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Whiting pays tribute to Boyer, Halberstam

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Whiting pays tribute to Boyer, Halberstam

by Robert Whiting (Jan 20, 2008)

This is a tribute, long overdue, to Clete Boyer and David Halberstam, two class individuals who died last year.

The former was an All-Star baseball player, one of the greatest fielding third basemen of all time.

The latter was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who was perhaps the greatest reporter of his generation.

I was fortunate enough to get to know both of them well and each one had a special impact on my life and career.

Clete Boyer was a fixture on the great New York Yankee teams of the early 1960s. Behind the famed Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra, the club which won five pennants and two world championships from 1960-64.

Boyer was the team's defensive anchor at third, a standout who led the American League third basemen in putouts, assists and double plays for three years running during that period. His specialty was the diving grab, then throwing out baseball runners from his knees.

The appraisal of Bobby Richardson, who played second for the Yankees was typical: "When I think of Clete, I think of the outstanding defensive third basemen in baseball. Brooks Robinson got all the Gold Gloves, and he's every bit deserving of the Hall of Fame, but Clete was as good as anyone who ever played the game."

I first met Clete Boyer in February 1975, in Japan, where he wound up after a circuitous route that had first taken him to Atlanta, traded there by the Yankees after a last-place finish in 1966, and then Honolulu.

He had been released by the Braves in 1971 after a spat with Braves management over the training of young players and after a season with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders, he was traded to the Central League's Taiyo Whales.

At the time, I was based in New York City, where I had moved after studying and working in Japan for several years. I had written a draft of my first book, "The Chrysanthemum and The Bat," and had flown to Tokyo to do some followup research and interviews.

I had visited Wally Yonamine, then manager of the defending CL champion Chunichi Dragons, at the Dragons camp in Hamamatsu. He was kind enough to introduce me to Boyer, who was then ensconced at the Whales camp in Shizuoka, starting his third year, but I wasn't prepared at all for what was about to happen.

I was a 32-year-old, unpublished writer, but Boyer, thanks to Yonamine's introduction, was waiting for me in the lobby of the Shizuoka Grand Hotel, standing there in his Taiyo Whales uniform, his 182-cm, 86-kg frame towering over most everyone else.

He introduced me all around - to his manager, his coaches and his fellow players and gave me a guided tour of the camp, showing me the 1,000-fungo drill, among other sadomasochistic exercises, conducted in the freezing cold.

Then, much to my surprise, he offered me, and another an editor from New York I had been traveling with, the full use of his expensive Tokyo apartment in Hiroo, which stood empty while he was away during training and the preseason exhibition game tour.

We stayed there for about a month, along with a pile of assorted baseball gear and a refrigerator full of frozen steaks and cold beer.

A steady flow of Boyer's acquaintances dropped by, at Boyer's instigation, to sit for interviews - a former Whales manager, a front office official, a coach, a retired slugger, and a clean-cut young shortstop, a Boyer protege.

Returning to Tokyo for one night, Clete held a party and invited every gaijin player in town, including many who had been stars in America.

That evening, they put on a seminar and bitch session on Japanese baseball - nice people, crazy practice routines, excessive discipline - until a succession of attractive young women showed up to change the topic of conversation.

Boyer, who had movie star good looks, had been known as a man who had a certain zest for life.

(Among his many escapades had been a fistfight with a male model in the Yankees' 1964 spring camp in St. Petersburg, Fla.)

He took me along on several forays to Ginza bars and acquainted me with several Taiyo Whales groupies. A favorite hangout was Byblos, site of a famous fistfight pitting ex-MLB players Charlie Manuel, Clyde Wright and Roger Repoz against the East German ice hockey team.

I don't know exactly why Clete Boyer was so kind to me. MLB ballplayers are not noted for their affection for journalists.

Maybe it was because I was someone from home. Maybe it was because Wally and his wife Jane, two extraordinarily hospitable people, had asked him. Maybe it was just because that's the kind of guy Clete Boyer was.

But Boyer, who was living alone in Japan, appeared to me to be in the midst of a mild depression. He had been one of the most famous players in North America. He had batted cleanup behind Hank Aaron. He had won the National League Gold Glove in 1969.

Yet here he was in far-off Japan. Thirty-eight years old, he was coming off his best season in Japan, one in which he had hit .282 with 19 home runs and 65 RBIs in 118 games, winning his second straight Golden Glove. But nobody back in the States was paying attention.

"Playing in Japan," he drawled in his Missouri accent, "I might as well be on Mars."

One night, over several beers, he turned to me and said, "sometimes I wonder what the point of going on is. Sometimes I think about going up to the roof and jumping off and ending it all."

