Ranking David Halberstam


Editor’s Note: DPB’s writers introduce their summer sports reading lists this week. Here Kyle Magin shows the easy life of summer in the Sierra is best balanced with the substantial works of David Halberstam.

The term ‘Summer Reading List’ really only exists as a concept because the publishing industry wants you to buy more books. In my experience, checking off a reading list is exponentially easier when the days are short and cold. There’s no beckoning to swim in a lake, walk my dog longer than I have to or extend a dinner with drinks if there’s no sunny deck to lounge on.

Terrible weather begets learning—this is why Stanford is an anomaly in the highest reaches of academia.

But, if you insist on a summer reading list and you haven’t ever read David Halberstam, or have only dabbled, now’s the time to take on America’s greatest historian. Seven years after his death, Halberstam—who made his bones as a correspondent in Vietnam, exposed the well-concealed tensions of the American 1950s and wrote the soberest account of Michael Jordan ever committed to paper—remains a treasure. His ability to view history through the lens of the kingpins and the grunts stands above excellent company and makes each of his histories accessible to the reader. He tackled sports writing with the same determined, detailed reporting he applied to war coverage and matters of bare-knuckle industry. Here are five of the best:

5. The Teammates: A Portrait of Friendship

Even when doing sepia—is there another lens through which to view Red Sox teammates Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr?—Halberstam does it better than anyone else. He finds the profound in the minutia, recounting a roadtrip DiMaggio, Doerr and Pesky took to visit an ailing Splendid Splinter. DiMaggio, when he’s not driving, insists the driver takes the inside of each turn on their long trip to Florida via various interstate highways. DiMaggio reasons hugging the turn will save them miles on their trip, an economy the other two deem negligible. Halberstam divined the depth of the exchange—DiMaggio had to make do without the physical talents his older brother had and lived his life and played baseball by a spare-no-motion ethos. It’s a vignette other writers would blow past, yet it described DiMaggio perfectly. The tale is a beautiful story of a 60-plus year friendship, a cantankerous legend (Williams), baseball in the 1940s and the disparate paths the quartet took after their playing days in Fenway were finished. Halberstam keeps the prose light on inside baseball without sacrificing anything die-hards would miss.

4. The Reckoning

Halberstam’s main focus in The Reckoning is the decline of the American auto industry and the rise of  Japan’s car manufacturers as told through Ford and Nissan. But, it would serve well in 300-level history classes as a text on post-World War II Japan, 20th Century Detroit, Henry Ford, Henry “Hank the Deuce” Ford II, Japanese labor relations and the oil industry in Texas and Saudi Arabia. It’s dense and lengthy without becoming monotonous, but if you start it today you’ll probably still be flipping pages a month from now. His gift for hiding biographies in a history is as apparent as ever here. You get to know the hard-drinking, talented-yet-destructive Ford II, who shared a roaring temper and inability to share credit with his teetotaler namesake grandfather. Halberstam profiles Japanese engineers who pour their educations, heart and soul into Nissan because post-WWII restrictions robbed them of the chance to try their talents in the aviation and aeronautics industries their top-flight American counterparts were going into. He batters Robert McNamara—the former Ford exec went on to become a Secretary of Defense, architect of the Vietnam War and a favorite Halberstam target in later years—and his emphasis on efficiency over product, which suffered during his time at Ford. The book was finished 25-plus years ago yet describes problems in the auto industry which have only very, very recently been addressed. A true banquet of a book.

3. The Best and the Brightest

Halberstam’s original seminal book, his Sgt. Pepper’s, this account of the actions that entrenched America in the Vietnam War are told so viscerally and with, at times, barely-concealed vitriol, that you can see why it launched the author into a rarified orbit. It’s one thing to rant about Vietnam, like Jenny’s asshole boyfriend does in Forrest Gump, it’s another thing entirely to trace the origins back through consecutive presidential administrations and nail every single perpetrator to the wall with total command of the facts. Halberstam launches an offensive on the Republican hawks who pushed defense policy increasingly toward containment after Mao’s victory in China and sought to purge the State Department of anyone they deemed complicit in ‘losing’ China, as if a lot of nerds propping up the feckless Chiang Kai-Shek could have stopped a populist uprising. He then sharpens his cleaver and goes to work on the Democrats, who under JFK took the bait and began quietly cracking Commie skulls in Vietnam. Suddenly, it was not so quietly, and Kennedy was dead, and Johnson got into a dick-measuring competition that would end up costing this country 50,000-plus lives and opening wounds still festering today. The title of the book owes to Kennedy’s (and later, Johnson’s) cabinet, men like McNamara and Averell Harriman and McGeorge Bundy—who were widely considered the cream of America’s crop at the time, the greatest minds in all the land. Halberstam subtly mocks their genius as they consistently allowed bad intelligence to move them toward greater troop commitments, until they could do nothing else and entered an unwinnable conflict. The only flaw in the telling is the lack of the on-the-ground view of Vietnam through a soldier or civilian’s eyes. Perhaps Halberstam felt his own on-the-ground experience was context enough for the reader.

2. The Summer of ‘49

If Teammates is a little sepia, ’49 is strictly black-and-white and we’re the better for it. Halberstam’s account of the 1949 pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox shows his complete command of the facts when dealing with the difficult task of humanizing Williams and Joe DiMaggio. No stone is left unturned as the book races at a driving pace through the end of the ’48 season and through the two teams’ epic race in ’49. Lesser lights, athletically anyway—New York’s Tommy Henrich and Boston’s DiMaggio—provide insight into the race from behind the Clipper and Splinter, who prove to be S.O.B.s who couldn’t square with their own shortcomings (shortcomings being relative when talking about all-time greats.) He delves into both men at length—Williams’ service, DiMaggio’s famous aloofness, their approach to hitting and fielding and women and life in general. Both are oddly bigger for it.

1. The Coldest Winter

Dude, what if that car crash never took Halberstam in 2007, shortly before he finished his magnum opus in Winter? It’s the question we’re left with after he died. Within, Halberstam goes back to Asia to examine the Korean War. It can be read almost as an origin story for Best and the Brightest, here we see the containment policy’s initial misstep, built by some of the same players who would go on to build on their mistakes in Vietnam. Halberstam rips open racial tensions in the newly-desegregated Army, both at the 30,000-foot command level and on the ground. He recounts harrowing ambushes and titanic blunders by people who took power after the brains who ran the Army in World War II departed for the business world. He writes a fascinating biography of Douglas MacArthur, a man who openly hated his commander-in-chief (Harry Truman) and endeavored to execute his own, misguided policy in Korea that likely resulted in stalemate instead of victory. He exposes MacArthur’s fragile ego, built up by an overbearing mother who would push his superiors for promotions even when the general reached his 40s.

The book is a tour de force, maybe a bit long, but a proper sendoff for one of the greatest journalists of  our time.

There is a wide collection of titles from Halberstam you may find more appealing—narrowing this list was a chore—but take a break from your YA novels and the flavor-of-the-week NY Times bestseller for one of these gems. They make great winter reading, too.