October 1964

I head to our local library most Tuesday nights — for a change of scenery, and to get a little more work done. My treat to myself is to wander the stacks before I settle in. As a result, I’ve been checking out all kinds of books that strike my fancy.

For the past week, I’ve been absorbed in David Halberstam’s October 1964. This is the tale of the 1964 baseball season, in which the Yankees and Cardinals faced each other in the World Series. Both teams battled from many games behind to top their leagues. They met each other after that long summer in a series that went all 7 games, with the Cards finally besting the Yankees.

Baseball is often used as a metaphor for life, for society, for anything really, and Halberstam employs the inherent tension of a tough-fought World Series to explore how America was changing in the mid-1960s. The Yankees represented the old order of things. They’d dominated for years with players such as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, and an extensive farm system that young men eagerly signed up for, devoting years to training in order to someday play at Yankee Stadium. Viewed in a positive light, it was a world that valued tradition, proper behavior, and that elevated the team above the individual. The institution was larger than any ego, and the stars were not superstars.

Viewed in a negative light, though, it was a suffocating order, so attached to old ways of doing things that it proved unable to change even as the world was changing around it. In particular, the Yankees were very slow to integrate. This turned out to be a rather disastrous strategy, given that other baseball teams were signing black players and making good use of long-ignored talent. The Cardinals, for instance, signed pitcher Bob Gibson in the late 1950s, and brought him up to the majors in 1959. He pitched 17 seasons, tallying 251 wins and more than 3000 strike-outs along the way. The Yankees had traded away several promising black players who were languishing in the farm system, and while the team brought catcher Ellie Howard up in the mid-1950s, management wasn’t exactly swift in bringing in other players of color. In Halberstam’s telling, the Cards represented the new order, the Yankees the old, and in 1964, the Cards won over the sport.

I’m not really a baseball fan. I’d rather read about baseball than watch it. What I like about October 1964 is that it is page after page of well-done craft. Halberstam uses the natural movement of sports language to craft some smooth sentences. “After this World Series he would not be just Bob Gibson, he would be the great Bob Gibson, and his myth would loom bigger, and because of that, in the minds of the hitters, his fastball would be faster, the slider would break sharper and wider, and the word about how he shaved hitters with a fastball would be more ominous.”

Or try these phrases, in which Halberstam decides to break the rule about avoiding the passive voice, in order to emphasize the vague and other-wordly nature of luck: “A losing streak is contagious. Players who have played with confidence begin to lose it. Doubts begin to arise where there have been no doubts.” I particularly like the rhythm of starting and ending a sentence with the same word.

Halberstam uses surprising words sometimes, with deft effect. Describing how pitcher Pedro Ramos viewed being the pitcher who pitched on one of Mickey Mantle’s longest home runs, he says this: “That home run had come perilously close to going out of Yankee Stadium — leaving both Mantle and Ramos disappointed; Mantle because it was his life’s ambition to hit one out, and Ramos because, in addition to being an intense competitor, he was a joyous man and realized he had just lost a moment of derivative immortality: that of having his name linked forever to Mantle’s as co-authors of the longest home run in baseball history.” Note the use of the word “joyous” — not exactly the word you’d think of as characterizing the emotions of a man who’d just seen his pitch hit almost to a record. And “co-authors” — that word reminds you that a home run is not just about the hitter. Every at bat is a story of conflict between pitcher and the man at the plate.

Halberstam is a reporter first, and has dug up great details. On Gibson’s pitching: “His performances had an artistic quality to them. It was his game, he was in charge, and he wanted no delays; he would set the pace and others would make their adjustments. Jack Buck once put a stopwatch on him — he threw every eight seconds. Once during a Saturday Game of the Week when he was pitching, he worked so briskly, coming from the dugout to the mound quickly and from there going immediately into his windup, that NBC could not get in its requisite number of commercials.”

Done right, a book can take you into a different world, or a different time, and October 1964 is, for me, doing just that. What are you reading over Thanksgiving?

Photo courtesy flickr user Adam Finley

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