But Boyer rallied. He began to take Vitamin B shots to keep up his energy level and he doubled as a coach on the Whales that year, working with the younger players.

He urged Japanese fielders to be more flexible, to stick out a glove and catch a ball hit to the side, rather than doing the two-handed, time-consuming, by-the-numbers "crow hop," moving the body in front of the ball, as taught by form-obsessed Japanese coaches. The aforementioned shortstop became an All-Star infielder.

Boyer was always interesting to listen to. He would talk in awe about Mickey Mantle - hitting home runs despite epic hangovers and throwing up in the clubhouse, or the thrill of playing the 1964 World Series game against the St. Louis Cardinals, in front of 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium, with his older brother Kenny batting cleanup and playing third base opposite him.

I once asked him if he had ever been scared to stand in the batter's box against big power pitchers like Don Drysdale and Bob Gibson. "Hell, yes," he replied. "You see that ball coming in toward you at 95 miles (153 km) an hour and you don't know whether it is going to curve over the plate or keep going and hit you in the head. You're damn right I was scared."

He viewed the game in Japan with a mixture of respect and dismay.

The respect was over the work ethic of the players, the astonishing skill of pitchers like Yutaka Enatsu, Tsuneo Horiuchi and Masaji Hiramatsu, and many others whom he thought could be stars if only they had a chance to play in the U.S. major leagues.

He was particularly impressed with the batting prowess of Sadaharu Oh.

"People in America just don't know how great an athlete Oh is," Boyer would say, "I think he's super. If he played in the MLB, he would be a Hall of Famer. He is like Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. In his own way, he is that good."

The dismay was over the brutal abuse of players in training camp, where coaches would kick and slap those who displeased them, and the overworking of pitchers' arms, which often caused premature retirement.

He was also bemused at the favoritism showed by the umpires toward Yomiuri Giants idol Shigeo Nagashima, then at the end of his career. "Naggie," he said with a laugh, "had the smallest strike zone I've ever seen."

But, above all, Boyer had respect for Japan and the organization he played for. He was the only gaijin player I ever knew who signed a contract without discussing salary, leaving it up to the team owner to decide later what figure to put in.

Said Tadahiro Ushigome, a Whales official who served as his interpreter, "The man had class. He understood how Japanese felt."

Clete retired as a player at the end of 1975. He stayed on as a coach for the Taiyo Whales for the 1976 campaign, and then moved back to the States where he became a coach for Billy Martin, who was managing the Oakland Athletics.

I called him from time to time, gradually losing touch, over the years, but I kept up with his activities through Ushigome, who saw him often on trips to the United States.

In later years, I read where he opened up a restaurant in Cooperstown, N.Y., called Clete Boyer's Hamburger Hall of Fame.

He died last year on June 4, after a cerebral hemorrhage in an Atlanta-area hospital. He was survived by six children, 10 grandchildren, and older brother Cloyd Boyer, a former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher.

Thanks in great measure to Clete, I had assembled enough material for two books by the end of that '75 trip.

I heard last year his health was declining. I regretted not having called him up and telling him once more how much his generosity had meant to me.

I first met David Halberstam in late May 1983. He had been living in Japan for several months researching "The Reckoning," a book on the Japanese auto industry, and while there, he had also been asked to write a piece for Playboy about Reggie Smith, the former Los Angeles Dodgers slugger who had just been signed to a million-dollar contract to play for the vaunted Yomiuri Giants.

Halberstam had contacted the Giants front office well before the season started about an interview with Smith, but despite repeated inquiries, he had yet to receive an answer.

The Giants were an organization not renowned for their cooperation with the press - unless that press involved the Yomiuri media group which owned the team.

Reporters and Giants players were not allowed to engage in sit-down interviews without the express permission of the front office - and without paying a substantial fee to the team for the privilege of submitting the finished piece for review - a substantial departure from the way things were done in the United States, but a pattern that was followed by other teams in Japan).

Moreover, in this case, Giants executives were afraid of what Smith, who had a reputation for being outspoken, might say to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for his hard-hitting pieces about powerful institutions.

Smith had not had a good start in Japan. He had been limited to pinch-hitting duties for much of the first half of the season because of an injured knee and was only hitting about .250 with a handful of home runs.

The Japanese press was crucifying him over his meager power production and high strikeout total. Smith, for his part, was unhappy with Japanese umpires and what he perceived was a deliberate attempt to embarrass him by giving him and outsized strike zone.

He complained about lack of support from the Giants management in this regard. Moreover, he had branded opposing Japanese pitchers as "gutless" for their refusal to challenge him at the plate.

When Halberstam grew weary of the Giants procrastination, he got in touch with me, having digested "The Chrysanthemum and The Bat" in the interregnum.

