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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1276

“The memory of the heart is the longest.” With these words, Robert Sylvester ends “The Swede,” a story about the after-death apotheosis of a discredited football coach, modeled after Knute Rockne. The Teammates  is a testament to the memory of the heart. It provides a tonic for disenchanted fans for...

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“The memory of the heart is the longest.” With these words, Robert Sylvester ends “The Swede,” a story about the after-death apotheosis of a discredited football coach, modeled after Knute Rockne. The Teammates is a testament to the memory of the heart. It provides a tonic for disenchanted fans for whom professional baseball has become a game whose key plays are enacted off the field by owners, agents, and the moneymakers.

Although The Teammates qualifies as a baseball book and could be shelved with Roger Angell’sThe Summer Game (1972) and David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 (1989) as classics of that genre, its true place is with Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer (1972) and Jane Leavy’s Koufax(2002), books that are about baseball but transcend it.

Of all sports, baseball is tops in anecdotes and memorabilia. This book resonates with lovers of both. There were at least two—perhaps three—sides to Ted Williams, and in any guise he could be difficult but never dull. Growing up in angler-friendly Oregon, Bobby Doerr tells of seeing Williams at his best and worst while fishing with the master. Fish stories best display Williams’s three-stage trademarks—pent-up displeasure, rage, and contrition.

The book is rich in baseball lore. Perhaps the worst moment in the history of the Red Sox was Enos Slaughter’s mad dash to score from first on a pop fly for the St. Louis Cardinals to beat Boston in the 1946 World Series. Characteristically, Johnny Pesky has always accepted the blame for his hesitant throw, but, as revealed by expert witnesses including his three teammates, the real culprit was a journeyman center fielder subbing for Dom DiMaggio, who was slow recovering Harry “the Hat” Walker’s hit.

The book is really about the enduring friendship of four friends over a half-century. Williams referred to Doerr, DiMaggio, and Pesky as “my guys,” but each of them could have applied the same affectionate tag to the other three. All four were men of a certain generation, born right at the end of the World War I. They had played together on Boston Red Sox teams of the 1940’s. Williams and Doerr went back even further: They were teenagers together in San Diego in the mid-1930’s, when the Padres were in the Pacific Coast League.

“Ted was dying,” Halberstam begins, “and the idea for the final trip, driving down to Florida to see him one last time, was Dominic’s.” The journey from DiMaggio’s place in Marion, Massachusetts, to Williams’s home in Hernando, Florida, would take three days. DiMaggio was accompanied by Pesky and a Boston admirer named Dick Flavin on the thirteen-hundred-mile journey. Sadly, Doerr’s wife of sixty-three years, Monica, had suffered two strokes; Doerr would not be able to join his friends on the trip.

Halberstam is skilled in exploiting stops along the way for transitions. Thus, approaching Philadelphia, DiMaggio recalls how nervous he was meeting the difficult Lefty Grove, perhaps the Athletics’ finest pitcher, in Boston in DiMaggio’s rookie season, Grove’s last, and catching the last out of Lefty’s three-hundredth and last win. Pesky recalls being ridden as a “dumb Pollack” by the Polish slugger Al Simmons, although Pesky is Croatian.

When Flavin, who was driving, announced they were in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Pesky said, “Oh my God, I used to manage here. Amish country.” Then he ran down a long list of players and places—a unique map, Pesky’s own United States of baseball. Halberstam devotes the next twenty pages to Pesky’s career, which began in his home state, took him out of Oregon for the first time for stops in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the team’s most valuable player before signing with Boston for four thousand dollars in 1942. He rarely missed a game for the next seven years until being traded, the only one of the four to play somewhere other than Boston.

Driving south, Flavin, a popular entertainer in Boston, recalls the annual Johnny Pesky dinner, which he often emceed. This forges still another vital transition. At the next dinner, Flavin decides they should play a home video featuring Williams and Doerr arguing about hitting in the middle of a fishing trip on the Rogue River.

“It was,” writes Halberstam, “vintage Williams, Flavin thought, the man as he really was—so alive, argumentative, and dominating. . . . For sure, they would have to bleep out a number of words, but it would be perfect for the Pesky dinner, a way of showing [their] friendship.” Reference to the fishing video also introduces perhaps the most fascinating of the friendships, that between Williams and Doerr, who were also antagonists. That this closest of friendships could endure for sixty-five years exemplifies the attraction of opposites. As a rookie, Mel Parnell, a rare left-hander who flourished in Boston’s Fenway Park with its short fence in left field, thought Doerr the “nicest” of teammates and, later, “the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

During their playing days, the handsome, pleasantly “square” Doerr served as a kind of translator of Williams to the world. As Halberstam explains, Doerr “understood better than anyone else his friend’s passion to excel, his need to be the best, and how hollow his life was when he fell short of his expectations. Doing well, of course, meant hitting.” On this single topic, Doerr never gave in to the master’s constant nagging that he should alter his compact swing. It produced a .288 average and 223 homers, lifetime.

Doerr tried hard to keep Williams afloat during most of his nineteen stormy years in Boston with that city’s confrontational writers and knowledgeable but frustrated fans. It was Dom DiMaggio, himself suffering from Paget’s disease, who did the most for Williams’s morale when his health broke. In mid-January of 2001, attended by fourteen doctors, nurses, and technicians, the eighty-two-year-old Williams underwent ten hours of open-heart surgery, which gave him one more agonizing year. DiMaggio recalled his own decline and what it was like dealing with his brother Joe in the Clipper’s final days. As he told Williams, “Teddy, we’re dealt a hand . . . we really don’t understand. . . . We do the best we can for all of our lives. The whole world is proud of the way you played [yours] . . . and of what you’ve done with your life.”

When phone conversation became impossible, DiMaggio thought of the final journey. Halberstam reconstructs the reunion in just five pages. Having seen Williams more recently than the others, DiMaggio was best prepared for what they saw: “a man once supremely powerful, shrunken now, down to perhaps 130 pounds, head down on his chest.” Their two days together—four short visits—were enough to bring back the take-charge dynamo they had known. They relived some of Teddy Ballgame’s finest hours. He died nine months later.

Halberstam learned of the visit over dinner at the DiMaggios’ house in Palm Beach, Florida. When he told his old friend and fellow writer Russell Baker about this book, Baker’s reply was, “That’s not work—that’s stealing.” All memoirs are self-serving, but Halberstam’s skill in being heard but not seen keeps the focus where it belongs. The journalist-historian on whom nothing is lost has brought a lyric touch to this story that brings to light the human vulnerability of a prince of play beneath the protective disguises.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 14 (March 15, 2003): 1250.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 6 (March 15, 2003): 440-441.

Library Journal 128, no. 2 (February 1, 2003): 89.

The New York Times Book Review, May 25, 2003, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 15 (April 14, 2003): 61-62.

Time 161, no. 20 (May 19, 2003): 64-66.

The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2003, p. D8.

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