North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Summer of ’49, reviewed

with 2 comments

It’s been 60 years since the events of David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49 happened – and 20 years since it was first written – but it’s remarkable how it’s legacy has continued to live on.

That summer, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees battled for the American League title, with Boston making a massive late-summer surge that made the final games of the seasons the ones that decided the pennant. The book is a gorgeously detailed account of that season and it’s personalities.

But Summer of ’49 is more then just an account of that summer. It’s an examination of baseball at that period, when it was on the cusp of change. Halberstam moves to and from an account of the season with smaller portraits of the major players, illuminating what life was like back then for the team, for it’s owners and for those who followed the team, either as fans or in the media.

In most ways, it was a vastly different time. Players still travelled by train, were still held to a team by the reserve clause and still had to work during the offseason to make ends meet. Owners still dictated salaries, often directly to players. Halberstam recounts just what a revolution for both players and owners it was when Yogi Berra hired an agent to get him a better deal for speaking engagements.

Speaking of the players, it was a different time for them too. While some players loomed large enough to eke out a living by playing ball – Ted Williams, Berra, etc – others had to balance it by working in the offseason; thus winning, with a bonus World Series check, likely meant much more to the players.

Of course, there was one player for whom winning meant a lot, money or not: Joe DiMaggio. His shadow looms more then any other player in this book (although he was one of the few not interviewed by the author), even though he missed stretches of the season with injury. Halberstam writes of the tremendous pressure that DiMaggio had to live through: aging fast, battling injuries all season and no longer at the top of his game, but still forced to lead the Yankees in the media capital of the world.

It was a different time to be a player: with so many papers and no radio or TV from which to speak for themselves, players were either lauded (as New York writers did to DiMaggio) or crucified (as Boston writers did to Ted Williams) by the media, with little ground in between. Halberstam uses period pieces to show just how harsh the media could be in each regard.

It was a different time for the sport of baseball too, writes Halberstam. College football was still big, but only mattered to the select few who actually went to university and both pro basketball and football were still years away from mainstream acceptance (the NHL goes unaccounted for by Halberstam). For many people, mostly first and second generation Americans, baseball was the sport.

Especially interesting is Halberstam’s account of how baseball was broadcasted in those days. Radio was still the main way most people experienced baseball, with announcers like Mel Allen or Red Barber not so much recounting the game as recreating it for fans.

But television, recently introduced into the sport and still in it’s earliest stages, was already waging a revolution for the way people could see the sport. One example: as games moved from the day to evening, bars would advertise what games they were showing that week on their TV.

At the same time, owners worried about how broadcasts would effect attendance – so much so, that one owner limited what angles could be used for the broadcast; having a camera at first and third base was okay, but having one in the bleachers facing home plate was not.

Halberstam also goes into the darker side of the era. Although the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers had recently integrated baseball, neither the Yankees nor Red Sox were willing to bring in any black players. Halberstam tells of how both teams could have signed Willie Mays but let racial prejudices come in way.

With these asides, Halberstam not only retells the season, but he recreates the period, when baseball wasn’t America’s pastime but America itself: something about to change and explode into something much larger and encompassing, yet stubbornly trying to resist as long as possible.


Written by M.

January 4, 2010 at 12:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. Nice review, mate. Sounds like an interesting read. I’ve added it to my list. Cheers.


    January 4, 2010 at 12:54 am

    • Thanks. And you just finished Ball Four right – if you’re looking for another baseball read, you can’t go wrong with this.


      January 4, 2010 at 2:18 pm

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