One way to shut out the winter blahs is reading about baseball and the joys of being outside on a nice summer day. David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 is the one of the best books on baseball from a time when love of the game took precedence over money. Now we live in an era when fame is regularly confused with accomplishment. Halberstam focuses on the 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox led by Ted Williams and the New York Yankees led by Joe DiMaggio.
Halberstam captures an era when teams traveled by train and therefore had more time to think about baseball and talking about the game with teammates. Teams were often on the road for ten days or longer, although no team had to travel west than to the banks of the Mississippi. The 16 Major League franchises then were located in Ohio (Reds, Indians), Michigan (Tigers), New York (Yankees, Giants, Dodgers), Missouri (Cardinals, Browns), Illinois (Cubs, White Sox), Massachusetts (Braves, Red Sox), Pennsylvania (Phillies, Athletics, Pirates), and Washington, D.C. (Senators).
Readers are advised not to skip the epilogue after the final game of the World Series is described in chapter 15, for they will be rewarded with universal truths rendered by the likes of Bart Giamatti, John Updike, and Joe Lelyveld. Lelyveld, Pulitzer-prize winning correspondent for The New York Times, spoke for all of us who grew up listening to sportscasters and fervently swinging for the fences with our favorite slugger when he told Halberstam in 1987 that he knew Tommy Henrich hit about 15 game-winning home runs in the first half of the 1949 season because “I helped him do it” while listening to Mel Allen’s description of Yankee games.
1949 was just the start of something big for Casey Stengel, in his first season as skipper of the Yankees, and for Yogi Berra, who answered criticism over looks and language with outstanding achievement. The list of managers who led a team to five consecutive World Series Championships and catchers who won three Most Valuable Player awards is a short one.
Gag writers who poke fun at the Yogiisms reputedly uttered by the Hall of Famer might gag on Berra’s statistics for his first season as full-time catcher in 1950 when he was only 25: 656 plate appearances, 116 runs scored, 192 hits, 124 RBIs, .322 batting average, 28 home runs, 12 strikeouts. In 2017 when some of the most respected hitters in the game will go down swinging a dozen times in a week, how many position players appearing in over 150 games will homer twice as often as they fan? Yogi’s spirit might get the last laugh by putting a wee twist on Willie Keeler’s famous saying: “You can’t hit them where they ain’t if you can’t hit them.”