“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” -The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Written forty years afterward, David Halberstam’s warm look back at the Yankees-Red Sox pennant race of 1949 is not for the sabrmetrically inclined. With its unchecked assertions and reliance on anecdotes, there are many parts of Halberstam’s narrative that are unlikely to survive statistical scrutiny. Can it really be true that Joe DiMaggio was never thrown out going from first to third once in his long career? Or that Boston’s Johnny Pesky hit much better when men were on base, or that Tommy Henrich of the Yankees was really consistently the best clutch hitter in baseball? You can either take Halberstam’s word for it or do the research yourself, because you won’t find many numbers in this book.
However, if you like old baseball stories, there’s a lot to love about Summer of ’49. It really was a different time, and the novel’s panoramic, biographical look at the men involved in that great pennant race is chock full of amusing and insightful incidents, both concerning legendary names all fans remember and the lesser players lost to history.
The book is largely framed around the two inscrutable legends depicted on its cover, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Williams, the self-proclaimed greatest hitter who ever lived, was a perfectionist at his craft of hitting, an indifferent fielder, and a man at war with the press in his adopted hometown. DiMaggio, an immensely proud man himself, nearly broke himself trying to live up to his image of himself as a man’s man, the Hemingway-esque hero displaying grace under pressure. Each has been the subject of lengthy biographies, but Halberstam is great at capturing the essence of each man in a few choice moments.
There were other men on both teams of course, including other Hall of Famers like Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr. Each gets his turn in Halberstam’s spotlight, as do lesser names like Boston’s catcher Birdie Tebbets, who could get away with joking with Ted Williams, the remarkably hard-drinking Ellis Kinder, ladies’ man Vern Stephens, and New York’s inimitable manager Casey Stengel.
Summer of ’49 is a book for the fan seeking to recapture what it was to be a boy who loved the game, who admired the players on his hometown team and desperately hoped to grow up to be just like them. Halberstam was that boy in the summer of 1949, and he has set the experience on paper for others to relive.