Last week the Baseball Hall of Fame announced enshrinement of catcher Mike Piazza and centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., which coincided to the same time I finished reading David Halberstam's The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship (2004). Halberstam's book covers the baseball careers and continuing friendships of four Boston Red Sox players (shown here left to right): Ted Williams (1939-1961), Dom DiMaggio (1940-1952), shortstop Johnny Pesky (1942-52), and second baseman Bobby Doerr (1937-1951) . Williams and Doerr are in Cooperstown, but Halberstam makes a case that Dom DiMaggio belongs beside his older brother Joe DiMaggio. Dom was physically unimposing and wore eyeglasses but many consider him an equal centerfielder defensively to his famous brother Joe. Dom DiMaggio had a career batting average of .298.
As baseball books go, I would rate The Teammates about a .260 hitter with just a little power (the guys were longtime friends, I get it). The real strength of the book was Halberstam's willingness to address my question, "If these guys were so damn good, why didn't they win a championship?"
The answer is that they did almost win in 1946, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 7th game -- highlighted by the Enos "Country" Slaughter's mad dash to home with the winning run from first base on a long single (ruled a double). Halberstam devotes almost an entire chapter to that series and its aftermath. That group of men did not play in the World Series again, but came very close -- losing to the New York Yankees in a one game playoff in 1949. For more specifics about 1946, check out Robert Weintraub's The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age (2013) because it was an an amazing era in baseball (my review here). Halberstam also wrote previously about that era in the Summer of `49.
Here are a few other Hall of Fame connections that keep rolling in my mind:
- Ken Griffey Jr. and Stan Musial, who played for the 1946 Cardinals, were both born in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania.
- Ted Williams visited Mike Piazza and watched him hit when Piazza was 15 years old.
2. Baseball writer and data guy Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Abstract (2001) rated Ken Griffey 7th in the list of all time centerfielders (Willie Mays #1, Ty Cobb #2, Mickey Mantle #3, Tris Speaker #4, Joe DiMaggio #5, Dom DiMaggio #24) and prophetically rated Mike Piazza #5. Wrote James, "Too early to rate him with any confidence, but probably the best hitting catcher ever to play the game." James rates Yogi Berra first (who died in 2015), and Johnny Bench second.
3. As a Cubs fan, I noticed that many baseball pundits are picking the Chicago Cubs to win it all in 2016, but doesn't convince me as I read The Teammates. The Red Sox of the late 40s were supposed to be a dynasty as well, but it didn't happen as several of their starting pitchers went down with permanent arm injuries. Of course I hope that the Cubs make it to the World Series, but will those young guys (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber be friends for life like Williams, Doerr, DiMaggio and Pesky even if they don't win it all?
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