INTRODUCTION from Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam


Many readers may be surprised to discover that as an undergraduate at Harvard University, David Halberstam, who would become the most honored journalist of our time, began his journalism career in the press box.  As a staff writer for the Harvard Crimson he covered intramural basketball and the freshman baseball team before matriculating to varsity football.  For a time he even wrote a sports column for the Crimson inventively titled “Eggs in Your Beer.”  One of the pleasures of editing this volume has been the discovery that over the ensuing five decades, through stints at newspapers in Mississippi and Tennessee and the New York Times, and assignments in the Congo, Vietnam, Poland and Paris, and then after leaving daily journalism to write books, he never strayed from the sports page for long.  While he working for the Nashville Tennessean from 1956 thru 1960 he once covered opening day of the baseball season and reported on a high school student who would soon win several Olympic medals named Wilma Rudolph.  After he joined the New York Times in 1960 his first byline for the Times was not about any great issue of the day, but, of all things, about a ski jumping exhibition held in late November on man-made snow at Central Park’s Cedar Hill.

This is, I think, telling.  He once wrote of his sports titles that “[they] are my entertainments, fun to do, a pleasant world and a good deal more relaxed venue,” less pressured and more enjoyable than his heavier and more lengthy books about what he termed “society, history and culture.” Yet I do not think he viewed writing about sports as necessarily something lesser, for he also wrote that sports were “a venue from which I can learn a great deal about the changing mores of the rest of the society.”  He recognized that sports was important because sports mattered to people, and that sports, and how we related to sports, said something of value about ourselves, our society and our history and culture, one of the rare places where citizens of differing creeds, classes, and races came together.

David Halberstam was, at his core, a reporter, and even when he was writing about sports he was reporting on the world – they were not separate.  In a story he wrote as an undergraduate for the Harvard Alumni Bulletin about sculling on the Charles River, the first stoiry reprinted in this book, he also managed to capture a bit of the Cold War fear that was then wreaking havoc upon the post-war psyche.  His brief report on Wilma Rudolph’s track squad provided Halberstam himself with a lesson in racial progress, or the lack thereof.  His editor excised his use of the term “coed” in his description of the runners – at the time the term was reserved for white students only.

This background in sports does not make David Halberstam particularly unique. A number of great American writers were, at one time or another, sportswriters, ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson,  James Reston and Richard Ford.   What is unique, however, is that David Halberstam, while moving beyond sports, did not, I think, move past sports.  While he never elevated sports out of proportion, sports never ceased to be important to him and he never cast sports aside as insignificant, once writing that “I do not know of any other venue that showcases the changes in American life and its values and the coming of the norms of entertainment more dramatically than sports.”

One reason that he felt that way may be because he found those who wrote about sports among the best teachers of writing in all journalism.  In his introduction to a collection of work by W.C. Heinz entitled What a Time It Was,  Halberstam credits Heinz, who is best known for his sports writing, as “one of those people who made me want to be a writer,” someone who “helped teach me what the possibilities of journalism really were.” Gay Talese’s famous profile of Joe DiMaggio, “The Silent Season of the Hero,” written in 1966 for Esquire, had a similar impact.  For Halberstam, Talese’s sober, nuanced portrait of DiMaggio simultaneously exposed the limits inherent in newspaper journalism and the creative possibilities of magazine work, which promised what Halberstam called “the greatest indulgence of all for a journalist, the luxury of time.”   Over the years he regularly noted the influence of other writers like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton and Tom Wolfe on his own work.  Smith of course, was a sports columnist, and while Breslin, Cannon, Kempton and Wolfe wrote of many topics all considered sports a valid subject upon which to exercise their unique creative talents.

It was, in fact, the influence of these talented writers that caused Halberstam to look at his own work and career and, shortly after Talese’s story about DiMaggio appeared in print, to ponder leaving daily journalism.  Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his reporting on the Vietnam War, he began to find daily journalism too rigid and confining.

His frustration with daily reportage and his desire to say more is apparent even in his earliest work and is apparent even when he wrote about sports.  In March of 1961 Halberstam wrote a brief story for the Times about the Washington Redskins new football stadium, which was being built as part of the National Capital Parks system and therefore fell under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.  In the story U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall warned Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, a notorious bigot who at that point had yet to put an African American player on the field in a Redskins uniform, that if he continued to discriminate in his hiring practices, the new stadium might not be available to the Redskins.

The story is unremarkable except for the ending.  Halberstam interviewed both Udall and Marshall in for the story and the Redskins owner offered up his usual excuses for not employing an African Americans, telling Halberstam that Redskins fans were mainly from the south and therefore the team recruited players from southern universities, which just so happened to field all-white football teams, a transparently cowardly posture that ignored the fact that there were already African American players in the NFL available by trade.  Yet Marshall told Halberstam “I don’t know where I could get a good Negro player now – the other clubs aren’t going to give up a good one.”

