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One for the Record : Halberstam's Hard Look at '64 Season Shows Teams Marching Toward a Title--and Social Change

August 24, 1994|DAN COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — The weather is steamy. David Halberstam is sitting in his cluttered office on Manhattan's Upper West Side, sipping takeout cappuccino from a cardboard cup. The baseball strike is looming. There is no joy in Mudville. But Halberstam is in Yankee heaven, his mind on rerun to 1961.

"Roger Maris! He had the leveraged swing. It was a great swing for Yankee Stadium--very short and compact. God! I don't think anybody leveraged his body quite like Maris," he says, still the awe-struck fan. "The Yankees that summer looked to me eternally young and strong. . . .

"Then I went off to the Congo."

Back in '61, Halberstam was a young New York Times reporter, about to leave for assignment in Africa. He watched Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris tear up the American League from a hotel room, where he was recovering from malaria shots. The reporting on Vietnam that would make his reputation was still in the future.

But sports was a constant, the second lens through which Halberstam would always view America. At 60, he has just published "October 1964" (Villard Books), his latest attempt to chronicle social change through sports.

"Changes in society are dramatic and they are really mirrored in baseball: You see the coming of television, new ballparks, the rise of the entertainment industry, jet travel, the coming of black and Hispanic ballplayers and a different kind of game with more speed and more money. It's a less austere America. Money is freer," he says.

The leaner days of yore are on display in "October 1964" in all their penny-pinching glory. We see the proud, mighty New York Yankees pack their suitcases and check out of their St. Louis hotel prior to the sixth game of the World Series with the Cardinals. The management of the nation's most celebrated franchise had no intention of paying for an extra night if the Bronx Bombers dropped game six.

And here is rookie manager Yogi Berra wondering whether he should ask for a two-year contract after guiding the aging, injury-riddled Yanks to another pennant. "Hey Yog, did you get the two-year contract?" asked a friend who ran into him outside the Yankee offices a few days later. "They fired me," Berra said.

Halberstam is best known as a serious chronicler of American politics and social mores, but moonlighting as a sportswriter with a social conscience has provided him with a happy routine that allows him to indulge his less earthshaking interests. He throws himself into "big books" about war ("The Best and the Brightest"), the economy ("The Reckoning"), the media ("The Powers That Be") and the national culture ("The Fifties"). Then he relaxes by churning out a tome on basketball or rowing or the national pastime.

"One of the nice things in my life is doing these sports books," he says. Halberstam's office is in a separate apartment in the building near Central Park where the writer lives with his wife, Jean, and daughter, Julia. Visitors on professional missions are thus shepherded to his workplace rather than the family's living space.

"It's fun," he says of sportswriting. "It's given me another career. You can use sports as a window on America, but you don't get caught up in all the Angst and contentiousness of it."

Halberstam, whose rather crusty exterior does not suggest a particularly playful spirit, is actually a man who enjoys a bit of contentiousness--his capacity for feuding is legendary. But he is also a huge sports buff.

The son of an Army doctor who loved the Yankees, he lived for a time about 12 blocks from Yankee Stadium. During World War II, the family lived in Connecticut, where he developed an infatuation with the Red Sox thanks to an uncle who had season tickets. The fan in social-historian Halberstam can break out at any moment.

"I couldn't understand why people booed Ted Williams! I still don't!" he exclaims. "If you rate (pro basketball player) Dennis Rodman at seven or eight on the bad-boy scale, Williams would be about a two."

*

Halberstam's latest "window on America" follows the Yankees and Cardinals through the 1964 season. In Halberstam's tale, the Yankees are an aging dynasty fatally weakened by a tightfisted management that has only grudgingly begun to sign black players. The Cardinals, spearheaded by black stars, are young, tough, fast and aggressive.

Virtue, in the form of racial inclusion, is not only its own reward--it wins the pennant and the World Series, as well.

The 1964 season was a re-entry into serious baseball fandom for Halberstam, who had left Mantle, Maris and company in the midst of their 1961 pursuit of Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record, and gone off to Africa (where he was one of only two white reporters at the independence celebration of Rwanda), and then to Vietnam.

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