AL East race, baseball books.

Joe DiMaggio was a key figure in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry that is continuing today.

Joe DiMaggio was a key figure in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry that is continuing today.

The dog days of July have hit the Red Sox hard.

The BoSox have dropped straight to fall two games behind their arch-rivals with the $201 million lineup, the New York Yankees

The Yankees seem to have gathered after a disappointing year last year in which they missed the playoffs for the first time in All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter’s career and after weathering the off-season revelations that Alex Rodriguez, despite his previous denials, did indeed use steroids. 

This, of course, is not the first time these two ancient rivals have been locked in a tight contest for league or divisional supremacy.   I wrote earlier this year about Bill Reynolds’ bookabout the one-day playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees in 1978-a game that ended with legendary left field Carl Yastrzemski popping up a Goose Gossage pitch to Graig Nettles.

The late David Halberstam wrote with intelligence, insight and clarity on an enormous range of topics-the 50s, the auto industry, civil rights and a New York firehouse are just some of his books’ subjects-and sports was a recurring passion for him.

And, within sports, while I never met the man, I have a sneaking suspicion that baseball held a special place in his heart.

The Summer of ’49is an elegantly written book about a pennant race between the Yankees and the Red Sox that took place 60 years ago this summer. 

Key figures in the drama were an aging Joe DiMaggio, who was just two years away from retirement, and Ted Williams, a brash slugger who said the oft-repeated quote that all he wanted out of life was to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.”

Readers of Halberstam’s The Teammates, a slender book that chronicles Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky’s final trip to visit the ailing Williams, will see that he recycled some of the material from the Summer of ’49 in the later book.  Both are well worth reading, though.

The DiMaggio that emerges in Halberstam’s book is brooding, aloof, often playing through pain and the consummate professional.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ben Cramer paints a much darker picture in Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life.  Cramer shows a ruthless and ego-driven player who assiduously cultivated his image from his earliest days as a Yankee, beat Marilyn Monroe, and insisted on being introduced last at Yankee Stadium as the “greatest living Yankee.”

Unsurprisingly, this was not a recipe for lifelong friendships.  One of the book’s most painful section is his description of DiMaggio’s final days, when ‘associate’ Morris Engelberg pushed the nearly dead superstar to sign baseballs to eke just that much more money out of him before he finally expired.

Venal, American icon, or both, DiMaggio is unquestionably a key figure in the historic rivalry which is having yet another incarnation this summer.  Readers waiting until the September action heats up will enjoy these books.


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