The news of David Halberstam's death hit me like a sharp jab in the chest.
It was strange because I don't generally experience strong feelings at the passing of public people. But I had only to stare at my bookcase to know the reason. When you own every book a man has written and you've pored over some of them until the covers are smudged and the corners worn, you feel you know him a little.
I started my reminiscences by pulling Summer of '49 from an upper shelf. It was the first Halberstam book I owned, bought for me by my mother when I was 13. I was already a devout baseball nut by then, and I could've told anyone that the Yankees won the World Series that year.
I nonetheless tore through Halberstam's story of their race with the Red Sox like a suspense novel. I loved the way he introduced Joe DiMaggio as an inert figure, frustrated by heel pain. He then gave me a little hope as the burning in that great foot subsided enough for DiMaggio to take batting practice one June morning. And finally, Halberstam transported me to Fenway Park for the Clipper's triumphant return - four homers and nine RBIs in three games.
I hated the Yankees, but the passage made me want to cheer.
His depiction of Ted Williams - outrageously gifted, arrogant, fierce, loving to his teammates - also delighted me. I'll never forget one passage in which Halberstam described Williams riding through Florida with a young catcher named Matt Batts. Williams approved of Batts' driving and that prompted the youngster to proclaim, "I'm the best."
"No, Batts," Williams replied. "You use the brake too much. I never use the brake. I'm the best."
That anecdote, carefully picked from the thousands that exist around Williams, told me so much about what drove the great slugger.
Back then, I didn't know that Halberstam ranked among the greats in a profession I would choose. I didn't know that his fearless reporting had helped expose the arrogant wrongheadedness behind Vietnam. I just knew that he could reanimate passages from the game I loved most.
Now that he's gone, there is so much about his life we can celebrate. He understood that one thing was connected to another was connected to another. His books showed an appreciation for the complexities of our world and that's why some of them are thick enough to double as bludgeoning weapons.
But Halberstam turned back to sportswriting throughout his career, and his books on basketball, baseball and sculling remain my favorites. So those are the ones I want to shout about.
Please, if you love sports books and haven't read The Breaks of the Game, run out and get it. I don't think Halberstam meant to write an "important" story when he began following the Portland Trail Blazers of the late 1970s. But he ended up with an amazing book about teaching, workplace culture, racial tensions in the first generation after the civil rights movement, the fate of 1960s counterculture, the nature of modern stardom and dozens of other subjects.
There are also some lovely passages about basketball. Halberstam conveyed the wonder of Julius Erving by describing Portland forward Bobby Gross' awe.
"It was The Doctor's hands," he wrote. "They were huge and yet surprisingly delicate, with extremely long fingers. It was odd, Gross suspected, for a player to be so fascinated by another player's hands, but Julius Erving had beautiful hands. They allowed him to hold the ball lightly and yet still control it, to do tricks with the ball, to drive past the basket and then at the last minute to score by putting all sorts of different spins and reverse spins on the ball in ways denied mere mortals with mortal hands."
My copy opens quickly to that page because I've looked it up so many times, seeking inspiration. I met Dr. J shortly after I read the book and as his enormous paw engulfed mine, I fixated on Halberstam's words.
"He got it exactly right," I thought. "This man has the most remarkable hands I've ever seen."
Halberstam's The Amateurs is an overlooked classic in what I call the obsession genre. These are tales of people who become fixated on crafts that might seem absurd or, at best, pointless to the masses. In this case, he wrote about scullers from some of the country's best universities and about how they couldn't let go of the sport, which paid them nothing in riches and little in glory.
I had just read it when I told my college counselor that I wanted to become a journalist.
"So you want to be the next David Halberstam?" he replied.
"No," I demurred.
I possessed neither the courage to tromp through war-torn jungles nor the ambition to chronicle whole generations of America. I already knew that at age 17. Some people you admire but never hope to emulate.
I won't say it's fitting that Halberstam's last book profiled New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick or that he died on the way to interview Y.A. Tittle for a book about the Colts-Giants championship game in 1958. I'm more sad that I'll never get to read the book, which would surely have contained Halberstam's evocation of old Baltimore and mini-profiles of Colts such as Ray Berry and Lenny Moore.
I interviewed Halberstam about his Belichick book in late 2005. From his tone, I could tell that he had enjoyed unlocking the secrets of a shuttered football genius. Halberstam attended Harvard but wasn't an excellent student. Instead, he'd spent a lifetime learning through his work. He was fascinated with this quality in himself and sensed it in the coach, as well.
So we fell into a sprawling conversation about learning. I told him of my wife's experiences teaching in Baltimore. At some junctures, I realized, he was interviewing me. After about 30 minutes, I had enough for my story. But I kept him on the phone, asking questions about his reporting for The Breaks of the Game and about spending time with Ted Williams. He didn't seem to mind.
I've learned since becoming a sportswriter that chatting with your childhood heroes rarely proves inspiring. But I left that conversation with my mind abuzz, remembering why I do what I do. I thought of that feeling when I heard about Halberstam's death. I wish I could talk with him again.