Why David Halberstam Committed More Errors Than Lou Brock

June 10, 2017

My objection to David Halberstam’s writing is that he imposes dishonest narratives in his work. I have no issue with a journalist or a historian imposing narratives, mind you. On the contrary, I think that imposing narratives is a writer’s primary job, and one that too many writers too often neglect.  Nora Ephron, a writer I admire endlessly, argued this point in a brilliant essay that I teach as often as I can: every story, properly researched, has a million ways it could be told; a good writer finds one of them and structures the story so that his or her point emerges clearly.  No two writers telling the same story will start it at the same point, or even use the same cast of characters, or even draw a similar conclusion. If Bill James were to write about the AL pennant race of 1949, the subject of one of Halberstam’s baseball books, he would use the same facts as Halberstam, such as the Red Sox manager‘s employment of rookies, but he would draw the opposite conclusion from Halberstam’s as to Manager Joe McCarthy hating using rookies.

I know this of course because Bill James has, in fact, written a detailed and quite savage critique of Halberstam’s conclusions throughout that book, including that point about McCarthy’s use of rookies, and that’s why we want to read different perspectives and interpretations of events, because writers will often disagree on the interpretation of facts.  But the important point that James exposed about Halberstam’s methodology was not that his opinions are idiosyncratic, or that his fact-checking was sloppy (although in my view Halberstam’s opinions are sometimes loony and his sloppiness with facts is nearly criminal), it’s that Halberstam tends to devise a narrative first, and then sledgehammer his collected facts until they fit into the mold his preconceived narrative demands. That is imposing a false narrative, and doing it by dishonest methods.

Now, I don’t think for a second that Halberstam is a bad writer. He’s a very good writer.  He’s a skillful fabricator of sentences and paragraphs and chapters, and I agree with several of his conclusions and opinions. But when I don’t agree, I can often find some skillfully crafted phrasing of Halberstam’s that misrepresents the facts so that his wrong-headed conclusion seems based solidly in facts.

The Prologue to October 1964, for example, is devoted to the narrative of Lou Brock’s early career. Halberstam obviously considers that small narrative to be emblematic of his larger story, so that one small section of one player’s career serves as preface to his book:  The Cubs, as you will no doubt recall, mismanaged the young Brock, and gave him up in a trade with the Cardinals that is usually described as disastrous or brilliant, depending on which of the teams you’re sympathetic to. The conventional thinking on the Brock/Broglio deal is that the Cubs got fleeced, real bad, and it’s hard looking at the immediate or long-term results any other way. (The Cardinals won three of the next five pennants, the Cubs remained stuck in the second division, Brock got into the Hall of Fame, Broglio got into the Hall That Needs Sweeping While My Guitar, etc.) But it’s really a much more complicated story than just the dumb team got took by the smart team, and not only because all trades are crapshoots and ju never know. The Cubs had a problem in the form of 1961 Rookie of the Year Billy Williams, who "came to the major leagues a skilled hitter," as his SABR-bio puts it, but

his defense remained a work in progress. He led [the] league’s outfielders with 11 errors as a rookie, and remained error prone the first few years of his career. By the mid-1960s he had become competent enough that his defense no longer was remarked on, but it never became a strength.

So the Cubs wanted Williams in the lineup, but needed to hide him, as best they could, in left field. When they came up with another young outfielder, who could hit (but not as well as Williams) and also not field very well—well, they couldn’t hide them both in left field, so they finally decided that they needed to trade one of them, and no sane person was trading Billy Williams in 1964.

(In retrospect, a prescient move might have been to turn Williams into a first-baseman, which he was at the end of his career for 96 games, and trade Ernie Banks while his stock was high for pitching help. Banks in 1964 would have gotten a better trade-in than Ernie Broglio. But that’s just second-guessing. Also, trading Banks would have been the new definition of "inciting a lynch-mob." Maybe it would have worked if you traded him but kept him in Chicago—the White Sox at that point had a lot of pitching, and needed a hitter like Banks very badly. Even an aging Banks would have been a big improvement over Tom McCraw.  Gary Peters and Joel Horlen, say, might have seemed like a fair price to pay for Banks.)

The deal looked so one-sided, it seemed like the baseball gods were messing with the Cubbies’ heads: Brock, who had been hitting .257 in Wrigley, batted .348 in St. Louis for the remainder of 1964, and Broglio, a former 20-game winner, was out of baseball by 1967. But in order to support his case, Halberstam tries to peddle some half-truths and outright falsehoods.  "The Cubs played him in right field," he writes on p. xiii, "which in Wrigley Field was the sun field, a truly murderous place for young outfielders." Now assume that’s true, as it may be, that doesn’t mean the Cubs were wrong to play him in the outfield. Left field was fully occupied, but the Cubs had one other open slot besides right field to play the young Brock in. Now we all know that Brock wasn’t really a good enough fielder to play center field either, but he was certainly fast enough, and most teams with below-average fielders in center who can hit and steal like Brock would claim "centerfield" as their smallest problem area. (They gave him 105 starts in center in parts of four seasons, which seems a little skimpy as a fair trial period.)  If they would have put Brock in center, at least the sun would no longer bedevil him, assuming you buy Halberstam’s reiterations that sunshine was Brock’s major fielding obstacle.

But aside from the skill of learning how to use a pair of sunglasses (Halberstam seriously maintains that was the key issue in Brock’s right-field play, not his lack of fielding skills in general, or his weak throwing arm—honestly, he maintains that "no one had ever taught him how to flip down his sunglasses," as if universities offer graduate courses in "Ray-bans 101"), Halberstam makes an even more ludicrous error in explaining that "[p]laying on the road did not bother" Brock. Apparently, he sucked eggs exclusively in Chicago.

In the first obvious place, was Wrigley the only park in baseball oriented so that the sun field was right field?  I can’t find charts of the 1964 parks’ geographic orientations right now, but I’m sure that other NL parks, if not most NL parks, had the same orientation as Wrigley.  (Just yesterday afternoon, I sat on the right hand side of Citifield, in a box just behind the Mets dugout, and several late swings by right-handed batters sent foul balls passing invisibly through the blinding sun.)  Right field is the normal sun field, so I don’t know why Halberstam makes it into a problem particular to Wrigley—but of course I do know why: he’s trying to present Brock as a vexing problem for the Cubs, a man who must play right field yet who can’t play right field in their ball park.  Brock "kept losing balls hit into the sun," he says, and that’s a very bad problem to have, a right-fielder who can’t master the art of flipping sunglasses and who plays in the one park in the major leagues where the sun shines in his eyes.

We know, of course, that not only did the sun shine into Brock’s eyes in other NL parks, but that you can easily compare his fielding percentages in Wrigley to those in other parks. Even more easily, since he was traded, we can just compare his error rate in 1961-64 to his error rate in 1964-7, from the date he was traded, which ought to show, since Brock "kept losing balls hit into the sun," that his fielding improved markedly once he escaped the blinding sun of Wrigley, but of course (you’re way ahead of me) they show the opposite:

 

CHANCES

ERRORS

FIELDING PERCENTAGE

1961-64 Cubs

659

23

.965 

1964-67 Cards

789

41

.948

  

Now, I don’t want to die on the hill of fielding percentage, nor on the significance of a .017 point difference in the two fielding percentages, nor on the correlation of Brock’s fielding being measured by fielding percentage alone, but it seems to me that if this problem were worth describing, Halberstam would need to show that something tangible improved in Brock’s fielding by moving from the Cubs to the Cardinals. Instead he simply asserts a flawed theory, that the sun caused Brock to field poorly and that this flaw was inherent to Wrigley Field, and that the only possible solution was to deal Brock rather than put him in centerfield, or to move Williams, who presumably did understand the technique of wearing sunglasses, into right field, or something.

