February 2, 2014

Book Review -- Summer of '49

The sports media’s fawning over the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox has never been much of a pet peeve of mine. For whatever reason, all the uneven adulation heaped upon those two franchises does not bother me the way it bothers so many other people.

As even-tempered as I am about the subject matter, I nevertheless found it difficult to enjoy David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49.

My first problem is the premise. Halberstam was not a baseball man, yet his opinionated book was published in 1989, forty years after the events it describes took place. Given the revisionist nature of old ballplayers and old managers, I question the stories and stats that the author presents as fact.

My second problem with the book is the author’s questionable analysis. A perfect example is Halberstam’s take the Red Sox’s shortstop controversy. Regarding Boston’s two options at short -- Johnny Pesky and Junior Stephens -- Halberstam writes that:

"At this most critical position, Boston was deficient. Junior Stephens played adequate shortstop, although in no sense was he one...Pesky had played shortstop before the trade, but McCarthy had moved him to third because he had better hands and was quicker."

As the great baseball writer Bill James has pointed out, “This is an amazing interpretation of the transaction. Nobody in the history of baseball was ever moved off of shortstop because he had good hands and quick feet.”

Yet another problem with the book -- the third and final issue that I will note -- is that Summer in ‘49 feels more like hero-worship than journalism. Rather than de-mistify Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, the author seems to actively contribute to building up the mystique.

Summer of ‘49 sometimes appears on lists of the top ten baseball books of all time, however, I didn’t care much for it. I formed my own opinion independent of others, and it’s felt very reaffirming to read other writers later discredit the book, too. In lieu of Summer in ‘49, James refers his readers to Robert Creamer’s Baseball in ‘41 instead.

Favorite Line:
Williams would never, no matter what the situation, go for a pitch that was even a shade outside the strike zone. DiMaggio was different: He believed that, as a power hitter on the team, he sometimes had an obligation to swing at imperfect pitches. On certain occasions a walk was not enough; it was a victory for the pitcher.

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