Acclaimed for his books about Vietnam, America in the 1950s and 1960s, the automobile and media industries and the civil rights movement, David Halberstam was killed 10 years ago today while working on a sports book.
He was 73 at the time of his death in a car accident in Menlo Park, Calif., on his way to interview retired quarterback Y.A. Tittle about the 1958 NFL championship game.
That classic at Yankee Stadium between Tittle’s New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts was a hot topic for authors at the time. A year after Halberstam died, Mark Bowden published “The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL” and dedicated the book to Halberstam.
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Also In This Issue: 50 Years of Maple Leafs Misery; The Legend of Sheik Caputo; Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue; Jerry Sloan’s Long Farewell
The Colts had won the first game to go to sudden death overtime in dramatic fashion, and the contest signalled a bright new era for professional football, which had labored in the shadows of baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football.
“The Game,” as Halberstam’s book was tentatively titled, was his attempt to capture the NFL as he remembered it as a young man, before it became the dominant spectator sport in what he derisively referred to as “the Age of Entertainment” to come.
Giants star Frank Gifford completed that book with Peter Richmond in 2008 under the title of “The Glory Game” in honor of Halberstam, whom he had interviewed.
As I wrote last year about Halberstam’s football writing, the disenchantment he felt about what the sport had become was severe:
“What television did in making pro football our national sport and thereupon what television and rank commercial greed did in destroying it is a parable for our time.”
So this seems like an odd place to interject that one of the most admirable qualities of the sportswriting of David Halberstam is his spirit of curiosity. I’ll get to what I mean by that in a moment, but it is important to note that Halberstam’s work toward the end of his life certainly did invoke a sense of nostalgia.
It’s understandable, given his age and the tremendous cultural and social upheavals in America underway throughout the course of his career. He was of my parents’ generation, born into the Depression and grew up during World War II.
This was a time before the dominance of television and popular culture geared toward youth. It’s not hard to see how he would want to look back on a very different world that shaped him and try to recapture some of it, especially fond memories of old-school pro football.
Halberstam didn’t publish a sports book until 20 years after publishing his first book of any kind. After four Vietnam-related books and others on Bobby Kennedy and corporate American media titans, he was clearly ready for something different.
And here’s where the curiosity part comes in. Halberstam’s foray into sports books wasn’t about baseball, as might be expected given his young adulthood in the 1950s, but professional basketball.
The NBA in 1981 was just beginning to take off, fueled by the arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
But Halberstam, as was his habit, broke away from the noisy herd and focused on a small-market team with an innovative coach and compelling characters. “The Breaks of the Game,” was about the Portland TrailBlazers, who had won their first (and still only) NBA title in 1977 with Bill Walton, Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas.
Years later, Bill Simmons called it “the perfect book about the perfect team,” but Halberstam’s other sports books, especially those about baseball, seem to enjoy greater recognition.
I recently reread “Summer of ‘49” and enjoyed it immensely, but also sensed a bit of nostalgia coming from Halberstam’s pen. He admitted the players involved in that Yankees-Red Sox pennant race were among his boyhood heroes, and he was unabashed about it.
I don’t have a problem with that. After all, sports books were what Halberstam called his “little entertainments,” departures from the pondering doorstoppers he wrote about American militarism, foreign policy and corporatism.
Yet he understood, as he wrote late-in-life books about Michael Jordan and Bill Belichick, that sports were not mere entertainments.
In the introduction to “Everything They Had,” his excellent posthumous collection of David Halberstam’s sportswriting, Glenn Stout wrote that Halberstam didn’t see sports topics as something lesser:
“He recognized that sports are important because sports matter to people, and that sports, and how we relate to sports, say something of value about ourselves, about society, and our history and culture, one of the rare places where citizens of differing creeds, classes and races come together.”
A decade after his passing, however, this notion is being gradually torn apart by political and cultural division in America that’s largely the product of a transformed media industry. Halberstam died just as digital media was gaining a serious commercial foothold and social media was nascent.
What would Halberstam think of today’s clickbait-infested outlets that reflect a pack mentality about sports and politics, and especially cultural identity issues? It’s hard to say for sure, but I would think it would be an extension of his views on the corrosive effects of television, and not just in regards to the NFL.
We live in a media age in which the release of the NFL schedule has become televised, yet another “Event” of the kind that Halberstam came to deplore.
I remember watching on C-SPAN a speech Halberstam gave not long before he died, about his disdain for celebrity culture. It did sound like the grouchy ramblings of an older man, and at times I think I’m fated to sound the same way very soon.
For Halberstam, who came of age in a time of wonderment and promise, what became of his society, including sports, had to have been a disappointment to a certain degree.