Personally, I think, with the benefit of 53 years of hindsight, that the Cubs should have lived with Brock in centerfield, but that’s only because of how things worked out: the Cubs would eventually, within Brock’s prime, build a contending ballclub that was very strong up and down the lineup, everywhere except in centerfield. 1969 went straight to hell for the Cubs, largely because they were playing never-wases and never-willbes in centerfield like Don Young and Jimmy Qualls. Sometimes ballclubs are focused on what players can’t do well (in Brock’s case, catch a baseball or throw it) rather than on what they can (in Brock’s case, everything else).  I’d like to have a problem like an outfield of Williams, Brock and Jim Hickman. A lineup of Brock, Beckert, Williams, Santo, Banks, Hickman, Hundley, and Kessinger in Wrigley—yeah, I think you could score enough runs to make up for some sloppy outfield work. You might be able to pick up a gloveman or two for late-inning outfield defense, if you were smart.

But my personal feelings aside (and of course I’m nothing but grateful, as a 1969 Mets fan, that the Cubs gutted their lineup), the Cubs did nothing wrong in trading Lou Brock, or nothing very dumb, they just ran into colossal bad luck in getting in exchange a pitcher whose arm would go dead the minute Brock started putting together a terrific career.  Dumb luck, randomness, happenstance don’t suit Halberstam’s narrative, though. He must take the Cubs’ lack of prescience and turn that into a mistake that they had no choice but to make, and that the smart Cardinals had no choice but to take advantage of.

In the Prologue’s opening paragraph, Halberstam asserts that Brock, 24 years old, believes that "the men who run baseball" [whoever they are] "…gave you three years to prove yourself."  This scene is set, naturally, in the spring of 1964, when Brock has exactly three seasons of major league baseball on his resume. This is a very dramatic narrative, then, because this moment is crucial in a key young player’s career, except for the fact that it’s complete bullshit.  1) Who are these mysterious unnamed "men who run baseball" who came up with this maxim to begin with? and 2) do we care what a young ballplayer believes to be true about these mysterious men? and 3) do we know that this is what Lou Brock actually believed anyway? Halberstam’s book is unsourced—there is no checkable source list for the quotes, just a long list of people he spoke to, and most of the book’s insights are paraphrases, not quotes, so who knows if Brock really said this maxim as if it were true. Maybe he said something more like "Well, Dave, I was worried about my career, hadn’t done too well my first few years, people want you to produce after a year or two or three, and I was having some trouble, not fielding too well, ah, I don’t know" that Halberstam neatly packaged into some widely accepted truth about the strict time limits on a baseball player’s potential. Or maybe someone else told Halberstam that was what Brock probably believed at the time? Who knows?

Another general observation—and I’m still on page one, paragraph one of the Prologue here—Halberstam passes on as true is that in the early 1960s (he just says, "this age," which I’m taking to be the period he’s discussing here), "baseball teams did not keep black journeymen around on their benches."

Really? Following the Mets, it seems like all we had was black journeymen on our bench, Joe Christopher (who did have his one good fluke season in 1964, but otherwise zilch) and Choo-Choo Coleman (zilch from beginning to end), Pumpsie Green, Jesse Gonder, you name it. In case you think "Well, the Mets stunk, so they were the exception to the NO DARK-SKINNED SCRUBS ALLOWED rule" the pennant-winning Cardinals had outfielder Johnny Lewis on their bench that year, and the runner-up Cincinnati Reds had Chico Ruiz as their all-purpose backup, and the runner-up Phillies had black outfielders Alex Johnson, Johnny Briggs, and Adolfo Phillips (117 games total) backing up black outfielders Tony Gonzalez and Wes Covington (260 games total) with white outfielder Johnny Callison taking up the third outfield spot. The Phillies also had Vic Power (he of the "You don’t serve black people? That’s okay, I don’t eat them" quip) backing up John Herrnstein at first base. It’s just total crap that black journeymen didn’t exist in 1964, or any other year. And if it’s not total crap, then there’s maybe a corn-kernal-sized bit of truth buried deep within that pile of dung, if you really feel like digging for it.

Finally, on the last page of the Prologue (mind you Halberstam hasn’t even started his book proper yet, and already we’re mired down in overly dramatic, thoroughly misleading stuff disguised as facts), he has Brock fearing that the Cubs would send him back to the minor leagues. Final sentence: "That thought terrified him."  Um, duh? A 24-year-old guy who hasn’t yet established himself as valuable to a big league ballclub is afraid that if he doesn’t start playing better soon, he might get demoted to the minors? Dramatic much? I mean "terrified" really?

Halberstam is telling a story—the 1964 Pennant races—that is inherently super-dramatic in itself, but he doesn’t want to give his readers credit for being able to see that, so he tries to milk out extra drama (as with Joe McCarthy’s supposed hatred of rookies in 1949) where it probably isn’t. On page 6, for example, he argues that in 1964 "the Yankees were in the early stages of their decline," which is true enough, and dramatic enough, if only demonstrated by the team’s miseries in the decade following that season. But the evidence Halberstam chooses to support this assertion is worse than weak, it’s factually wrong: his next sentence begins "They had beaten the Giants by the narrowest of margins in a great seven-game World Series in 1962," as if a World Series going seven games is a sign of anything. Of the seven World Series previous to 1962, five had gone to a seventh game (1955, 1956, 1957, 1958 and 1960), with the Yankees losing, not winning, three out of those five. Presumably, losing a seventh game is an even surer sign of a declining powerhouse than winning it is, right? If you read this right (that is, with your head sewn on properly) Halberstam is actually asserting that winning the 1962 World Series but taking seven games to do it presages some sort of institutional collapse. Say what? You can’t find enough drama in the actual collapse of a dynasty without resorting to using the strongest possible evidence of the opposite, a World’s Championship? Of a team that went on to win the next two AL pennants?

He’s trying very hard to sell "The Yankees were on the verge of a collapse" throughout, and he keeps resorting to using falsehoods to sell it, as well as occasionally using the truth, and he’s so smooth (his predicates match his subjects, and his subordinate clauses align neatly with his main clauses) that you can hardly notice the difference.

If we move ahead one page, to Halberstam’s rendering of another uber-dramatic sign of Yankee collapse, we see recently retired Yankee infielder Jerry Coleman reporting in 1958 on the state of the Yankees’ lowest level farm club, the Kearney, Nebraska team, a class D level short-season rookie league. Coleman’s alarming report states that "We have one pitcher who might make Triple A." This news so disturbs the Yankees GM, he then sends a more experienced scout to Kearney. "Jerry’s right," this second scout reports. "Almost nothing." This now-confirmed report is deemed highly significant to Halberstam: almost nothing in the farm system means that the pipeline of dominating major-league talent no longer functions for the Yankee organization. They are doomed!

Right? Well, of course, that entire line of reasoning is palpable nonsense on several levels. First, the Kearney short season is only 63 games long, and the team consists of those young men whom the parent club very recently signed to their first professional contracts, so these scouts were watching players (for a week? For a weekend?) who a month or so earlier had been in high school, in amateur leagues, in junior colleges, and who had signed for very small bonuses, or no bonus at all. The ones who’d signed big bonus contracts were started out much higher than Class D rookie ball, and it boggles the mind to suppose that anything at all rests on these young men playing well in their first few professional games.

