Two of his great baseball books were the "Summer of 49" and "October of 1964," both surrounding the Yankees: Summer of '49 shows the Yankees in a brutal pennant race with the Red Sox in 1949 and October of 1964 shows the aging and end of a long empire Yankees team and an up and coming Cardinals team in the 1964 World Series. BOTH ARE MUST READS.
Today, I focus on October of 1964: Heroes have a habit of growing larger over time, as do the arenas in which they excelled. The 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals was coated in myth from the get-go. The Yankees represented the establishment: white, powerful, and seemingly invincible. The victorious Cards, on the other hand, were baseball's rebellious future: angry and defiant, black, and challenging. Their seven-game barnburner, played out against a backdrop of an America emerging from the Kennedy assassination, escalating the war in Vietnam, and struggling with civil rights, marked a turning point--neither the nation, nor baseball, would ever be quite so innocent again. Halberstam, one of the great reporters of the '60s, looks back in this marvelous and spirited elegy to the era, the game, and players such as Mantle, Maris, Ford, Gibson, Brock, and Flood with a clear eye in search of the truth that time has blurred into legend. His confident prose, diligent reporting, and deft analysis make it clear how much more interesting--and forceful--the truth can be.
In the ESPN.com vernacular of the present day, "October 1964" has recently been debunked (but lovingly) by columnist/author Rob Neyer. While the two giants who square off in David Halberstam's tale of an evolving America in 1964 are the suffocating white Establishment (the Yankees) and the young minority upstarts (the Cardinals), Neyer's contention is that this watershed really occurred one year earlier. That was, after all, the year the Yankees were memorably swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
However, Halberstam's take on the demise of the Establishment Yankees is the more accurate one. The '63 World Series was won single-handedly by a couple of white guys, Koufax and Drysdale. Yes, the Dodgers did have five black regulars in the starting lineup, but apart from the second inning of the opening game, they just didn't hit, or make history the way Koufax did.
The 1964 World Series was won by the heroics of men that the Yankees didn't understand, by men who couldn't play for the Yankees, by virtue of who they were. The Yankees could accept being struck out 15 times by Sandy Koufax, but when they struck out 13 times against Bob Gibson -- on whom their sole scouting report was woefully inaccurate -- it was an outrage. Gibson wasn't supposed to have courage, or determination! Lou Brock wasn't supposed to get more hits in the Series than Mickey Mantle!
And yet, the '64 Yankees didn't go quietly in the Series, and in fact they scored more runs than St. Louis. Mantle had an incredible seven games. The Yanks had more walks and homers than the Cardinals, and their pitching (behind white youngers Jim Bouton and Mel Stottlemyre) basically matched St. Louis out for out. At least on paper. The Series turning point came when the Yanks' lone black pitcher, Al Downing, gave up a grand slam homer to a Southern good-ol'-boy, Ken Boyer.
This is why "October 1964" is a great book. It's no mystery as to who the heroes are -- the book frontpiece is a team photograph, and that team isn't the Yankees. However, the bad guys gave it a mighty effort. 50 years later, it's hard to remember how much the Yankees represented a world that simply had to end. As someone born well after '64, I didn't even know at first that spring training in Florida was segregated that late. The struggles of Gibson and Brock and Flood and Bill White were relatively new stories when Halberstam first told them. Since Halberstam's skill is in creating whole lives in three or four pages, these mini-biographies are the heart of the book, and not the more desultory game descriptions that reduce the World Series to a sequence of monochrome postcards.
The best anecdote in the book has little to do with the World Series. Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry brashly introduces himself to a few old men watching a baseball game. "Well, Ralph," one of the men says. "my name is Cy Young. And these fellas over here next to me are Zack Wheat and Ty Cobb."
If you subscribe to the theory of baseball as social history, "October 1964" is a book you'd do well to have on your shelf, and one worth reading every few years.