Halberstam Brought Truth to Sports, Too

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The late writer David Halberstam earned most of his accolades with hard-hitting accounts of American political issues and institutions, but he also gave us great books on sports. He applied rigorous journalism to sports writing.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's one more note about the life of David Halberstam, the writer who died this week.

Many people remember Halberstam for his award-winning reporting on Vietnam or on civil rights. But he was passionate about another subject as well: sports. He wrote books about baseball, and he was working on another sports book - on his way to an interview, in fact - when he was killed in a car crash this week.

For many years, David Halberstam was friends with our commentator Frank Deford, who's on the line. Frank, welcome to the program once again.

FRANK DEFORD: Nice to talk to you, Steve. I'm sorry under such sad circumstances, of course.

INSKEEP: And we're sorry for your loss. What was the book that David Halberstam was working on when he died?

DEFORD: It was about the 1958 game called, the greatest game ever played, between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. And it was his delight to do first a sports book, and then a political book. I think he enjoyed doing the sports books because he could write about people that he really liked.

INSKEEP: Oh, as opposed to people he had to…

DEFORD: Yeah, the people that he was harshest on who were in government, I think it was a great respite for him. But he was a magnificent sportswriter, everything else aside.

INSKEEP: Well, what made him a magnificent sportswriter, given that it was not what he spent the most time on?

DEFORD: I think what David proved was that writing sports is like writing anything else. If you're good at it, it really doesn't make a whole lot of difference what the topic is. And he brought the same kind of insight and thoroughness - he left no stones unturned. He was just a great reporter.

INSKEEP: "The Summer of '49" was the title of one of his baseball books. Did a work like that in David Halberstam's hands become an exercise in nostalgia?

DEFORD: Nostalgia, yes. But he also was always looking to connect the sporting element to the rest of the world. I remember he wrote a book - he edited a book, "The Best American Sports Writing of the Century." And he concluded in his foreword by saying, I think that we - talking about himself and the editor, Glenn Stout - what we have managed to do is present not just this portrait of sports in America in the century but of the nation itself during that period.

INSKEEP: What was his approach as an interviewer, or as a journalist investigating a subject?

DEFORD: Well, he never interviewed me as such, so I can't say that. But I could tell you this: David had the most extraordinary deep voice. I mean he could have made a living as an announcer. Just the voice itself, it sounded so authoritative. By the same token there was a great deal of humor and likeness to it.

If I remember one time my wife and I had an apartment very near to his on the Upper West Side of New York, and he ran across us late one night. We were out walking our little dog. And he said, well, come on, let's have a drink. And we said, well, we can't bring it.

And he said, certainly you can bring the dog. I always bring my dog. And we went in to the café D'Artiste(ph) with the dog and sat down. And I don't think little Bijou was going to misbehave under any circumstances. And that was a voice of God, so much authority to it. He was a great company.

INSKEEP: Just listening to your imitation I think almost of Gregory Peck, perhaps.

DEFORD: Yeah. And he was big man, too, which is another reason he probably got along very well with athletes. I think they really enjoyed him. I mean he became very close friends with Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio, and Ted Williams when he wrote my favorite book of his, called "Teammates," which is about the three old Red Sox going down to see their dying teammate, Ted Williams. It was the story of friendship. It couldn't have been more touching.

INSKEEP: It's interesting to see the difference in approach, because with his political books, David Halberstam would do these sweeping histories, years and years of American policy relating to Vietnam, or an entire decade of small wars in the 1990s. And then with these sports books he focuses on one reunion, one season or, in the case of the last book he was working on, one single game.

DEFORD: But in working on the book about the 1958 Colts-Giants game, he was also looking for what the teams represented: the Giants to big New York, the Colts to little Baltimore. And also, he was going to apply some of the same things of friendship that he had done with the Red Sox in the book "Teammates."

INSKEEP: How would you want people to remember David Halberstam?

DEFORD: I think that David should be remembered, first of all, as an absolutely extraordinary journalist who was unafraid to tell the truth as he saw it under any circumstances whatsoever. But also, he was a man of good company and great friendship. He could be as lovely as he could be tough. And that's a great thing to say about any man, I think.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford, thanks for speaking with us.

DEFORD: It's been a delight to talk about David Halberstam.

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