For the second time in two weeks, a writer who made a significant impact on me has died. I just heard on the radio that David Halberstam was killed in an automobile accident this morning in Menlo Park, California. As a reporter with the New York Times, Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting on the Vietnam War. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1972 book “The Best and the Brightest,” which examined the decision making process that led the Kennedy administration into that ill-fated war.
Between 1981 and 2005 he published thirteen books, seven of which covered sports subjects. The most notable of them was his 1999 work, “Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made.” Halberstam examined the impact that the hoops star had both on and off the court, detailing how Jordan had not only changed the game but invented “the idea of the individual player as a commercial superstar”
Halberstam’s sports books used the games as a backdrop against which to examine issues of culture, race, and history. In that respect, his sports books weren’t all that different from his books on politics and American history. He never argued that the games or the players were important per se, but that they reflected the society in which they took place. Their inherent value had little to do with sport, and in that way, Halberstam helped to provide a new context for examining the players and coaches of our era.
For most Americans, sports exist in a vacuum. You either immerse yourself as a fan, or they don’t register on your radar. Halberstam was able to speak to both audiences in a meaningful and entertaining way.
I think my favorite was “The Teammates,” his next to last book. It told the story of how three friends went to visit a fourth friend who was dying. All of the men were in their early 80s, and the 1,300 mile drive from Massachusetts to Florida gave each a chance to reminisce about their lives together and apart. The dying man was Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, and the three friends were his teammates with the Boston Red Sox, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr. Even if you didn’t know who those four men were, it doesn’t matter. The story is less about baseball than friendship.
That was the secret to Halberstam’s success as a writer, I think. He always knew what the real story was.