Reading the story today one can almost feel Halberstam bristling at Marshall’s unapologetic bigotry and insensitivity.  As the reporter of a news story he simply did not have the latitude to take Marshall directly to task on the topic, an experience he must have found frustrating.

Yet still, he did find a way – through simple reporting.  Immediately following Marshall’s quote Halberstam added one single, concise fact, one small “take that” of a sentence that said everything, writing simply “The Redskins won only one game last year and finished last in their division.”

Several years later, when Halberstam was serving as a foreign correspondent for the Times in Warsaw, Poland, the Times sent staffers a memo requesting that they write  stories exactly 600 words long.  In response Halberstam he wrote his now famous letter to his fellow correspondent and former staffer at the Harvard Crimson, J. Anthony Lukas, in which he stated “There are only two kinds of stories in the world: those about which I do not care to write as many as 600 words, and those about which I would like to write many more than 600 words. But there is nothing about which I would like to write exactly 600 words.”

One of those stories that he found that he wanted to write more than 600 words was at the racetrack in Poland, in the company of two Poles, Tadeusz and Zygmunt, who he trailed for a day as they watched the races and placed their bets.  It is a simple, understated story, one that easily could have been nothing more than a pleasant little diversion, yet Halberstam, by actually reporting what took place, manages to reveal a thing or two or three about daily life in Poland, making deft note of the underground economy, entrenched corruption, the continued existence of class in a supposedly classless society, and the genuine affection between his two subjects.  But the opportunity to write such stories were few, and two years later, following an unsatisfactory assignments in Paris, he left the newspaper business altogether, joining Harper’s magazine in 1967 and, in 1969, pursuing a career as an author of books.

This collection does not include excerpts from his many sports titles.  All are still widely available and deserve to be read in full, rather than in any abbreviated fashion. Instead this collection is built from his lesser known writing on sports, the essays, articles and columns that he wrote over a lifetime, most of which will be new to even the most dedicated reader.  I have chosen to start this volume with two early pieces – his column on rowing on the Charles and his day at the race track in Poland – not only because of their historicity, but because each of these early stories demonstrates something that differentiates David Halberstam, the sports writer, from so many other writers better known in other genres who sometimes write about sports.

He was no dilettante.  He never dipped his pen into the world of sports and then simply walked away, treating it as, in the parlance of the newsroom, as simply the “toy department.”  Sports was a lifelong subject of interest to him, a place he valued and considered worthy of his attention, and where over time I think that he discovered that some of his larger concerns – the checkered history of race relations in this country, for example, or the value of friendship and camaraderie – were sometimes played out in a more concentrated, more accessible form.   No matter the subject, his approach never varied.   He never wrote just to fill up a page or spoke to fill a screen at a time when other writers preferred to talk than write.  His commitment to the craft of writing was always apparent.

It should have come as no great surprise that after the after the towering success of The Best and the Brightest in 1972 and The Powers that Be in 1979 that his next book would be his chronicle of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers’ 1979/80 season, The Breaks of the Game, published in 1981. For throughout the 1970s, even as he earned a reputation as the preeminent journalist of our day, he continued to write about sports in publications like Harper’s, New York Magazine, and newspapers.  The real surprise is not that he chose to write a book about sports, but that he took so long to do so.  Sports had always been part of his own personal beat.  It was only natural that he would one day write one or more books in that genre.

The success of that book, a best seller, and still, I think, the single best chronicle of a season in sports, spawned many imitators.  In short order a host of writers successful in other genres, ranging from political columnists, newspaper journalists, novelists and pundits, tried to duplicate his success and chose to turn their attention to sports, rashly deciding, after a lifetime of writing about something else, that what they really wanted to do was write about baseball or some other sport.  Many such books, even those that have sold well, have been not been very satisfying, for very few of the authors brought the same skills of reporting and level of respect to their task as David Halberstam did to his.  In the hands of these less skilled craftsman, their sporting subjects were often made to seem small and insignificant, even disposable.  In Halberstam’s hands, that was never the case.

This may be, in fact, precisely what differentiates his work from that of those sports writers who followed in his wake.  “Big games, and late innings and fourth quarters … that’s when the test is real,” he once wrote, and in his own work he sought to find those moments in a subject that similarly revealed when the test was real, when it mattered.  He was not awed or overwhelmed by big themes and big subjects.   And when he found a worthy subject  he often probed it repeatedly, returning time and time again, ferreting out more and more each time, as he did with Michael Jordan, for example, first in number of articles, and finally in a book, or with Ted Williams, or with fishing.  His vast knowledge of American history and culture allowed him to place sports both within a larger landscape and in perspective, helping us see what we had not seen before, and by articulating what he saw in a subject, teaching us.

