'Teammates' once, friends forever
David Halberstam on Williams, DiMaggio, Pesky and Doerr
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- David Halberstam knew it was a book.
"I thought to myself, you know, that's something that will never happen again," the author says in a phone interview from his home in New York. "Four guys -- Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio -- they all come up about the same time, they all essentially play for one team for most of their careers.
"And it will never happen again that four guys come up, grow up together, having this friendship, and sustain it for 60 years after finishing their careers."
All Halberstam -- the much-honored author of "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "Summer of '49" and "October 1964," among many others -- all Halberstam had to do was listen. Doerr, Pesky, DiMaggio -- they wanted to talk, talk about their careers and their lives and Ted, especially Ted, whom Dom and Bobby had driven down to Florida to visit in his waning days. The road trip formed the heart of the story; the stories of their lives together were the soul.
"There would be a very nice small book in it about another time and era in America, a kind of sweetness and friendship," Halberstam says. And after two "serious" books -- "War in a Time of Peace" (2001) and the September 11-themed "Firehouse" -- it would be refreshing for the author.
"You do an allegedly serious book on politics or whatever, and then you catch your breath doing a smaller book on sports," he says.
So, for a few months in 2002, he interviewed the former Boston Red Sox players, and drew on previous interviews he'd done, and he turned their story into "The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship" (Hyperion).
'I got very lucky'
These Red Sox were different, Halberstam observes. Not that other players he's interviewed have been difficult, but this Red Sox bunch was a pleasure.
"I think I got very lucky on this," Halberstam says. "The Red Sox players of that team just were particularly pleasant. Ted Williams was larger than life and exuberant and contentious and cantankerous, but great fun to be with."
Williams, of course, was the team's star, a future Hall of Famer with the sweetest swing in baseball. In 1941 he hit .406, the last player to hit .400; he twice led the American League in home runs, RBIs and batting average, the much-prized and little-achieved Triple Crown.
But the others weren't chopped liver. Doerr and Pesky, the second baseman and shortstop, were a terrific double-play combo, and they both could hit a ton as well. And DiMaggio, though always in the shadow of his older brother Joe, was a seven-time All-Star centerfielder with one of the best arms -- and best brains -- in baseball.
The teammates went through the best and worst of baseball times together. Perhaps the most painful is the 1946 World Series, a series lost to the St. Louis Cardinals because Pesky allegedly held on to the ball a split-second too long as Cardinal Enos Slaughter ran all the way around from first base with the winning run on Harry Walker's single. But, as Halberstam notes, that wasn't the real story.
DiMaggio had gotten hurt and been removed from the game, and was replaced by a much less capable defensive player. Dominic knew how to position himself; the other player didn't.
"[DiMaggio] could see it, and he understood completely where Harry Walker might hit the ball," Halberstam says. "Dominic will tell you that he still wonders if he could have gotten Slaughter at third. And Slaughter told him later, 'I never would have come home if you had been out there.' "
By 1960, the four had finished their playing careers. But, though not all stayed in baseball, they stayed in constant touch.
Each of the players -- except Williams, who was in great shape until late in his life -- had health scares starting in the '60s. Williams' health, however, declined severely in late '90s.
All along, they supported each other. In particular, each would visit Williams -- who had a hidden, lonely side they all recognized -- to fish and talk with him. Williams needed them, and they all knew it.
The circus surrounding Williams' death -- after he passed away in July 2002, his children engaged in a bitter battle over his remains, which ended up in cryogenic suspension -- has troubled the group, says Halberstam.
"I think among his friends there's a sadness that it ended in such a messy way," he says. "But they're also aware that some of this is Ted's own fault. He was wonderful in many ways ... but he was not a great husband and he was not a great father. ... It's not a great end."
Fortunately, the Ted Williams of "The Teammates" is mostly the brash, bright thunderclap of a ballplayer and a man.
"I have no doubt he would have been a huge success no matter what he put his mind to," says Halberstam.
And the others? They've all had long, loving marriages and good lives. DiMaggio is a successful businessman; Pesky has been a baseball manager and sportscaster; Doerr spent decades in the Red Sox organization. They're all in their 80s now, but they have terrific recall, says Halberstam, and rich, warm stories.
For the author, nothing could be a finer tribute.
"They all understood exactly what I was doing and very much encouraged me," he says. "There was never any trouble of getting enough time [for interviews]. ... I was very lucky."