More significantly, how many Class D rookie league players actually do advance to the top rung of an organization’s ladder? I have no idea what is the normal expectation of Class D-players rising to the AAA level, but with several hundred players in a farm system at any given time, you’d have to suppose that the vast majority of them get winnowed out in the many stages between Class D rookie ball and AAA, a step from the majors, so even if Coleman had reported that literally no one he saw in Kearney looked like a sterling prospect, that would seem pretty unexceptional to me.

In fact, both the 1958 and the 1959 Kearney team played over .500 ball in their two-month-long seasons, so compared to other rookie teams, they couldn’t have been playing that poorly. (It’s a little unclear from Halberstam’s prose if Coleman’s scouting trip took place in 1958 or 1959—I think he’s talking about 1958.) If Kearney didn’t have any players capable of playing AAA ball, then their opponents didn’t either, which may simply reflect a normal state of affairs.

But the killer bit of evidence is that both Coleman and his successor scouting Kearney were flat out, demonstrably, wrong. Both the 1958 and 1959 Kearney teams did have a pitcher on each team who not only made the AAA level, but went on to pitch well for the eventual multiple Yankees’ World Series teams. 1958 featured reliever Pete Mikkelsen, and the 1959 Kearney team featured starter Jim Bouton. (I recognized "Kearney" from Ball Four as Bouton’s first pro stop, but also later on in October 1964, Halberstam himself mentions Bouton’s stop there and Mikkelsen’s too, but by that point, he’s well past persuading you that 1958-9 Kearney’s lack of pitching portends the end of the Yankee dynasty.) For all I know there were multiple other players who eventually played at the AAA level, too, but if Coleman’s scouting report was, in fact, incorrect about the dearth of talent on the Kearney squad, why in the world is Halberstam presenting it as evidence of anything besides Coleman’s cluelessness?

Jerry Coleman was talking about the pitchers only, but the best career to come from the 1958 Kearney team was that of a position player, Horace Clarke, one of their better players in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. I’d have to think that the level of play they were to get from Mikkelson, Clarke and Bouton is about as good as you can reasonably expect to emerge from your class D roster.

Halberstam’s theme throughout the first chapter (I’m still only on page 8 now) concerns the Yankees being in decline, but he keeps citing people seeing signs of decline that was not in evidence. Coleman, now a broadcaster in the spring of 1964, confides to his broadcasting partner, Red Barber, "I don’t think the Yankees are going to win it this year," and Barber agrees: "I think you’re right." But the Yankees DID win the 1964 pennant, so this is just a conversation between two Nervous Nellies predicting the opposite of what actually happened. Any time you have two people talking about last year’s league championship team, whether they’re intelligent and insightful or stupid as soil and clueless, someone’s always going to predict that the champs are not going to repeat. What is the point of Halberstam’s quoting this conversation between two more observers who (we now know) were completely wrong?

Answer: to heighten the drama of the AL pennant race. The Yankees didn’t have it in the bag all along. But that’s a strawman argument—who ever said they did? People have been predicting the end of Yankee dynasties since Babe Ruth’s first beer, and sometimes (1929-1931, 1942-1945, 1965-1975) they’ve been right. Most times they’ve been wrong.

The Yankees didn’t decline, as Halberstam simplistically argues, because they hadn’t signed enough young talent, or because they hadn’t signed enough black talent—they declined because their young talent fizzled out. On the 1964 championship team were such young All-Stars (to use a very crude yardstick) as Joe Pepitone (23, All-Star in 1963 and 1964 and 1965), Tom Tresh (25, All-Star in 1962 and 1963), Al Downing (25, All-Star in 1967), Ralph Terry (28, 1962),  and Jim Bouton (25, 1963), to name only five young Yankees, one of them black, whose careers went right down the tubes while they were still in their twenties, and not touching on the declines of other stars who never developed or who chose to retire before the age of 30. The problem was far more systematic and varied than the simple morality tale—"The Yankees were racist, and the young Yankees were spoiled brats"—that Halberstam keeps providing false evidence of.

He states this theme--the young players were spoiled--explicitly at the start of chapter 10 on page 121: "Americans raised during the Depression had known real poverty while those raised after the war knew far more comfort and affluence; by the mid-sixties sociologists were beginning to talk about a generation gap in American society." While this unexceptional thesis is perfectly banal and unarguable, the anecdotes he cites in support of it don’t happen to support his case. Far from it.

He argues (page 24) that managers who grew up in the Depression were frustrated by all the spoiled kids who had grown up in well-to-do households: "The country was dramatically more affluent than it had been, and such gifted athletes as Ray Sadecki, Tim McCarver, and Mel Stottlemyre often had other options in life, whether it was college or jobs in other fields." Sadecki, McCarver, and Stottlemyre were all raised in blue-collar families (respectively, their dads were a sheriff, a cop, and a pipefitter) and none of them so much as got into a four-year college (Stottlemyre dropped out of junior college at age 19; the other two went straight into baseball out of high school). I was taken with Sadecki being one of Halberstam’s examples, because I had just interviewed Bill Wakefield about Sadecki and had just read his SABR-bio, both of which sources were very forceful about Sadecki’s blue-collar, Polish-immigrant family background and Sadecki’s total lack of interest in attending college. Wakefield, whose family pushed him hard into getting a bachelor’s degree from Stanford, contrasted himself with Sadecki, who was a year ahead of him in Kansas City high school sports and whom Wakefield had competed against as a young amateur: "College was not important to the Sadeckis of that era.  Ray has said that many times. It was very important to my family.  So Ray signed immediately out of high school." His SABR-bio confirms that perspective:  "Sadecki said he never regretted forgoing college for baseball. ‘College probably wasn’t as big a deal, just in life,’ he told an interviewer in 2009. ‘We were still postwar people who thought, "Hey, go get a job."’ "

So Halberstam uses three young players who came from absolutely no family money and who, while all intelligent, had zero interest in attending college, as his examples of a generation of players who had a plethora of career choices that allowed them to look down their noses at baseball. Continuing his narrative about the tough, hard-boiled Depression-era managers coping with a generation of spoiled kids with more money than they knew what to do with, Halberstam (still on page 24 here) tells of a confrontation between manager Eddie Stanky and pitcher Stu Miller. All of these examples make no sense on a macro level, incidentally, as well as an individual micro-level—the generation he keeps describing as pampered all were born before the U.S. entered World War II and had all grown up in the 1940s and 1950s, years before non-conformity and rebellion took hold in American culture. These guys were all older than Ozzie and Harriet’s obedient boys, and considerably older than Ward and June’s.  But the Stu Miller story Halberstam tells goes a little further—not only pointless, it defies credulity. Does the following anecdote make any sense to you?

Halberstam describes "a team meeting when the manager was chewing out his players." Stu Miller is pointedly ignoring Eddie Stanky’s tirade, reading a newspaper openly while Stanky is screaming at them, and so Stanky tells Miller that he’s fining him a hundred dollars. "Miller never looked up," Halberstam writes. "He simply turned to Butch Yatkeman, the Cardinals’ clubhouse attendant, and said ‘Butch, can you go down to my locker and get a hundred dollars out of my wallet and give it to him?’ "

He stops short of quoting Miller as calling Yatkeman "my good fellow," but otherwise the story describes perfectly Thurston B. Howell’s attitude towards a 100-dollar fine. Halberstam’s reader is plainly expected to take from this anecdote that Miller couldn’t possibly have cared less about his manager’s anger at him or how much he was fined, because Miller is plainly too rich, and too secure, to concern himself with such petty discipline.