There is a wonderful logical progression in much of his work that contains lessons for any writer.  He reports first, slowing adding layers of fact and observation, before reaching conclusions that simultaneously seem both revelatory and completely logical and obvious.  I suppose that is the rough guideline I have used in selecting the articles and essays that grace this volume.   Each, in some way, brings us to place of knowledge and a level of understanding we likely would not have reached without his guidance – wisdom we would not have otherwise gained.   Even better, he manages to teach without preaching, and like any truly good teacher, makes each lesson somehow feel like ours alone.

That appears to be something of a family tradition.  His mother was a teacher, and so too is his daughter, Julia, and that is one of the small pleasures of this book – while reading about sports we also learn quite a bit about David Halberstam himself.  In his sports writing he was often much more personal and revealing than he was when writing about other subjects.  There are probably many reasons for this, but most importantly, I think, is that he recognized that sports is one of the ways in which we come together, both as a nation and as individuals.  The reader will notice that in these selections we meet many of his subjects not as remote figures whose deeds are far removed from our lives, but as friends, and to show us them Halberstam sometimes had to show us himself.

And so we also meet David Halberstam, not merely as a figure on a book jacket, but as a kind and decent person who wasn’t much of an athlete while growing up, but enjoyed fishing for bass on small Connecticut ponds with his father and brother, and going to the occasional baseball game at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.  A person who called his friends “pal,” liked the camaraderie of men, marveled at and appreciated those who gave their task everything they had and was sometimes frustrated at those who did not.  A man who enjoyed the process of his work as much as the product, and found peace and comfort on the water and with his family both in New York and on Nantucket, and about whom his wife Jean said “would like to be remembered as an historian and particularly remembered for his generosity to his peers and young people choosing the field of journalism.”

That he will certainly be.  I did not know David Halberstam well, but over the past twenty years was fortunate enough to give him some small assistance with several of his projects and then had occasion to collaborate with him on several others.  Our encounters, I think, are revealing, and I am grateful that now I have the opportunity, in some small way, to repay him for that generosity.

We first met when I was working at the Boston Public Library and David Halberstam was researching the book what would become The Summer of ’49.  I was one of those young people, a fledgling writer who a few years earlier had started mining the newspaper microfilm and special collections of the BPL for help in writing stories on local sports history, primarily baseball.  Soon after I began publishing these stories in Boston Magazine I started to hear from sports writers, most of whom wanted me to look something up on their behalf either in old newspapers or in the libraries’ archives.  One of them must have tipped David off to the fact that I had become the defacto sports archivist at the Library.  One day I returned to my desk and a note telling me to call David Halberstam taped to my phone.

No “while you were out” message has ever done more for a person’s self esteem. I remember that I left it on the phone and then went to lunch, just so it would stay there a bit longer.  I spoke to him later that day and he made an appointment to visit the Library a few days later.

Most other sports writers who had contacted me before wanted me to look up material for them, and frankly, many treated me as if I were some kind of chambermaid.  Not Halberstam.  Not only was he extremely considerate, but after I set him up in a back room he wanted only minimal assistance and pored through the archival boxes himself.  He was politely curious about me, and when I told him I had written an article about the Red Sox 1948 playoff game with the Cleveland Indians, and had been the first writer to interview Boston pitcher Denny Galehouse since he gave up the winning run more than forty years before, he not only wanted to see the story, he wanted to talk.  Thereafter he spoke to me as an equal, as a colleague, and as he continued his research over the next few days we held several lengthy discussions about Boston, the Boston press, and the history of the Red Sox and Yankees.  In the wake of our conversations I felt like the rookie hitter who discovered he could hit big league pitching – David Halberstam made me fell like I belonged.

A few years later I was offered the opportunity to serve as series editor for the inaugural edition of the annual collection The Best American Sports Writing, the first book project of any kind I had ever been asked to be involved in.  My editor at Houghton Mifflin asked me who I thought should serve as guest editor.  I knew, from the start, that the collection should not be confined to simply the compound word “sportswriting” but should also include “sports writing,” the best writing on sports, a somewhat different thing.  Halberstam’s work was already the best example of this.  With The Summer of ’49, still on the best seller list, and the earlier successes of The Breaks of the Game and The Amateurs still fresh, he fit the criteria perfectly.  I immediately suggested that we ask Halberstam to serve as the first guest editor.

My suggestion was, I recall, greeted with some skepticism.  Not that my editor didn’t think Halberstam would be perfect for the job, but I do not think he believed that a writer of his stature would have any interest in serving on such a project, particularly one not yet out of the box.  Naively perhaps, I thought otherwise.  I boldly told my editor that I knew Halberstam from the library, and that when he contacted him he should mention my name.