Still, what stoked him when it came to sports is alive and well in “Everything They Had,” and it reflects an eclectic sense of topical choices, good storytelling, historical perspective and an eager sense of curiosity that’s in very short supply today.
The Curse of the Pappino
It’s been a full half-century since the Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup, and they’re not favored to end that drought this season. They’re facing elimination tonight against the Washington Capitals, although getting this far—to the second round—has fans in Canada’s largest city more euphoric than they’ve been in a long time.
Even though Toronto has been at or near the top of NHL team valuation figures for years, the decades that have passed since Jim Pappin’s Cup-winning goal in Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens have been barren. The Maple Leafs have reached the playoffs only 28 times since then, and never to the finals.
The 1966-67 season was the last before expansion from the “Big Six,” and little did the Maple Leafs know that the misery would have begun so fast, and lasted for so long.
Well, not if you talk to the likes of Pappin, now 77 and living in southern California, as Tim Warmsby did for the CBC. The young winger said he never was a favorite of Punch Imlach, the domineering (and cheapskate) Maple Leafs coach and general manager, who demoted Pappin for good after Toronto missed the playoffs the following season.
That wasn’t the only housecleaning conducted by Imlach after the most glorious run in franchise history, as Kevin Shea recounts in his 2010 book, “Toronto Maple Leafs: Diary of a Dynasty, 1957-1967.” The team was an aging one, proudly embodied by Hall of Fame goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had his best years with the Detroit Red Wings and who was in his third and final season in Toronto.
His was an encore performance against the stylish Canadiens, and was the gritty Sawchuk’s last grand accomplishment on the ice before his tragic death in 1970, from injuries suffered in a fight with Ron Stewart, a teammate with the New York Rangers.
Pappin told Warmsby he never thought for a minute his goal would still be remembered as it has, as a marking point in a forgettable slice of hockey history.
- Four Canadian teams remain in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and it’s been 23 years since a team above the American border won the NHL title, the Canadiens with their record 24th crown. “Puckstruck” author Stephen Smith makes the case for Canada’s national sport being given protected cultural heritage status by UNESCO, concussions and fighting and all;
- John Schulian tells the story of Frank “Sheik” Caputo, his youth baseball coach in Utah who was so many more things: “A bootlegger’s son, a railroad machinist, a semipro first baseman, an up-before-dawn jogger, an improve-your-lie golfer, and a spinner of yarns. He coached baseball teams loaded with future professionals and dedicated drunks, and others made up of kids who puked when they took a chew of his Beechnut tobacco;”
- The U.S. Supreme Court, now fully seated with the recent addition of Neil Gorsuch, is slated to hear a copyright infringement case involving Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s On First” comedy routine;
- Jon Wertheim wonders what the final numbers of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams would have been like had they not been called away to World War II duty (and also for Williams, the Korean War);
- More historical baseball speculation from Jane Leavy on Babe Ruth, and whether he would be a star if he played today;
- Allen Barra revisits “Moneyball” and takes issue with author Michael Lewis’ premise, among other arguments made in one of the sacred texts of contemporary stats geeks;
- An interview with Tom Van Riper, author of the newly published “Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue,” a chronicle of their 1970s rivalry;
- At La Vida Baseball, Adrian Burgos on Latino players who banded together in the early 1960s to protect themselves from what they saw as exploitation in the international draft;
- An unemployed man in Texas put down $330—a good bit of his next month’s rent money—at a storage auction and hit something of a jackpot, purchasing a large collection of vintage copies of Sports Illustrated and other memorabilia valued at around $100,000;
- Wayne State University has named its new baseball field after Ernie Harwell, funded in part by the late Detroit Tigers announcer’s estate but still a warm tribute at a small-college venue;
- A visit to the University of Miami sports hall of fame goes back farther than contemporary “U” football fame/infamy, all the way back, in fact, to the 1920s;
- The sports history of Butler County, in southwest Ohio, is richly told with artifacts dating back more than a century;
- Meet Bill Richmond, the 19th century black sports superstar you’ve never heard of;
- At the Jewish magazine Tablet, Ron Mix, a Pro Football Hall of Fame lineman for the great San Diego Chargers teams of the early 1960s, remembers his old coach, AFL offensive mastermind Sid Gillman, who was the subject of the 2012 book “Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game” by Josh Katzowitz;
- Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan is dying of Parkinson’s Disease and dementia, and long-time friends and well-wishers have been bidding him farewell in recent weeks. David Rutter remembers Sloan during his days as a college basketball star in his native Evansville, Ind., and despite his NBA fame, he never forgot where he came from:
“He mostly lived the way we all would, if we were better people.
“He soon will go from us as he has lived. Quietly.
“A significant soul will be gone.
“And when that day comes, I will be as sad as I have ever been.”
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The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 80, published April 23, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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