OK, big problems with this story: Miller was born in 1927 and grew up in fact "during the Depression and 1940s" in Northampton Massachusetts, according to his obit, in a working-class family, signing with the Cardinals for no large bonus. This story seems set around 1954, Miller’s third season in MLB, when Stanky was starting to lose control over his team. What was the major league minimum salary in 1954? It couldn’t have been much more than $4000, quite possibly less. Let’s say 4 grand. Have you ever lived on $4000 per year? I have. That’s roughly what I made in grad school, working as a teaching assistant, give or take, and I never saw a hundred dollars in one place at one time, and certainly never in the form of a single bill inside my wallet.

I mean, that was 2.5% of my annual salary. Have you ever carried 2.5% of a year’s pay in your wallet? But let’s suppose for a minute that Miller was in the practice of toting around that kind of cash—let’s say he didn’t believe in banks, or his dad was Thurston B. Howell III, or something. He was at that moment in exactly the position Halberstam had described, twenty pages earlier, as being delicate and crucial in a player’s major league career: remember the passage where he describes Lou Brock’s terror of being sent to the minor leagues, possibly never to return? You know, "the men who run baseball…gave you three years to prove yourself." That’s precisely where Miller stood at this moment, in his third major league season. He had an ERA that had risen every year, and a W-L pct that declined, and in that crucial third MLB year, those figures came to 5.79 and 2-3. He was in grave danger (is there any other kind?) of being demoted to the minor leagues, where he in fact had been sent during the 1954 season. Miller then spent the entirety of 1955 pitching for the St. Louis AAA team in Omaha. Does this sound like a man, regardless of how careless he is about a hundred-dollar fine (for whatever reason), who is going to antagonize someone with significant input into whether Miller gets to play major league baseball?

This anecdote is clearly based on something, but whether it is based on anything that ever happened on planet Earth is open for discussion. I have no doubt that something like Miller waving FU money in Stanky’s face happened, or that someone told Halberstam that some incident resembling this one happened, but I cannot for the life of me understand  Miller’s motivation in behaving as Halberstam tells it.  If you read it quickly, as I did the first few times I read page 24, you might think "Miller, pretty good pitcher, maybe a bonus baby, maybe has money of his own, established major league player, later an All-Star quality player," but none of that was true in 1954, and Halberstam contradicts his previous argument that a marginal player in his third season in MLB would be terrified of being sent to the minors.  Here, he wants to spin the tale that third-year players were (in 1954!)  so swamped with money they didn’t know what to do with that they would tell their irascible managers to shove a $100 bill up where the moon don’t shine.

It got to the point that every time Halberstam would tell an anecdote, however pointless, I would fact-check it. You won’t be surprised to learn that most of the time I did that, I discovered that the anecdote never happened as told, and maybe never happened at all. Two more quick examples: on page 62, he tells an elaborate anecdote about Cardinals’ pinch-hitter George Crowe watching Carlton Willey pitch and telling a teammate that "’that young man out there is going to throw me an inside slider and I’m going to hit that pitch over the 354 sign.’ Two innings later, that is exactly what happened."

Needless to add, I hope, is the total of homeruns George Crowe hit off Carlton Willey, lifetime: 0.

Another one of these is another elaborate morality tale (page 156) about Lou Brock catching a Stan Musial-hit ball in 1961: "With one out, Musial hit a rocket to right-center. Brock raced for the ball and made a great catch…." Halberstam goes on to spin several more sentences about how Brock held on to the ball, the Cubs’ right-fielder tried persuading him to throw the ball in to the infield, but Musial-worshiping Brock refused, etc. etc. etc.  Again, need I tell you that in the only game Brock played against the Cardinals in 1961, Musial hit exactly no fly balls, to right-center or anywhere else, that Brock caught on the fly, much less made a great catch on?

(The play-by-play is here: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN196109141.shtml. Musial did hit a single to center in the fourth inning, but he didn’t hit it with one out, and Brock could hardly have made "a great catch" on it without throwing it into the infield before Musial raced around the bases.) This is just sloppy reporting, allowing anecdote after anecdote that someone probably told Halberstam as true, that was easily checkable (well, in the days before baseball-reference.com, maybe not easily, but checkable by visiting the microfiche room at the Times, where he worked.) This looseness with facts, large and small, allows in turn Halberstam to spin object lessons the way he thinks they ought to spin, rather than actually figuring out what in fact happened, and drawing conclusions from the actual facts.

The scary part is that I could very easily fact-check Halberstam’s baseball writing, whereas when he writes, as he mostly does, on world events, well, I don’t have handy a statistic-filled book on Vietnam-war causalities, or transcripts of quotes from Generals and Ambassadors, so I just have to take Halberstam at his word that he’s rigorously researched his facts, double-checked all his dates, straightened out any possible contradictions, and has drawn conclusions that have been thoroughly reviewed by him and a crack team of editors and fact-checkers. If he isn’t going to fact-check baseball, which is easy, how can I trust him to fact-check world events before he reaches sweeping conclusions?

Now, I could do this all day, and I’m only partway through this deceitful book. I could also have given you many fewer examples, and said only "This is a deceitful book, tricking you into accepting its often false narrative lines," and let you find your own examples, which are all over the place and easy to find if only you read Halberstam closely. The point I did find essential concerned the lack of adequate editorial supervision.  Halberstam could have written a far more admirable book if he had been asked at all these points and more, "Say, Dave, does this really add up here?" or "Hey, Dave, is this right? Seems screwy to me." And it just happens that I have a bit of special insight into why he never got asked those challenging questions.

Somewhere around my fourth or fifth reading of October 1964, cover to cover, over the years since it was published in 1994, I was perusing the book’s back-matter, and I came across the one page no one ever reads, except for the people mentioned there, the Acknowledgments. The book’s editor, whom he thanked by name, was someone I knew.

Someone I’d lived with for a year, in fact, and hung out with for four years in college. When I went to college, I made a ton of friends in freshman year, a surprising number of whom I’m still in touch with forty years later. One guy who impressed me no end was an incredibly talented writer, gifted in ways I was not, who’d talk with me all the time about writers and writing and books and literary matters. We made fun of, and we respected, all the classical literature that was being shoved into our heads every day in the rigorous freshman curriculum—we would translate Aeschylus, for example, into a very contemporary demotic English which struck us as both hilarious and lively, and attribute to him the invention of the department-store Aeschylator. I was delighted to know him, I enjoyed our conversations, and our arguments, and our friendship with each other and with other people we each knew. Though I didn’t realize this at the time, the most valuable thing about going to such a demanding, academically rigorous college was that I would go four straight years without ever, really, talking to a stupid person. I would talk to people I detested, of course, and to people I disagreed violently with on almost every subject, and to people who were boring or pretentious or selfish or insolent or unsocialized, but none of them could be described as "stupid," and that was a rare gift, rarer even than the stimulating lectures or the challenging readings or the unbelievably extensive library collection. Making dozens of friends who were all highly intelligent for four straight years was great.

My writerly friend, after months of sharing with me his love for de Chirico, and Borges, and John Ashbery, finally shared with me his sexuality, which disappointed me only so far as my constant offers to go out with him to meet girls were now, I understood, being rejected on a permanent basis. But I had other friends who eagerly joined me in my quest for pretty, witty girls, and my writerly friend and I maintained our friendship. In some ways, his coming out of the closet made me feel even closer to him, since there was now no falseness, no hiding, no discomfort, no concealed issues in our friendship anymore.  When we looked for a dorm room sophomore year, we agreed to share a five-room suite with some of his gayer friends and some of my straighter ones, and we were all extremely cool with that.