I had already interviewed Reggie back in February at the Giants spring camp in Miyazaki, when he had first arrived and was full of glowing words for Japanese baseball.

I had gotten to know him well and he told me that prior to coming to Japan, he had heard of the Giants' excessive control of their players and had thus had a clause written into his contract that allowed him to talk to anyone in the press he wanted to, when he wanted to. One thing led to another and he agreed to go outside regular channels and meet Halberstam.

Halberstam also wanted to see a game at the Giants' home park, Korakuen Stadium, which presented a problem because the Giants were always sold out, and, predictably refused my request for complimentary tickets and/or special press passes.

So, as a last resort, I went to see the commissioner of Japanese baseball to ask for his help. The commissioner was one Takezo Shimoda, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States. Surprisingly, he gave me tickets to his own personal box.

I took David to the game and afterward we proceeded to the clubhouse area, where I introduced David and Reggie to each other - in full view of a representative from the Giants PR department who asked testily, "This your doing, Whiting?"

That evening, we went to dinner and David did his interview. Then, after a second visit to Korakuen, courtesy again of Ambassador Shimoda, and a quick trip to Koshien, David wrote his story, which was not entirely complimentary to the Giants.

In it, among other things, Smith compared Japan to the former Confederate states of the South, "still fighting the last war."

Of the proud Kyojin and the overall lack of aggressiveness in the Japanese game, Halberstam said, "They play baseball as if they are wearing blue suits."

The Playboy piece came out while Reggie was in the midst of a second-half hot streak that almost single-handedly carried the Giants to a pennant. He suffered no repercussions, but I, who until then had enjoyed a rather cordial relationship with Yomiuri, went on the Giants blacklist for having subverted their control of the press and violating protocol.

It turned out that Smith's First Amendment clause had been omitted from the Japanese-language version of his contract and to the powers-that-be within Yomiuri, that was all that mattered.

But David and I hit it off.

He told me that he liked the idea of using sports to make social commentary and said later that my work had prompted him to write "Summer of '49" and "October 1964."

I went on to become good friends with him and his terrific wife, Jean. Every year when I was in New York, I would visit his apartment, on West 67th Street, across from the ABC studios, for dinner.

He introduced me to many important people in the New York publishing world, starting with my agent Binky Urban, at ICM, regarded as the top literary agent in the United States.

One day in late March 2004, I arrived in New York to begin the first leg of a nationwide book tour for "The Meaning of Ichiro." As soon as I checked into my hotel, the phone rang. It was David, with an invitation to dinner.

Then he asked asked me if I had any television appearances scheduled in the city. None yet, I replied. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. On the line was Tim McCarver inviting me to appear on his TV show.

That was David Halberstam. He liked to help people.

Halberstam was a huge talent with a huge intellect, a big man with a big voice who talked just the way he wrote, in long, intelligent paragraphs.

He had been a Pulitzer Prize winner at The New York Times, he had been author of some of the most important books of our times, and he had an unbroken string of best sellers dating back to 1972 and "The Best and the Brightest."

He employed the circle method, in which he would interview everyone connected in any way with his key subject, first starting with casual acquaintances and then moving to colleagues and close friends, before finally interviewing the person himself.

"The reason I'm successful," he liked to say, "is not because I'm smarter than everyone else, but because I work harder than everyone else. I might not know much about a subject when I start a book, but after four years of research, I usually know what I'm talking about.

"I always go out of my way to get that one extra interview and to read one more book than the other guy."

He certainly had more energy than anyone I knew. He wrote "The Amateurs" at the same time he was doing "The Reckoning," over the objections of his editor who didn't think he would make his deadline. David delivered both books on time and, of course, both made The NY Times' best-seller list.

The last time I saw David was in December 2006. He was just finishing up work on the "The Coldest Winter." He said he believed that it was the best work he had ever done, which was saying something.

As was his practice, he was following a "serious" book - "Winter" - with one on sports. This next one, he said, would be about the NFL and the 1958 historic championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, won by the Colts, behind Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche, in sudden-death overtime.

It had been telecast live, nationwide and it had marked the beginning of professional football's surge to the top of the U.S. sports market, replacing baseball as America's most popular sport.

Over a glass of wine, as we killed time before dinner, he gave me a mini-lecture about how much faster the speed and reaction time of modern NFL defensive players was compared to those of Unitas' era, down to the tenth of a second. Consequently, he said, modern-day quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have it much tougher than their predecessors ever did.

David was visiting California in April 2007, being driven to an interview with Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle when the car in which he was riding was broadsided and he was killed.

Both Clete Boyer and David Halberstam taught me the value of hard work, humility and generosity.

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