When does a book about sports become literature? When David Halberstam wrote one. Mr. Halberstam, who died in a car accident Monday, was best known for his scathing indictment of American arrogance in Vietnam, "The Best and the Brightest," published in 1972. Its meditation on the nature of privilege and power in the United States established him as one of the nation's most acute sociocultural critics.
It might seem surprising, then, that seven of Halberstam's subsequent books dealt with sports-related themes; he was working on an eighth at the time of his death. Some questioned sports stories as an appropriate topic for an author of Halberstam's talent. Often patronized as the "toy department" of journalism, they appear at first glance as unworthy of a serious writer's attention.
But Halberstam was that rare author who used sports to tell larger stories about America, Americans, and the human condition. He chose his topics with an eye for complexity and nuance. The baseball season he chronicles in October 1964 becomes a social laboratory in which white members of the St. Louis Cardinals wrestle with entrenched racial attitudes at a critical moment in the American civil rights movement, one in which the question of whether a catcher raised in the white South will drink from the same glass as his star African-American pitcher assumes critical significance.
In "The Amateurs," the Olympic dreams of four young rowers become a metaphor for the class stratifications that continue to plague a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
"Playing for Keeps" examines the career of basketball supernova Michael Jordan in the context of an American industry of leisure and celebrity that by the millennium was more potent than race, but which nonetheless raised unsettling questions about the superficiality of American culture.
And "The Teammates" employs the intertwined lives of Boston Red Sox stars Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky to reflect on friendship and loyalty, as well as on the bittersweet truth that the experience of losing can bind men together in ways that winning cannot.
The years Halberstam devoted to sports, then, were as well spent as those he devoted to war, media, race, and terror. Good journalists tell good stories. Great ones, like Halberstam, take good stories wherever they may be and link them to the enduring themes of American life – equality, freedom, democracy. "The Best and the Brightest" did this; so did Halberstam's other books that were "just" about sports.
It is fitting, then, that Halberstam's last public speech, two days before his death, addressed a conference on "Reconstructing the Past: When History and Journalism Meet." Academic historians tend to dismiss journalism as "the first draft of history," often with good reason. Today's newspaper, after all, is tomorrow's fish wrapper. But Halberstam approached his subjects with a historical sensibility that transcended the limits of their lives.
This is why it was important to write about Robert McNamara, Bill Clinton, and the firemen of New York's Engine 40, Ladder 35 on Sept. 11, 2001. It is also why it was important to write about Ted Williams, Bob Gibson, and Y.A. Tittle – the ex-quarterback Halberstam was traveling to interview when he was killed. David Halberstam spent his life telling Americans what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. That he chose sports as one of his primary mediums is a testament to its revelatory power in the hands of a master practitioner.
• Jerald Podair is a professor of American studies at Lawrence University. He is writing a biography of Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger owner Walter O'Malley.