It was really interesting, in part because the straight guys were enjoying some wild adventures with college girls and other women inhabiting Manhattan island, while the gay guys were having even more wild, certainly more dangerous and more frequent, relationships. This was the early 1970s, the last period before AIDS would blight the gay experience, and they were having a non-stop blast, meeting all sorts of strange guys in the gay bars in the West Village that partied all night long until the dawn. (By "last period before AIDS" I mean of course "the last period before AIDS was a known hazard"—as it happens, sadly, my writerly pal died before he ever reached 30, almost certainly of AIDS contracted during this wild, blissful, ignorant era).  It was really quite stimulating, in retrospect, to see things from such a wide variety of perspectives. I was an outspoken advocate of all sorts of hetero culture, the middle novels of Norman Mailer, the bitter lyrics of "Blood on the Tracks," the cerebral yet physical style of the Knicks, which my new gay friends would dismiss with an airy wave of the hand and a little eye-rolling, as they rattled on about David Bowie and Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara and Joseph Cornell and other cultural figures who were all new to me.

One of my new suitemates was especially dismissive of my obsession with baseball. He was a very skinny bespectacled Russian major and music minor from upstate New York who simply couldn’t understand the appeal that baseball had for me. I remember coming back to our suite from watching the third game of the 1973 NLCS, eager to tell someone about the great game I’d just seen, the one where Rose slugged Bud Harrelson and almost started a riot and Staub belted two home runs, and this suitemate was the only person on our floor that night, trying to critique a fugue for his Music Composition class, which he set aside to hear me rave about the game, amused but confused by an intelligent and articulate fellow such as myself wanting to devote such time and energy to watching a bunch of yahoos smack a tiny sphere across a grassy field all afternoon long. "The very definition of a ‘waste of time’," he said. "I’m going to mix some gimlets—you look like you could use one."

When I say this guy disliked baseball, that understates his feelings considerably. It almost offended him, especially since I was so drawn to the spectacle. I became for him a parody of All-American jock culture, and he became for me the avatar of effete culture, but mostly there were books and artists and performances we shared an ardor for and we enjoyed talking about near endlessly. When we graduated, I understood that he had gotten a job with a prestigious publishing house while I was writing freelance as I worked on my novel (about the Dodgers returning to Brooklyn, among other themes).  We kept track for a while through mutual friends, but I don’t think we ever saw each other again despite living on the same small island for years.

So when I noticed his name in Halberstam’s acknowledgments, I understood why I found this book so lacking in basic understanding of the subject matter, and so atrociously fact-checked. If I had to pick a single editor who would be least suited to edit a serious book about baseball—and I mean out of every editor in the galaxy-- he would be at the very top of my list of nominees. There is no way on God’s green earth that he ever developed the slightest interest in the subject matter of October 1964. I’m quite sure his eyes were rolling as rapidly as pinballs as detail after detail, narrative line after narrative line, was developed in Halberstam’s book. (On a sentence-level, the editing is quite good, of course—this guy was a very gifted reader of prose, and Halberstam creates a mean sentence.) Maybe when he read the anecdote about Stu Miller and the hundred-dollar bill, for example, he assumed that ballplayers like Miller in 1954 drove the Rolls-Royce to work while their wives drove the Lamborghini, or that there was some reason that Miller in 1954 could be as blithe about a hundred dollars and as secure in his job while Brock in 1964 was so poorly paid and so terrified about being returned to the minor leagues, whatever they are.

Another way to phrase my chief issue with Halberstam is "tendentiousness" rather than "false narratives." Same thing, really.  We want tendentiousness from writers, we want to them be arguing points, taking positions, and doing so with vigor, but we don’t admire that tendentiousness when it misleads us, especially when it misleads us skillfully. Here is where a sharp, informed, perceptive editor might have kept Halberstam’s tendency to whip up false narratives in check. My first few readings, I kept wondering why his editor hadn’t done just that, but this time I just smiled and remembered fondly and precisely why that would have been impossible.

 
 

COMMENTS (48 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
Steve - I made a mistake checking out the 1964 Cubs. Billy Williams did play a few games in CF, but none in RF. Brock also played a few games in CF, but none in LF.
7:11 AM Jun 16th
 
Brock Hanke
Steven - Thanks for the comments. I didn't know what the fielding stat splits were, so thanks for that. Sportsman's Park had a normal sized LF, but a small RF, and was a hitters' park. Busch Stadium was just huge, and was a pitchers' park. I agree that they didn't build it for Brock; they built it in a hurry because someone got shot dead after a game at Sportsman's in 64, and, like the other parks of the time, they raked it very shallowly because that was what the concrete and steel technology of the time would support. The point I was making was that Brock's defensive skill set was much better adapted to a park that had huge territory but regular bounces than a small park with weaker groundskeeping.

As for Billy Williams, I don't know about 65 and 66, but in 1964, when they had both Williams and Brock and traded Brock, and which is therefore the year in question, Billy Williams played all 162 games in LF. Brock was playing RF. That sure looks like a decision that Williams was their LF to me. No idea why they changed their minds AFTER they got rid of Brock, but it was clearly the year after.

As for the 64 impact, I have looked at the splits for that. What happened was that the offense got off to a lousy start in April, and then exploded in May, dropped again in June, and then really took off again in July, (along with the team ERA, which makes me suspect a road ballpark effect in July). They acquired Brock on June 15, so you have to look at May vs. July unless you want to work through game logs, which you may have done, but I haven't. Anyway, in May, they hit 18 triples and stole 5 bases without Lou. In July, they hit 11 triples and stole 8 bases with him. I suppose it's possible that there are severe early-June / late-June splits, but June was a down month for the offense overall. The pitching may have had the most effect on W/L, and I have no idea why, except for Bob Gibson in September. But as for the offense, the main change was that the offense of July wasn't followed by bad months in August or September. The trouble with assigning all that to Lou Brock is that he only gets 1/9 of the PA. The offense change is too big for any one hitter, except maybe Ruth.
5:57 AM Jun 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Brock--I'm pretty sure they didn't construct Busch Stadium with Lou Brock in mind. In any case, he put up fielding stats from June of '64 through May of '66 that show about the same as the 64-67 stats I mentioned. One thing I didn't mention, but someone in these comments did, is that the Cubs played Williams as their regular RFer in '65 and '66 anyway, creating a hole in LF for Brock to play if they hadn't swapped him out for parts, causing the whole "Oh no, we must play Brock in RF and he can't play there" theory to fall apart. As to Brock "NOT" making an immediate impact, the thing to look at may be the Cards' W-L record in 1964 before Brock and after, not 1963 vs 1964. There's an undeniable impact there if you look at it like that.
5:02 AM Jun 15th
 
Brock Hanke
Some observations and factoids about Lou Brock and The Trade: My personal reading of what happened in Cubbie land was that, once Lou Brock had established that he was not a CF and that his arm wasn't really good enough for RF, the Cubs were stuck. He's a lefty. He can't play CF or RF. We have Billy Williams in LF. We have Ernie Banks on 1B. We'd move Banks to third, but we have Ron Santo there. That is, they really didn't have anyplace to play him. I'm not sure about this, but that period of time seemed to have an awful lot of star careers spent with one team. Yogi, Mantle, Musial, Banks, Williams. Given Banks' fan appeal, trading him might have been a very bad idea as long as he could play at all. Meanwhile, Stan Musial having announced his retirement before the 1963 season, GM Bing Devine had been looking for a LF all year (I knew Bing for a while, and can verify that one). He knew that he wanted Brock going into the 64 season.

