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A league of his own

Everything They Had Sports Writing From David Halberstam David Halberstam Hyperion: 402 pp., $24.95

May 04, 2008|David Davis | David Davis is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine.

WHEN David Halberstam was killed in a car crash near San Francisco last spring, he'd just finished what turned out to be his final book, "The Coldest Winter," a history of the Korean War. The indefatigable 73-year-old author was on his way to Palo Alto to speak with Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle. The interview was to be the first for his 22nd book, on the Baltimore Colts' victory over the New York Giants in 1958, an overtime championship thriller that he believed marked the ascendancy of professional football in American sports.

Halberstam was one of a handful of writers who could tackle, in succession, the Korean War and the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for groundbreaking coverage of the Vietnam War for the New York Times and went on to pen the signature 1972 book on the origins of that conflict, "The Best and the Brightest." His 1993 book, "The Fifties," was a sprawling account of that crucible decade in U.S. history. But all along, he'd had an affection for sports. Beginning in 1981, he wrote a series of sports-themed books, which were "a pleasant respite from my other seemingly more serious work," he said, as if to apologize for the lighter material. They were anything but lightweight. Whether writing about the NFL, Olympic rowing or Michael Jordan, Halberstam examined essential themes: race and class, media and entertainment, heroism and myth, money and power, youth and old age.

Now, a year after his untimely death, comes "Everything They Had: Sports Writing From David Halberstam." This collection is culled from his magazine, newspaper and website articles, from 1955 (when he was an undergrad at Harvard) to 2006 (when he contributed to ESPN.com). Author-historian Glenn Stout, who edits the annual "Best American Sports Writing" collection from Houghton Mifflin, selected the 44 pieces. (Full disclosure: An article I wrote more than a decade ago was published in that series.)

Halberstam was a lifelong sports fan. He relished meeting and interviewing athletes and coaches whom he respected, including Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, Bobby Knight and Bill Belichick. He regarded sports writing as a craft and often cited the influence of Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and W.C. Heinz on his own work; they were the true "forerunners of what became known as New Journalism" in the 1960s, he once said. (His repeated praise of Heinz, who also recently passed away, helped to resurrect an overlooked star.)

A bestselling author with enviable freedom to choose his topics, Halberstam preferred to write about his passions -- the Red Sox, fishing, male bonding. The most satisfying pieces in this collection highlight his reporting chops and observational prowess. In a 1984 profile about Reggie Smith for Playboy, he neatly chronicled the arc of the veteran outfielder's career. In Smith's early years with the Red Sox, "the Boston sports press . . . was not entirely ready for a brash young black player who seemed to lack what some sportswriters felt was the requisite gratitude of a black player to a white newspaperman," he wrote. With Tommy Lasorda and his "Bleed Dodger Blue" clubs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Smith played for an organization defined by "the idea that they were not only cleaner but somehow spiritually superior to other baseball players." Winding down his career in Japan, with the Yomiuri Giants, Smith encountered a philosophy of baseball that "was not so much assertive strategy and tactics as it was an attempt to avoid making mistakes or taking responsibility."

In a 1998 article about Olympic ice hockey player Allison "A.J." Mleczko, for the now-defunct Conde Nast Sports for Women magazine, Halberstam discovered "something of a sanctuary" far removed from the commercial interests that so dominate professional sports. Elite female athletes, he noted admiringly, competed in "a place where there was a sense of excellence and dedication but none of the countervailing egotism, born of the intense new materialism of sport that is so destructive to the concept of team. No one was spoiled. No one had an attitude problem."

To Halberstam, sports always meant something beyond the arena, beyond the balls and strikes. His experiences covering the civil rights movement had made him acutely sensitive to racial matters. The integration of major league baseball by Jackie Robinson, he wrote, "put America itself at a crossroads between two powerful competing national impulses, one impulse reflecting the special darkness of racial prejudice and historic meanness of spirit which had begun with slavery, the other the impulse of idealism and optimism, that a true democracy offered the children of all American citizens a chance to exhibit their full talents and rise to their rightful place."

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