Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Odd Footnote on David Halberstam

I was not a voracious reader of David Halberstam's books, but I enjoyed the four that I read: The Best and The Brightest, the Pulitzer Prize winning book that put him on the map; The Breaks of the Game, the first of his books on the NBA; Summer of '49, his account of the 1949 pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox; and October 1964, a book - similar in tone and style to Summer - focusing on the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals.

For some reason, an odd note about Halberstam's career has always stuck with me. In the 1991 edition of The Baseball Book, the successor to his legendary Baseball Abstracts, baseball analyst and historian Bill James wrote about Summer of '49. "Wrote about" does not really do the article justice; essentially, James ripped Halberstam a new one, pointing out literally dozens of factual errors in the book, and strongly criticizing his apparent lack of fact-checking. Over the course of the piece James worked himself to a near-frenzy, and closed as follows:

I'm not trying to tell David Halberstam what his standards should be. I can't make up standards for anyone but myself. But hell, I hire a research assistant, and Halberstam's a lot bigger name than I am. Why on earth didn't he hire somebody who knows something about baseball to read this book carefully before it came out?

The intriguing question is, is Halberstam this careless with the facts when he writes about the things he usually writes about? There are two possibilities, one frightening and one irritating. It is frightening to think that Halberstam, one of the nation's most respected journalists, is this sloppy in writing about war and politics, yet has still been able to build a reputation simply because nobody has noticed.

What seems more likely is that Halberstam, writing about baseball, just didn't take the subject seriously. He just didn't figure that it mattered whether he got the facts right or not, as long as he was writing about baseball. And that, to me as a baseball fan, is just irritating as hell.

If Halberstam ever responded to James' criticism, I'm not aware of it.

And in the end I'm not sure what, if anything, this says about Halberstam's legacy. Having said that, I still think it's interesting.

1 comment:

Carol B said...

I had never heard anything like this about Halberstam. To have such substantive criticsm come from a commentator of Bill James' standing is really sobering. The fact that Halberstam didn't make any public response is also disquieting. I had always assumed that Halberstam's reporting was above reproach. It does make me wonder about the rest of his work.