Lou Brock did NOT make an immediate impact on the Cardinals. They won exactly the same number of games in 1964 that they had in 1963.
In fact, Lou did not even start out as the Cardinal leadoff man. That was Curt Flood. Also, it's dicey to discuss the Cardinal ballpark in "64-67", since they changed ballparks in May of 1966. The new one, Busch Stadium, was a giant "sterile ashtray", which maximized Brock's defensive value, since there were acres of territory to chase balls in and reliable bounces to avoid errors.

When Brock was traded for Broglio, they both had exactly 4 Win Shares in the season to date. Broglio looked like he had overcome the injury.

From 1963 through 1968, who won the NL was almost entirely dependent on whether Sandy Koufax was healthy. He was in 63, 65, and 66, but not in 64 (he pitched well, but about 100 fewer innings than his healthy years), and he was retired in 67-68. He was also not healthy all year in 1962, when the Giants won (in a playoff, IIRC).

No conclusions; just context.
1:19 AM Jun 15th
 
mskarpelos
I very much enjoyed this article despite never having read anything by Halberstam. I only remember hearing him interviewed on talk shows. He died a little over ten years ago just down the peninsula from where I work. The place where the car crash occurred is a few hundred meters from Facebook's new corporate headquarters. I must have driven by that intersection a thousand times in the last ten years, but I haven't made the connection to Halberstam until today.

Broglio is a Bay Area guy. He grew up in the east bay and has owned a place in San Jose for more than 50 years. I've never met Broglio myself, but I have friends whose sons attended his local pitching clinic. By all accounts I've heard, Broglio is a really nice guy, and my friends say when it comes to injury prevention, they trust him without hesitation, so he seems to have learned something from his own arm injuries and passed the knowledge along to his students.

Halberstam and Broglio are nearly exact contemporaries born just sixteen months apart, Halberstam in New York, Broglio in Berkeley. Their lives took very different paths, but the strands intertwined, and Halberstam died not more than 30 kilometers from Broglio's home.

Earnie Broglio still lives. He'll be 82 this August.
7:41 PM Jun 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
28 isn't old, Wilbur, and your comment makes my point a little stronger, in that Broglio was 28, had firmly established his bona fides, the Cubs had no reason to fear he'd pitched his best ball, and they were looking forward to a long prosperous decade from him--and look where it got them. A team acquiring a 26 year old pitcher with only one good year had even better reason to think they were making a long-term investment, but it's still a risky proposition.
2:14 PM Jun 14th
 
wilbur
Broglio was 28 at the time the trade, soon to be 29. The Cubs thought they were trading for a proven, successful veteran pitcher.
11:29 AM Jun 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Fixed some typos, rendering some of your corresponding helpful comments into nonsense.
7:00 AM Jun 14th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Of course I'm just barking out of my buttocks here, I have no idea what the Cubs would have wanted for Banks, if they'd been been willing to deal him for anyone or anything, but you're discussing Peters and Horlen and Banks AFTER the 1964 season was in the books, whereas I'm talking about them before the trading deadline and possibly earlier. The ages you cite, mid-20s for the pitchers, could be a negative rather than a positive: "Yeah, he had a good season or two, but can he sustain it?" In retrospect we know what happened, but it's always dicey trading for young pitchers. (See Broglio, E.) I always think that hitters are perceived as more reliable commodities, and they may be in fact better bets for sustained performance. Certainly the further back you go in time (before the 1964 season, trading deadline of 1963, etc.) the more likely a Banks for pitching deal would look.
2:57 PM Jun 13th
 
SwampDog
Liked the article very much. Love to read anything about the 60's or 70's.

You said "Gary Peters and Joel Horlen, say, might have seemed like a fair price to pay for Banks." This struck me as wrong, so I looked it up. I knew that Banks had his last great year in 1960, and that Peters had established himself as one of baseball's best pitchers by 1963. So, just for fun....

In 1963, 32 year old Banks hit .227 with 18 home runs. Peters, 26, was 19-8, 2.33. Horlen, 25, went 11-7, 3.27. Banks did improve a little in 1964 (and played decently through 1968), but Peters was 20-8 in '64, Horlen 13-9, 1.88. I think the Cubs would have been quite lucky to get Horlen for Banks at that point, but a Banks for Peters deal wasn't going to happen.

I did look at the ChiSox first baseman at that time, and was surprised to find that they were just as good as Banks for a while, using OPS+. Banks and McCraw in 1963 both had an OPS+ of 94. Bill Skowron spent '64 and '65 at first for the White Sox, and matched Banks OPS+ both years, 107 in 1964 and 116 in 1965. I never would have guessed that. Of course, Banks was better than anyone the Sox had from '66-'68, and then Hopkins was better than Banks starting in 1969. Also, McCraw was a much better defender than Ernie.

Anyway, thanks for the article.
12:11 PM Jun 13th
 
billsizer
Another great artcle. My only quibble, Steven, is that you are speaking unkindly of the dead...Halberstam. However, I've never subscribed to that prohibition anyway. Why does someone become above criticism because he dies? Everyone does, but a writer's words live on.
10:25 AM Jun 13th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Very funny. I thought I was the first to make the Gadot / Godot remark yesterday at my viewing of WONDER WOMAN. (Which I found disappointing, as i do almost anything that gets hyped that much.) Thanks. A typo-free version will go up soon, making your corrections and others seem a little mysterious, but such is the price of progress.
9:46 AM Jun 13th
 
pob14
While you're fixing typos: I don't think Samuel Beckett ever played for the Cubs. I think I heard that he was working for DC Comics at the time, waiting for Gal Gadot to come along.
8:28 AM Jun 13th
 
those
In reading the comments of strat players, it seems what they liked is that the cards weren't bunched up by patterns. For example, if I roll five 66s and my opponents rolls one, I'm probably going to win, no matter how good the teams are. People who love APBA and Replay have no problem with that, though.​
8:26 AM Jun 13th
 
Steven Goldleaf
APBA was too counter-intuitive for me. You know what I never realized about the Strat cards, though? If they were smart they would have bunched up the hits on the batters' and pitchers' card as if each one was the strike zone--so if you laid one down the middle of the center row, it would probably be a hit, and if you nibbled the corners it was probably an out, with all the walks bunched up in the 2s and 3s and 11s and 12s.
5:42 PM Jun 12th
 
wilbur
Steve, I replayed the 1966 NL season, only with APBA.
5:37 PM Jun 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, and ajmilner: of course that's possible, as is the meeting of Crowe and Willey taking place in a Little League match-up, though given their differences in age, race, and geography that might have been impossible. My point is that if it were a spring training game or some such, don't you think the responsibility is Halberstam's to mention that? The clear implication is that it took place in a regular season NL game, unless said otherwise. If it was spring training, Willey could have been working on his slider, throwing it to everyone in every situation, making Crowe's prediction not so prescient. Anyone know if there is a 354 sign in Sportsman's Park or in Milwaukee County stadium?
4:11 PM Jun 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Quite right about Williams playing RF, Wilbur, which i should have mentioned and should have remembered. Remembered, because i had the 1966 Strat set which I played so much I memorized the stats and most of the cards-- it was Williams' peak in RF, 152 games (he also played there as his primary position in '65). Mentioned, because if they were going to play Williams in RF anyway, then they didn't need to trade Brock at all in mid-1964 as Halberstam maintains, out of panic that Brock OMG! cannot play the sun field.

