Posted by: mdegeorge | July 7, 2010

Summer Reading: “Everything They Had” by David Halberstam

One of the great joys of childhood was always summer vacation. And like any proud intellectual (read: nerd), one of the highlights of that eight-week nirvana of a hiatus was the plethora of time available for tearing into my summer reading list. The days spent sprawled out on lounge chairs in the shade delving into the offerings of the local library are one of the great joys of adolescence lost.

Now, as an underemployed college grad with plenty of time on my hands, what better way to while away the days then by giving my library card a work out? My grandparents’ suburban home and spacious decks have been replaced by a sweaty one bedroom apartment, but the aim is the same. So, all summer, I’ll be posting brief synopses of the latest book to tickle my fancy.

People of a different age and with different interests may remember the late David Halberstam for his work as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, his Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Vietnam War, or his many books chronicling American history.

But I think of Halberstam as a legendary storyteller who fortunately had a deep love of sports. I’ve had the pleasure of reading two of his sports selections—October 1964, chronicling the fall of the Yankee dynasty and the rise of a new generation of multicultural baseball, and The Teammates, detailing the lasting bond between Red Sox teammates Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr.Everything They Had isn’t the poignant, socio-cultural narrative set against a sporting backdrop that Halberstam’s other books are. Instead, this collection of essays was published posthumously in 2008 to commemorate his illustrious career writing for magazines, newspapers and Web sites. Editor Glenn Stout, with whom Halberstam co-edited several other collections, assembled this compedium and includes a touching foreword on his interactions with the author.

The collection in broken down by subject matter, focusing on his favorites sports—baseball, football, and basketball—as well as stories of some of his “Pals” and “The Longer View”, which includes his commentary on sporting trends and the larger cultural developments which inform them.

The book begins with selections from Halberstam’s career with the Harvard Crimson, and travels with his writing for the next half century. For me, his writings on baseball are the most fascinating. His piece from Harper’s Magazine entitled “Baseball and the National Mythology” from 1970 casts the sports and its devoted viewership in a new light. His lengthy description of Reggie Smith’s playing career in Japan for Playboy (of all places) in 1984 is an enlightening view of the cultural gulf between our the American and Japanese leagues and societies.

Halberstam was also a devoted fisherman, and his tales of boat trips to exotic locales around the globe are surprisingly enjoyable. When I first picked up the book, I admit uttering something along the lines of, “Fishing?!? I’ll just skip that section.” But his tales aren’t about the nuts and bolts of hooking brown trout in Patagonia; he uses fishing as a microcosm of how sports become a part of life and help bond people together.

In fact, Halberstam is at his strongest when he ranges beyond the major professional sports and into venues that allow for more intimacy and sentimentality. His characterization of small-town basketball in Indiana in “The Basket-Case State” for Esquire in 1985 is outstanding, as are his portraits of the American Olympic fencing team (“Anatomy of a Champion” for Vanity Fair) and American women’s ice hockey Olympic hopeful Allison Mleckzo (“Ice Breakers” for Conde Nast Sports for Women). His piece on the bonds formed between former strangers on a fishing trip in “Men without Women” was one of the most enjoyable in the entire book.

Overall, the book is a must read for any fans of Halberstam or connoisseurs of sports writing. There are certain themes (Halberstam’s fishing exploits, the way in which football was forever changed for the worse by the advent of television) that repeat themselves and can get tedious. The repetitious nature of the motifs makes the collection seem overly didactic, and Halberstam’s emphasis on sports as a mirror of society gets tiresome at junctures, especially for those more concerned about the x’s and o’s.

His flowing, literary style can be overly ornate and difficult to keep up with at times, but in most cases, is well worth the journey. For anyone new to Halberstam’s writing, it’s a excellent way to introduce yourself with smaller selections and, if you’re like me trying to read at work between questions by customers, it’s an easy read to pick up after an interruption.

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