. So it goes.

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