A few days later my editor called with the happy news that David was on board.  Moreover, he told me that the clincher had come when he told David that he would be working with me, providing me with yet another boost.  Although many of the guest editors for the Best American Sports Writing make their selection in camera, which is their right and privilege, David was different.  During the selection process he wanted to discuss the stories and solicited my input.  That was a kindness I have never forgotten, for I think that together we created a sturdy template for the series, one that otherwise might have been less assured and lasting.

I soon began to write books myself – primarily illustrated biographies and histories with photographs selected by my colleague and friend Richard Johnson.  On several occasions we asked David to contribute an essay.  He almost always agreed, asking only if he was being paid out of our own pocket or that of the publisher, and adjusting his fee accordingly.

We worked together one last time in 1999 when my publisher decided to publish a collection entitled The Best Sports Writing of the Century.  David Halberstam was my first and only suggestion to serve as guest editor.  This time I was allowed to make the call, and again, the only question he asked was whether we would be working together or not.

I cannot overstate how much that query meant to me, both personally, and professionally.   Once again he turned the editing of the book into collaboration.  Each time I sent him a bundle of material I would soon receive a phone call from David wanting to discuss the stories.  He seemed to know every writer and story already, and in conversations that were, in turn, sometimes funny and earthy but always profound, I felt as if I were the student at a private journalism seminar as he would deftly dissect a piece I liked that he did not, and, more often, show me why he liked the stories that he did.  In one of those conversations, as we discussed the stories of W.C. Heinz, David openly wondered if Heinz was still living.  I answered that I did not know and over the next few minutes I could tell that David was intrigued by the possibility that he was – as I have already mentioned, Heinz had been an enormous influence on his career, but the two journalistic giants had never met or spoken.

A few days later I received another call, and without even saying hello David blurted out, “I just got off the phone with Bill Heinz,” and he proceeded to tell me all about it, speaking with the unbridled enthusiasm of a young boy who had just attended his first big league baseball game.  His curiosity, combined with the selection of a few Heinz stories in the book, sparked something of a W.C. Heinz revival and introduced his work to an entirely new generation of writers, a true and lasting gift.

It was during this time, as we spoke often and sometimes at length during the several months it took to put that book together, that I really began to comprehend the central role that sports – and sports writers – played in David Halberstam’s own personal biography.  They were important to him, and to borrow a metaphor, he already knew the players with having to look at the scorecard.  There truly was no one better equipped to serve as the captain of such a book as he.

Later, after the book came out and he either referenced it in something he wrote or spoke of it in an interview, he nearly always mentioned that that I did all the “heavy lifting,” an acknowledgment I cherished, for I knew that he was sincere.  Like me, as a young man he had labored as a construction worker.  Hard work was something he treasured and appreciated, and no writer I have ever encountered has matched his considerable work ethic.  Yet as much as I appreciated the compliment, it also made me smile, because how could working with David Halberstam ever be considered “heavy lifting?”

In the ensuing years before his passing we spoke only a few more times, primarily about another collaboration which never quite came together.  The title of this book, in fact, stems from those conversations.

We envisioned putting together a book we hoped our daughters would read, a collection of sports writing solely about female athletes.  The working title we agreed upon was Everything She Had, a phrase that seemed to acknowledge a quality that David Halberstam admired not only in athletes, but in anyone who strove to succeed.

When I was asked to recommend a title for this volume, I immediately suggested Everything They Had.  I believe the title recognizes that not only did David Halberstam value those who gave their task everything they had, but that inside these pages he responded in kind, with his own best effort.  For David  Halberstam wrote about sports with the same veracity with which he wrote about everything else, once summing up his approach to all his work by quoting none other than basketball legend Julius Erving, who said “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”  Here, in Everything They Had, I believe we gain a sense that David Halberstam himself was perhaps the best example for many of the qualities he admired most in others.

Although I don’t believe I spoke to him at all over the last four or five years or so, that was fine.  We were professional acquaintances and I never felt comfortable contacting him unless it was absolutely necessary.  Yet when I asked him once how I should respond if I was ever asked by anyone how to contact him, he told me simply, “Oh, I’m in the phonebook.”  On a few occasions when I encouraged trusted younger writer friends to contact him about projects or issues that I thought he might be of some help, he was, every single time.

I was honored one last time when his editor at Hyperion, Will Schwalbe, contacted me about serving as the editor of this volume.  Will described the circumstances of the project, and then added that David’s wife Jean suggested that I serve as this books’ editor.  There are no words to describe the degree of gratitude I feel toward her for allowing me to share the byline of this book.

So once more I have been given the privilege of doing what David Halberstam would have described as, the “heavy lifting,” again selecting the best of the very best from among the essays, features, columns and other sports writing that David Halberstam produced over the course of his distinguished and inimitable career.  Although, given the circumstances, part of that task was done with a measure of sadness, the burden, of course, was not really heavy at all.  Like the writing that graces these pages, it was joyful and real, enriching, uplifting and true.

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