Can an author hold the reader’s undivided attention when describing events that took place more than fifty years ago and whose outcome the reader already knows? The answer is an emphatic “yes” if you are David Halberstam and the events reported are the down-to-the-wire pennant battle between archrivals the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in 1949. Halberstam makes history come alive in this riveting narrative by paying immense attention to the little details that add considerable verisimilitude to a retelling and by having several of the on-field participants and off-field onlookers recapture those times.
Following the interlude that was the Second World War, when baseball sent several of its best players to fight the Germans, 1949 saw the Red Sox and the Yankees resume their heated rivalry. The Red Sox had Ted Williams, considered the best hitter ever, and the Yankees had Joe DiMaggio, long regarded as the best ball player of all time. When the Red Sox lost a one-game playoff to the Cleveland Indians in 1948, for once Red Sox fans were not heartbroken; they felt that the core group of Williams, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky would mount a strong comeback in 1949. Back and forth went the Red Sox and the Yankees, each taking the lead only to fall back by virtue of a long losing streak.
Halberstam covers pivotal games in the season almost pitch-by-pitch, with key participants offering candid personal observations. Haunted by his failure in the 1946 World Series against the Saint Louis Cardinals, Williams was determined to make amends and best DiMaggio in his rivalry for baseball supremacy. Long considered - unfairly, one might add - as the goat of the 1946 World Series for hesitating momentarily in throwing the ball to the catcher and allowing the winning run to score from first base, diminutive shortstop Johnny Pesky sought redemption in 1949. The professorial Dom DiMaggio, Joe’s younger brother, secure in his own capabilities, yearned to get his team back into the World Series.
The Yankees also had personal and financial motivations to win the pennant. As the race ebbs and flows, Halberstam’s vivid descriptions bring the season alive to the reader. As the season comes to a climax in a winner-take-all final three game series at Yankee Stadium, Halberstam draws the reader into the narrative by setting the scene so perfectly that one gets the feeling of being in the Stadium on that fateful weekend. Such is the power of a narrative that pores over the details yet keeps a firm perspective on the singular events of the day.
Halberstam tends to skew more to the side of the Red Sox than the Yankees. This relative lack of objectivity only adds more poignancy to the narration as every battle with the Yankees seems to end negatively for the Sox. Nevertheless, this is a book to be savored and enjoyed by every baseball fan regardless of his or her rooting interest, for it brings to center stage a pivotal and colorful season in this fierce longstanding rivalry.