The Teammates

Baseball has not been quite as appealing to me this year.

The steroid sagas of Clemens and Bonds have left me a bit cynical, the season-ending injury to John Smoltz and Atlanta’s inability to win one-run games has left me depressed, and TBS’ decision to no longer broadcast Braves games has left me out of touch.

But two things have kept me interested: Chipper Jones’ impressive run at .400 (maybe I’ll write about that later), and one of the best baseball books I have ever read, The Teammates, by David Halberstam.

The Teammates tells the story of four Boston Red Sox icons—Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky—the years they played together and the friendship they shared, which spanned 50 years.

In October of 2001, when Williams fell ill and his friends knew it was near the end, they traveled 1,300 miles by car to see him one more time.

Much of the book focuses on Ted Williams, the leader of the group, and possibly the greatest hitter in baseball history. On the relationship between Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Ted’s rival as the other dominant player of the 30s and 40s, Halberstam writes:
“The two had not been close when they played. Joe DiMaggio was the most aloof of men; he held out genuine warmth of friendship not even to his younger brother or his long-time teammates, let alone to Ted Williams, the one baseball player against whom he was constantly measured. Ted, by contrast, was far more open, far more generous, and far more volatile. After they quit playing his only real connection to Joe, other than through his admiration for him and his love of Joe’s younger brother, was the fact that for some 50 years they stood together atop the same pedestal of excellence, honored and celebrated at countless baseball dinners, posing for a seemingly endless number of photographs reflecting baseball’s royalty from an earlier age.

Because they had shared so much of an era, even if they had shared nothing else, their mortality was in some curious way a shared one; if they were linked in life by greatness then they would surely be linked in their obituaries. If Joe, who was nearly four years older than Ted, was dying, then Ted's mortality was at stake as well. The imminent death of Joe DiMaggio meant that an era that belonged to Ted, as much as it did to Joe, was coming to an end. Thus when Joe’s health began to fail badly in the fall of 1998, and when it became clear that he was dying, Ted was deeply moved and his regular phone calls to Dominic started, always at the same time of day. As soon as the phone rang, Dominic knew it was Ted calling about Joe, wanting to know how he was, whether he was doing any better, asking what the doctors were saying. When Joe died, Ted took it, his friends realized with surprise, like a death in his extended family.”
Halberstam had interviewed Williams before for another book, and had come to know him pretty well:
“I have this view of him now, and it was beginning to form back then, that…he was not a modern man, had always gone his own way, always outside the bounds of contemporary society, and had been so absolutely true to himself. He did not wear ties to tie-certified events. He had crash-landed his plane in Korea once because he thought that there was a better chance to preserve his body that way than if he parachuted out, which might have been harder on his legs. It was a bet, and he had won. He always, if you think about it, bet on himself. He did not go around doing things that would make him popular; instead, even when there were things about him that were appealing, he tended to keep them to himself. He was always his own man.

I think in that sense the .406 is special and defining, not that he was the last man to accomplish it, but much more important was the way he did it. On the last day of the season, Boston faced the Philadelphia Athletics in a doubleheader and Ted’s averaged rounded out to .400 and Joe Cronin offered him the day off. But Ted Williams did not round things out, and he had played, gotten six hits, and taken the average up to .406.”
On the journey of three men who are desperate to see Williams one last time:
“The voyage of Dominic, John, and Dick Flavin from Marion to Hernando took three full days. All three men in the car were proud that they never turned the radio on, not once. Dominic loved the opera and had brought along a few tapes, and on occasion they played one, mostly Pavarotti and Domingo. But never the radio. There was just too much to say, too much to reminisce about, and they knew they would never be together again like this. This was the last time.”
Ted was in awful shape by the time his friends arrived, but just being with them again brought about a change in him, and for a while, again made everything as it should have been:
“Now, in his wheelchair, Ted was suddenly in charge again. It was fascinating to watch him become stronger by the minute with the arrival of his friends. He had to take charge, of course, because that was the natural order of things and that was what his friends wanted.”
I thought The Teammates was an amazing book, sometimes humorous, often poignant, and always interesting. Halberstam truly is a poet, and uses the story of four old-time ballplayers to talk about the things that are really important in life.


Anonymous 6/25/08, 11:34 AM  

Thanks for a great post Luke. I'm going to have to read that book.

Luke Dockery 6/26/08, 10:48 AM  

Thanks Robbo. You should read it, and I own a copy if you'd like to borrow it…

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