Saturday, August 20, 2011

Everything They Had: Sportswriting from David Halberstam

At the age of 8, David Halberstam began publishing a family newspaper recounting his father's missives from overseas and his brother's daily haul of fish. He followed with what became a storied, 65-year career as a prolific journalist in which he covered everything from war to race relations, politics, business and sports. Halberstam died in 2007 at the age of 73, killed in a car accident while on his way to do an interview for his next book, The Coldest War.

During his lifetime, he wrote more than 20 nonfiction books, many of them bestsellers. His wife, Jean Halberstam, told the New York Times she believed he was proudest of his trilogy on war: The Best and the Brightest (about the Vietnam War), War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals and The Coldest War (about the Korean War and published posthumously).

But for all of Halberstam's focus on the world's troubles, he always held sports close to his heart. His sports books include The Amateurs, The Breaks of the Game and The Education of a Coach. (Visit for a selection of some of Halberstam's columns for the site.) He viewed sports as a lens from which he could view the "changing mores of the rest of the society." In sports, he saw reflections of our culture, history and humanity. In fact, he likened sports writing to war reporting:
"Most other journalistic assignments are mundane and by their nature resistant to almost any instinct to indulge in literary tendencies. The one exception is war, which is graphic and can be readily and movingly described, and to which ambitious young journalists have always been pulled. The drama of war, like the drama of sports, is self-evident. The reporter not only set out to move his readers; he was moved himself."
Everything They Had (070.449796 HALBERST) is a collection of some of Halberstam's lesser-known essays, articles and columns on sports. They span the decades and the field, from a 1955 story on competitive rowing that he wrote as a staff writer for the Harvard Crimson to an introduction to the 2006 book Super Bowl XL Opus. What I, as a reader, find so gratifying about them is their innate readability and accessibility. The best journalism offers context and perspective; it helps you make sense of what it is you're reading and fit it into the larger picture of world. Halberstam does just that. I know little of sports but Halberstam pulls in even in the least knowledgeable with his eloquence and love of the game. He doesn't report on athletic events and personalities just for form's sake, but rather as a window into what they say — about themselves, each other, and us as a society.

At the same time, he firmly understands how sports fits in the larger picture, writing at the two-year anniversary of 9/11, "I like sports, enjoy the artistry of them enormously... But I think there is an important faultline out there somewhere: The world of sports is the world of sports, and reality is reality."

His language is spare and simple, with a conversational tone and gracefulness that make his words easily and eagerly devoured. He serves up sports history with ease, commenting on the impact of such game-changers as the Civil Rights Movement and television, as well as athletic pioneers and personalities. Nor does he neglect the quieter side of sports: the bonding between friends on a fishing trip, the pleasure of rowing with his wife. Whatever topic he broaches, he does it in such as way you feel like he's simply sitting beside you, telling you a story as a lucky "every fan" who's gotten the opportunity to go fishing in Patagonia or visit with legends like baseball Hall of Famer Williams or basketball great Michael Jordan.

And, ensnared, you can't help but listen and learn and enjoy.

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