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A story of friendship
By Steven Martinovich
There is no doubting that David Halberstam is one of the finest writers in America today. Something happens, however, to further elevate his ability when he turns to the subject of baseball. When it comes to America's past-time, Halberstam turns not into a historian but rather a chronicler, paying attention not just to its grand themes but also the small elements that make up the tapestry of the game.
In The Teammates Halberstam tells the story of Bobby Doerr, Dominic DiMaggio, John Pesky and Ted Williams, the core of the incredible Boston Red Sox teams during the 1940s and early 50s. The Teammates is less a story about baseball then it is of four friends united by their love of baseball and each other. Their friendships survived for five decades after their glory days with the Red Sox and continue today with the three still alive.
Halberstam begins his story in October 2001 with DiMaggio, Pesky and a friend traveling to Florida to visit an ailing Williams. Using flashbacks he recounts how the four men met each other and how their different personalities drew them together. They were men born at the end of the First World War to modest means and all saw baseball as a way to improve their station in life.
And different the men were. Williams was generous, mercurial at the best of times, argumentative always -- it was joked he had won 30 000 arguments over the other three, and completely dedicated to his hitting. Doerr was balanced and comfortable with himself, perhaps the only one capable of moderating Williams' moods. Pesky was "warm and loving and absolutely without guile or meanness," a man loved by everyone. DiMaggio had talent, ambition and worked harder than the others to become what Pesky later referred as "almost the perfect ballplayer."
As with what happened with the four men, much of The Teammates revolves around Williams. While Halberstam takes the time to tell the stories of each of the four, many of the flashbacks involve Williams and how his friends related to his dominant personality. He was, as Halberstam illustrates, the glue that held the men together during their playing days and after. Halberstam quotes Pesky as stating that it was "like there was a star on top of his head, pulling everyone toward him like a beacon." They were each their own men but Williams was definitely the nucleus of the group.
"He might not, the other three teammates knew, be the easiest man in the world to deal with. He always did what he wanted and never did anything he did not. But to no small degree he was the one who had kept them friends; they stayed close because he willed them to stay close. In a way they had become his family -- his real family, the one from his childhood had been difficult, always causing him more pain than pleasure -- and there was an awareness that Ted was always there for them," explains Halberstam.
Baseball plays its role in this story with numerous anecdotes about their playing days including a marvelous chapter about the seventh game of the 1946 World Series, one that saw Pesky unfairly named the scapegoat for the St. Louis Cardinals victory. Halberstam explores their attitudes for and love towards the game, one that sees many of today's ballplayers make more in one game than any of them made in their best year. As Halberstam points out, they were grateful for the lives they had, not for the material success, but for being able to live their lives with few regrets.
The Teammates is an uncommonly sensitive look at men coming to grips with the last days of one of their own. By weaving their back story in with the final trip by Pesky and DiMaggio to visit the ailing Williams, Halberstam illustrates that they are not merely bonded together by the game they all played so brilliantly, but also by a deep friendship. Each provided to the other something that was missing in them to some extent. There is nothing forced about The Teammates, no pandering to emotions or attempt to spin the story beyond what it is: a touching tribute to friendship.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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