Yes, Marc, the title Best and the Brightest was obviously sardonic, though Kennedy did select his advisors on the basis of how accomplished and intellectually gifted they were. Still that was no check on them getting him (or rather LBJ) mired neck-deep in the Big Muddy after all. B&B may have been the only book I ever read about our Vietnam policies--after I read it, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Vietnam. all i knew, it turned out, was what Halberstam wanted me to know.
4:03 PM Jun 12th
 
wilbur
Very interesting piece. I've never read the book, partly because I hadn't read it by the time I read BJ's review of Halberstam's 1949 book (which I had read) and I knew if I read the 1964 book I would just be hunting for errors.

A few observations if I may:

Recently I read the Stu Miller SABR bio. The $100 anecdote sounds completely foreign to his personality as revealed in that article, and as you suggest, the idea of someone whose career was teetering on a knife edge then would not disrespect his manager as described.

Billy Williams. Williams played a good deal of right field for the Cubs in the mid-60's, until the Cubs finally ensconced him in left for good. He did eventually turn into a decent left fielder, too.

Brock/Broglio. No one ever mentions that the year before, the Cubs had traded a left-handed hitting outfielder to the Cardinals for a veteran right-handed pitcher: George Altman for Larry Jackson (leaving out the other minor players involved). It was a tremendous trade for the Cubs, as Altman's career began to fall off a cliff and Larry Jackson was a solid starter for the Cubs in '63 (2.55 ERA) and won 24 games in 1964. In '66 they turned Jackson into Ferguson Jenkins. not a bad return.
3:17 PM Jun 12th
 
Marc Schneider
Regarding the title "The Best and the Brightest," I suspect Halberstam was being ironic, ie, that the so-called Best and Brightest were not, which is why we got into such a mess in Vietnam. But they thought they were. Whatever the other flaws in the books, other books I have read on the subject seem to confirm the arrogance and incompetence of American leaders in that period.

I have read many, if not most of Halberstam's books, both sports and non-sports related. At the time, I had no ability to analyze the accuracy, but subsequently I have read other critiques of Halberstam with regard to his non-sports books similar to Steven's and Bill's. That's disappointing because I really liked the books and I largely agreed with his perspective, but now I have to wonder. (BTW, I read David Kaiser's book about FDR and WW II, which was very good, although I have not read his Vietnam book. David, if you could persuade someone to make it an e-book (especially Kindle), I would definitely read it. :))

With respect to "October 1964", I read it years ago so I don't even remember most of the points that Steven makes. But the problem I always had with the book was not the facts (or lack thereof), but Halberstam's premise that the 1964 World Series represented some sort of apotheosis for African-Americans in baseball because a supposedly African-American dominated team beat a white dominated team. This always seemed pretty pat considering the Cards won the series in 7 games and that probably the two biggest at bats in the series were by Tim McCarver and Ken Boyer. So, it seemed to me that making this series to be a representative of the changes in American sport and society could only have been imposed after the fact, knowing the Cardinals won the series. If they had lost, would that have represented a regression?

Frankly, the discussion about Halberstam suggests something I have always felt about reading, especially history. Facts are not simply facts; they require interpretation. Moreover, to actually understand a period-if that is possible-you do have to read multiple books on the subject. For a long time, The Best and the Brightest was considered a, if not the, seminal work on Vietnam. Now, not so much. Without understanding different interpretations, even of facts, you are just skimming the surface of history. Authors do have different perspectives and different biases and that often colors the way they look at "facts." Of course, that is different than simply misrepresenting things, as it appears Halberstam did in at least some cases.
3:06 PM Jun 12th
 
pgaskill
Yeah, I wouldn't want to edit a book about a topic I knew nothing about (or that uses a language I didn't know). Fortunately, the publishers I freelance for cover general topics: novels, history, mysteries, etc., so I rarely feel at all out of my depth. Cookbooks are about the worse, since I don't know what a lot of the cooking terms that EVERYBODY knows mean. But I just finished a cookbook, so I guess I can survive even such a virtual beating. ;-)
1:16 PM Jun 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Could you provide a link to Zminda's comparison of your book to Halberstam's? Thanks.
12:52 PM Jun 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I'm glad to report that I gave up my editing duties a few years back (editing my University's press) but I still deal regularly with the persnickitiest of editors when I publish in peer-reviewed journals, and I agree that there's a wide variety of diligence among editors in general, and among authors as well. in Halberstam's case, he seems to have been assigned an editor who (if my supposition is correct) had zero business taking on the task. I used to like to challenge myself to take on jobs that I had little technical qualification for, just to learn about the field, but there were strict limits. I wouldn't take on a project involving scientific knowledge (though I did once work as a copy-editor for pharmaceutical company where I encountered all sorts of nineteen-syllable words I'd never seen before) or a work in a language I didn't speak (though I once helped edit a Swedish cookbook without knowing a word in Swedish other than the word for smoked salmon) --what I suspect of my former roommate is that he thought "Oh, hell, anyone can edit a book about baseball," and Halberstam didn't complain about the paucity of queries he received.
12:44 PM Jun 12th
 
pgaskill
To DaveNJNews, I'm a professional copyeditor (sounds like you are too), and I have to agree with every word you say. Some authors think they're perfect and couldn't possibly have committed any kind of error or omission; others are vocally grateful for every bit of help the editorial staff can give them; and many are somewhere between the two extremes. I don't need to say which variety I prefer. ;-)​
11:53 AM Jun 12th
 
Mjh821
A quick and dirty study of starters vs bench guys by white vs non-white counting any bench players with 100+ ABs has the following league results :
NL - starters breakdown of 38 whites to 42 non-whites vs bench count of 46-12, so percent of 47.5/52.5 to 79.3/20.9. That is a big difference.
AL - 60/20 vs 41/16. A much closer percent of 75/25 to 71.9/28.1.
Note the Dodgers' breakdown was 2-6 vs 5-0.
9:38 PM Jun 11th
 
KaiserD2
I met Halberstam only once, but not once, but twice, I wrote books on extremely similar topics to his. The first was Epic Season about the 1948 pennant race, parallel to his 1949 one. Don Zminda very kindly compared the two books in an online review and I'm proud to say I came out ahead. The second, a much bigger project, was [i] American Tragedy; Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War [i], which covered essentially the same ground as Hablerstam's [i] The Best and the Brightest [i]. with the difference that he relied mostly on his own Vietnam experience and interviews and I relied (more than 20 years later) on archival research.

Bill James nearly 30 years ago and now Steven Goldleaf have both wondered whether Halberstam used the same "methods" in his non-sports books as in the baseball ones. I would say that the answer is yes. If someone told him a good story he didn't check it, he printed it. This often led to significant distortiions in [i] The Best and the Brightest [i] and often I could see, from the archives, where the story that distorted the facts had originated.

There was a real boom in baseball books in the 1980s-1990s, thanks largely to Bill, but it turned out the best way to write a successful baseball book was to have become famous for writing other things. See Halberstam, David; Will, George; and Kearns Goodwin, Doris. That was the start of a trend. Publishers no longer market books. They market names.

