My favorite baseball book ever was Peter Gammons’ Beyond the Sixth Game, which starts with a team that was the finest young team in baseball, the 1975 Boston Red Sox. One of the things that time has forgotten a little bit is that when these Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds, the perception was that this would not be the last big result for this bunch. Fred Lynn had won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP (and unlike Ichiro, was actually a first time major leaguer). Carlton Fisk would go on to the Hall of Fame as would Jim Rice – Dwight Evans would be a Gold Glove winner. The future was so rosy – but then free agency became codified in the sport at the same time. Gammons explores how the sport fundamentally changed – how market prices started to take over as players had evolved from the reserve-clause indentured servants of yore to free agents actively pursuing to be paid according to their marginal revenue. Gammons looks at the league from the inside and out, how it changed locker rooms, how it changed management’s view of players and how different teams coped with the gameboard suddenly changing.
What Gammons captured in Beyond the Sixth Game, David Halberstam captures with remarkable reportage in his The Breaks of the Game. The team is the 1980 Portland Trailblazers. The team of course, won the title in 1977 – with some perfect chemistry it seemed, Bill Walton at the height of his powers, and Maurice Lucas providing some key help, and a starting lineup of guys age 26 and under. Like the 1975 Red Sox, the future seemed limitless. Like the MLB of that time, money was changing thing, and the ABA/NBA merger caused uncertainty. Halberstam, as he does in all of his books, narrates the season almost as a novel. There is reporting, but it all flows very naturally. Every player gets some background, the coach Jack Ramsay is profiled in segments. But what Halberstam does is bring the individuals to the narrative.
For instance, consider Kermit Washington, the Blazers Power Forward. Halberstam unobtrusively describes how he became part of compensation (part of the settlement of the merger was that teams who lost free agents were entitled compensation as determined by the commissioner). But he also discusses a man with a self confidence problem, who learned how to believe himself – who seeked out coaching – who had a home in San Diego he was settling in when he suddenly got traded to Portland. Bobby Gross, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Walton, Moses Malone (imagine if the Blazers kept him!) all get some dedicated pages in the same vein. Halberstam’s writing is full of these nuggets. However, he also talks about television, how the NBA over expanded, how it mismanaged their television dealings – and how CBS had to deal with trying to sell a black game to a white corporate audience. The book’s narrative is clean – there are not individual chapters dedicated to these individual threads, Halberstam works in and out – while following the Blazers around, trying to handle contract disputes, individual agendas and trying to hang on to the last vestiges of the 1977 glory.
Halberstam was a great reporter and writer, and for basketball books The Breaks of the Game reads so naturally and covers so much. It is a great read.