Midweek books: Missing Halberstam more than ever

I gave myself a little birthday present last month by downloading the electronic version of “Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam.”

Published in 2009, two years after the author’s tragic death in an automobile accident, “Everything They Had” is a collection of Halberstam’s non-book sportswriting for newspapers, magazines and online publications, including ESPN.com’s discontinued Page 2 feature.

In the introduction, editor Glenn Stout — who’s behind the SB Nation Longform feature I’ve blogged about here before — explained how Halberstam:

“. . . recognized that sports are important because sports matter to people, and that sports, and how we relate to sports, say something of value about ourselves, our society, and our history and culture, one of the rare places where citizens of differing creeds, classes and races come together.”

Picture 1Influenced by the work of sportswriting giants W.C. Heinz, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, as well as New Journalism pioneers Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton and Tom Wolfe, Halberstam made the break from daily journalism to focus on book writing in the mid-1960s.

The pieces in this collection span nearly six decades, and reveal the astonishing range and deeply humane touch Halberstam demonstrated in so much of his work, sports and otherwise. They include “Horse Racing in Warsaw” for The New York Times in 1965, as he was preparing to leave the newspaper business, “Why Men Love Baseball,” from Parade in 1989, “How I Fell in Love with the NFL,” from ESPN.com in 2001 and “Ice Breakers,” about female hockey players in Condé Nast Sports for Women in 1998.

Stout was working at the Boston Public Library when he met Halberstam, who was researching “The Summer of ’49,” and it became an acquaintanceship that led to other collaborations. This collection’s title stems from a project they talked about, a compendium of sportswriting about women athletes they tentatively called “Everything She Had.”

That idea never came to fruition, but Stout immediately adapted the title for this volume, which received the endorsement of Halberstam’s widow.

While I’ve found collections ideal for e-reading, a book of this magnitude can’t be absorbed properly only in the digital realm. With my level of interest in the subject, as well as the author, my Christmas present to myself will have to be the print edition.

In a new introduction to the 1992 update of “The Best and the Brightest,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of American foreign and military policy in Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that while he wasn’t sentimental about the newspaper world, it was a challenge to do without a regular byline:

“The byline is a replacement for many other things, not the least of them money. If someone ever does a great psychological profile of journalism as a profession, what will be apparent will be the need for gratification — if not instant, then certainly relatively immediately. Reporters take sustenance from their bylines; they are a reflection of who you are, what you do, and why, to an uncommon degree, you exist.”

He explained in the same paragraph that “I had replaced the need for immediacy with something far more powerful, an obsession” and that his book projects were “many universities I entered.”

But he clearly longed to inhabit that vast creative space between the daily journalist he no longer was and the author he had become. The work in “Everything They Had” demonstrates the renewed sustenance Halberstam found between books. Readers will be rewarded with the additional gifts of his immense talent that have been expertly brought together in one volume.

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