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The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship

Review

The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship

Many years ago, before baseball's free agency transformed rooting for teams into rooting for individuals, fans could count on having a corps of familiar faces around for years. On the athletes' side, although conventional wisdom warned against it, strong friendships developed (the conventional wisdom warned that today's pal could be tomorrow's enemy).

Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam chronicles more than a half-century of such friendships between four star ballplayers in THE TEAMMATES. Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio shared their youth and glory as members of the Boston Red Sox. They "grew up" together, evolving from the relative immaturity inherent in a lifestyle that allows you to play games for a living, to the pangs of old age that sets in when your professional life ends before you're out of your thirties.

They were all products of the West Coast, playing with and against each other in the minor leagues before reuniting on the East Coast with the Red Sox. As members of the World War II generation, they all lost time from their careers in the service of their country. Williams, a decorated fighter pilot in the War, was called upon again to serve in the Korean conflict, a fate that he accepted as a matter of duty, although no one could tell him he had to like it.

In sports, friendships often end when players go their separate ways, through trades to other teams or retirement. Such was not the case with this quartet.

Halberstam, whose previous books on baseball include SUMMER OF '49 (about the Yankees-Red Sox battle for the pennant) and OCTOBER 1964 (regarding the final year of the Yanks' pre-Steinbrenner dynasty), recreates the feeling of the game in a long-forgotten era, when conditions and lack of today's distractions enabled closer ties between players.

Although the career of each man is given adequate homage in this slim volume, THE TEAMMATES, for the most part, revolves around Williams. He was a grand pal, but that didn't keep him from being a pain at times. Halberstam depicts a fishing trip Doerr made with Williams in which nothing went right. Ted had a well-earned reputation as a perfectionist. In addition to his Hall of Fame career, he was an expert fisherman and had little patience for those who didn't live up to his demanding expectations, no matter how good a friend he was dealing with. But rather than being angry, Doerr, perhaps his closest buddy of the group, felt he had let Williams down with his unlucky day in the boat.

THE TEAMMATES is an undeniably sad tale. It opens with Pesky, DiMaggio and a third party getting ready to make a cross-country drive to see a dying Williams. Doerr, whose wife was in poor health, was unable to join his old friends. "It had come down to this one, final visit," writes Halberstam in the book's final chapter. "They had once felt immortal, so immune to the vagaries of age." But fate had not been kind to Williams in recent years. Once the picture of robust middle-age health, he was now confined to a wheelchair, having suffered from stroke and heart disease, his 6'3" frame withered to 130 pounds.

After driving for three days (in the wake of September 11, none of the men felt comfortable enough to fly), Pesky and DiMaggio --- who might have been an even better fielder than his brother Joe --- arrived in Florida and were shocked and saddened by Williams's condition. They spent another three days visiting, reminiscing about the wonderful times they had together and discussing the problems with the current game. After their farewells, DiMaggio called every day to keep Williams abreast of the Red Sox's doings. Sometimes the man who had been known as the Splendid Splinter would fall asleep in the middle of their conversation. One day, he never woke up.

Williams's life was complex. On the one hand, he had the fame and fortune confirmed upon those with superior talent. On the other, and as is so often the case, his personal life was less than ideal, both as the product of an unhappy home life as a youth and through his failed marriages and difficulties with his own children. But through it all, through good times and bad, he could always count on THE TEAMMATES.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan([email protected]) on January 23, 2011

The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship
by David Halberstam

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2004
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sports
  • Paperback: 217 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 0786888679
  • ISBN-13: 9780786888672