David Kaiser
historyunfolding.com
A
7:59 PM Jun 11th
 
ajmilner
Good article. Nice research on the George Crowe/Carlton Willey dtory -- but how do we know it wasn't a minor league or spring training game?
7:15 PM Jun 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
RB--not so much sloppiness as cowardice (or tact). It's very bad form to contact someone I haven't spoken to since the late 1970s and start accusing him of doing an inferior job in his chosen field. Also the main reason I didn't post this for the general public, just the BJOL crowd. I'm not looking to start any shit here, just to posit my theory as to how the book got so poorly fact-checked. You're free to find it unlikely, of course, and to theorize how anyone could develop an interest he hadn't had before, but in this case, I'll differ quietly from that position. If I run into him to at some party or something, I'll see if I can bring it up but I don't see a need to make a major issue out of it here and now.
6:55 PM Jun 11th
 
RanBricker
I enjoyed the article but I have a ringing question I can't get past. If you knew the editor in college, and I understand it's been a long time ago, why didn't you communicate with him and just ask him if your thesis was correct? Ask him if he still hates baseball. Ask him if he employed fact checkers. Ask him if Halberstam was resistant to verifying his statements. Ask him about Halberstam's methods. You complain about Halberstam's "sloppiness", but honestly this seems like sloppiness as well.
4:30 PM Jun 11th
 
DaveNJnews
Very impressively written and researched piece.

I don't know how easy or hard Halberstam was to edit - some writers fight everything tooth and nail, some others are fully open to suggestions - but it's entirely possible that the editor on this project (and on his other baseball books) went in thinking that Halberstam had unparalleled knowledge on baseball so that there was no reason to challenge him on the nuts and bolts of his theories and assertions.
3:27 PM Jun 11th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sure. I think he came over in the Fergie Jenkins deal. He was one of Leo Durocher's bobos, "the next Willie Mays," I think Leo said, rather hopefully. Big strikeout guy, a little power, around 1967. Didn't really work out longterm.
8:31 AM Jun 11th
 
hermitfool
Didn't Adolfo Phillips play a little center field for the Cubs after Brock left?
8:19 AM Jun 11th
 
steve161
The Stu Miller story is even more absurd when you consider how much $100 would buy in the 1950s.

As you say, Halberstam was an excellent writer. His books with a baseball theme are well worth reading, but so are many works of fiction.

I don't think Bill Maher was a racist, either before last Friday or since, but that's another argument.
11:57 PM Jun 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
McCook Braves I associate with Pat Jordan, who with Bouton wrote one of the sharpest books about a mediocre pitcher's life. Wonder if they ever played against each other there.
8:47 PM Jun 10th
 
W.T.Mons10
FWIW, the first place 1958 North Platte Indians had two players who reached the majors, and neither had a distinguished playing career. The second place McCook Braves had zero. In fact, no club in that Nebraska State League had more than two future major leaguers.
8:44 PM Jun 10th
 
shthar
Now that I think about it, the wife would be driving a JAGUAR in 1954.
6:08 PM Jun 10th
 
shthar
Yeah, Ferrari, or maybe an Astin Martin. If you like Gimlets.
6:06 PM Jun 10th
 
doncoffin
Ferrari...it's even Italian
4:48 PM Jun 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
OK, I'm going to fix a few typos here--what car existed in the 1950s that was the equivalent of a Lamborghini? (Technically, and I hate defending my ignorant misuse on sophistical grounds like this, but that Lamborghini alluded to here was not IN 1954, but in the mind of the editor in 1993 or so. Your point is well taken, however, and not to be defended by such sophistry.)
4:24 PM Jun 10th
 
shthar
Anyone driving a Lamborghini in 1954 was driving a tractor.
4:17 PM Jun 10th
 
MarisFan61
(sorry typo -- should be, "a couple of things you said..."
4:11 PM Jun 10th
 
MarisFan61
Good interesting work.
And, BTW, I couldn't resist fact-checking a couple of things you about players and games, since I wondered a little -- and they checked out. (Need I say.) :-)

But, just want to add, I still feel pretty sure it's true that by and large, at least until the period Halberstam was talking about, major league teams did tend not to give the fringe roster spots to non-whites, and the Yankees were indeed among the very slowest teams to cotton to the idea of seeking out black players.
(BTW, as I type that, especially with the Bill Maher thing ringing in my ear, I have a nagging feeling that the expression "cotton to" might have implications or origins I'm not aware of, but for the sake of everything I can imagine, including curiosity, I'm leaving it there.)
4:11 PM Jun 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
yes, ZachSmith, he keeps doing that. He charges the Yankees with being racist in the 1950s, but hell, Bill Maher was racist as of last Friday. The Yankees, and particularly George Weiss, WERE racists, but not especially compared to the rest of the American League, which is all that matters, competitively speaking. He goes on and on about it like they were deservedly being punished by an all-seeing God for their backward-thinking policies. So what, they consolidated their farm teams, as you say, if every other MLB team was doing the same? He makes charges that don't really mean very much, but APPEAR to be significant if you're reading quickly and superficially, as most of us do much of the time.​
3:08 PM Jun 10th
 
sayhey
I enjoyed Halberstam's book on the '50s, but the whole time with Bill's dismantling of the 1949 book in the back of my mind.
2:47 PM Jun 10th
 
ZachSmith
I read the book once when it came out. What struck me was how he kept talking about how the Yankees reduced the number of farm teams they had in the 1950s. True but every team did the same. The Yankees were always in the top group of teams with the most minor league teams. 2) Halberstam dismissed George Weiss and the Mets getting Tom Seaver in the lottery because "Weiss did not think the Mets would win" so he bid. There were two other teams that entered the lottery (Indians and Phillies). Maybe Weiss didn't know how many teams were interested in matching the contract that the Braves signed Seaver which Eckert voided. But since the Braves drafted Seaver 20th in the first round of the January 1966 secondary draft, with 13 teams declining to draft anyone, Weiss and the Mets could have seen Seaver wasn't highly regarded. Besides, doesn't a good baseball executive listen to his scouts?
1:46 PM Jun 10th
 
wovenstrap
This is excellent. I was a teenager in the 1980s, and I "grew up," so to speak, on a few Halberstam books, mainly The Breaks of the Game and The Powers That Be, and it's been very instructive to receive from Bill (and now you) a vivid lesson on the limitations of Halberstam's methods (and pomposity) as well as the differences between a sports book and a Vietnam book, or whatever. In other words, I was never inclined to challenge Halberstam's premises, and (like you) now it's the only thing I ever think about, when I think about him. You'll no doubt agree that Halberstam is a bit like the rotary telephone, an object that worked just fine in 1965 but whose usefulness had a severe time limit imposed on it..... It was just never going to work as well in the 1990s and beyond. I can't feature Halberstam sitting in front of the microfiche scanning box scores but they have assistants for just that sort of task. Halberstam's belief in the salience of oral testimony comes more and more to resemble "shitty reporting."
10:04 AM Jun 10th
 
doncoffin
When I read "The Best and the Brightest" (1972) for the first time, I was struck by the power of its argument. When I re-read it (after having read dozens of books about how we got into the morass in Viet Nam--the policy and strategic and tactical blunders--I saw a number of things that seemed sort of off-key (but which at this point I neither can remember nor care to remember). "Summer of '49" bothered me from the very beginning, but, again, I had neither the time nor the inclination to fact-check it. Your comments make me glad I never bothered with "October 1964."
9:56 AM Jun 10th
 
kimchi
Very interesting....but not Halberstam's greatest sin.
Ever since he wrote "The Best and the Brightest", folk have used that phrase assuming that "the best and the brightest" were the same people!
I may not have learned enough since "October'64", but I have learned this...the best AIN'T always the brightest, and the brightest AIN'T always the best!
9:46 AM Jun 10th
 
 
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