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The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

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Brooklyn Dodgers... Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is different from most of the baseball books I’ve reviewed here. It’s more of a literary work than a sports book per se. Telling the story mainly of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s through their flight to Los Angeles, and of the men who played the game for them is its scaffolding, but hardly all of its substance.

Its title comes from a poem by Dylan Thomas, “I see the boys of summer,” which Kahn, as a student, heard the poet recite in New York. These many years later, because Kahn took it for the title of his book, it has so pervaded discussion of the game it has become a byword for the vitality of teams and players in their glory years. When ex-Dodger Gil Hodges, then managing the Mets, died during spring training in 1972, a New York sportswriter noted how ironic it was that “the strongest of the boys of summer was the first to die.” Barely on the shelves for a few months, already it was evolving into a transcendent baseball meme.

Kahn’s editor at Harper opposed the title because it was too poetic. The author insisted on it and prevailed. Perhaps if that editor had been even vaguely aware of how adroitly Kahn had woven the Welshman’s poem through the narrative, he would have set his foot down that much harder. Natural history author Annie Dillard told me about a comparable disagreement with her editor at Harper. Reviewing her manuscript for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, soon to win a Pulitzer Prize and as much a masterpiece of nature writing as The Boys of Summer is of baseball writing, this editor asked “what’s all this stuff about Eskimos and caribou?” Dillard replied, “well, I use the arctic winter as a metaphor for the soul bereft of the Holy Spirit.” The editor shook his head. “Annie,” he said, “you can’t do that in a nature book.” She, too, prevailed and we were engifted with another classic.

So a brief word about masterpieces, please, because that’s what we’re dealing with here. A critic whose name I can no longer recall once wrote of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man it was the Matterhorn or Everest (doesn’t matter to me; I get winded by three flights of stairs) with which any Black novelist had to reckon if he or she planned to make a literary mark. I think you would have to say the same about how The Boys of Summer confronts the would-be sportswriter.

On the other hand, most nonfiction sports books are, I think, merely sports books. Kahn’s look back at growing up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan within walking distance from Ebbets Field, becoming a young newspaper man, and finding himself assigned to cover them during their glory years of the early 1950s for the New York Herald Tribune, and then tracking their best players down a decade and a half later, is so much more. Then again, he was no typical journalist. He was deeply immersed in poetics and fiction, and it makes all the difference. James Michener called it the best American book on sports. I don’t know how to disagree.

Necessity is the reluctant patron of invention. The Boys of Summer was born in 1969 when the Saturday Evening Post folded, leaving Kahn with no reliable income and a family to support. Instead of going back to newspaper work he decided, to the great good fortune of the rest of us, to risk his career and forge in the smithy of his soul the history of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. He assumed, or prayed, he could make a financial success of it. His literary instincts and his deep love of the team which had betrayed him eleven years earlier took over.

By the time his project was published two and a half years later he was down to his last few hundred dollars and no, that wasn’t a lot in 1972 either. Thanks to this book, he would never have to worry about finances again. The Boys of Summer has sold well over three million copies in ninety printings in every language of every country where the game is played. It has been the basis of film and television documentaries about the game, the Dodgers, and the psychology of fandom. It can only be compared to C. L. R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, which treats cricket with the same love, forthright criticism of its racial problems, and sparkling language.

The first third of the book is the bildungsroman most American authors with backgrounds in journalism have simply never learned how to write. We follow Roger Kahn from his childhood in an intellectual family that lived close enough to Ebbets Field to hear the cheering. His mother was an English professor and his father, a history teacher, was a brainy fan of baseball’s finer points. Poets like Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Delmore Schwartz or Wallace Stevens figure importantly in training young Roger’s mind to appreciate and understand the nuances of the game. Let’s call them its aesthetics, given the as yet unborn obsession with statistics haunting us now. By the time we find him starting out as a copy boy for the New York Herald Tribune, he is a graduate of New York University and a disciplined student of writing.

Between his occasional field assignments, Roger attends his parents’ Wednesday night page-by-page readings of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Alert readers who know Joyce’s monomyth will note how cleverly Kahn subsumes the mythic qualities of baseball into his own artifice. He represents his anxieties of literary influence as the growing pains of a sports reporter while, his mind buttressed by such grueling interpretive exercises, the young scribe learns his trade quickly and surely. The Herald Tribune’s editorial desks and departments come to life with a vitality which reminds one of Joseph Mitchell’s classic collection of New York stories, Up in the Old Hotel. It’s a world before word processing was, of tickertape scores, racketing manual typewriters, a neo-Venusian atmosphere of cigar smoke and of white shirted young men in suspenders running sheets of copy up and down the halls from writers to editors to typesetters.

Not deep into his apprenticeship, he finds himself assigned to cover the 1952 Brooklyn Dodgers replacing Harold Rosenthal, an old war horse whose wife has had enough of his constant travels with the team. The chapter on his rise through the nether ranks of the Tribune’s copyreading and sportswriting hierarchies is like some Dantean journey woven through a turbulence-tossed flight south on the team DC-3. I couldn’t help thinking this interlude must have inspired the brief, stormy Gooney Bird ride of the hapless Cleveland Indians in Major League as our narrator thinks back over his Brooklyn childhood near Ebbets Field, his contentious family and baseball-besotted summer afternoons playing stickball in the urban streets. Although Kahn never mentions Goethe, I also strongly suspect he had Wilhelm Meister (and possibly the bizarre second half of Faust) in mind as he sketched out this first long section of his opus.

In due course he introduces us to a rogue’s gallery of players and correspondents who would populate the forthcoming narrative of the 1952 and 1953 Dodgers. We meet the reporters and sportscasters first, like Ring Lardner’s stylish son John, the legendary Red Smith, and the acerbic Dick Young of the New York Daily News a couple of decades before his epic battles with Tom Seaver and the great if cynical commentator Howard Cosell.

Kahn depicts the Brooklyn Dodgers of this storied time like Norse demigods who sense the onrushing Gotterdammerung of the California exodus. It’s never mentioned here but our awareness it’s coming hovers over the lives of the team and its fans like the threat of another ice age. This is as colorful a crew of athlete-showmen as ever graced a fragrant clubhouse, and their games as Kahn describes them take on the heft of epic battles in some ancient era. He prefaces his assignment to join the team by relating his experience as a copy room editor suffering through the devastating 1951 playoff with the New York Giants, when manager Charlie Dressen played his catastrophic hunch and brought in the arm-weary Ralph Branca to serve up the Shot Heard Round the World to Bobby Thomson. He gives us pressbox seats for the heartbreaking near-misses of 1952 and 1953, when the Dodgers lost closely played sets to their blood rivals the New York Yankees.

Sporting News Archive Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Towering over them all, inevitably, is Jackie Robinson, as much a force of history as a man. Counterpointed to Robinson and his precedent-shattering career is the Kentucky-born and raised shortstop Pee Wee Reese, whose stubborn refusal to oppose Robinson’s elevation to the show short-circuited an attempt by other southern or otherwise bigoted ballplayers to petition Branch Rickey to change his mind. Reese’s courageous stand on behalf of his teammate’s common humanity had much to do with Robinson’s success. An episode wherein Robinson is being reviled by spectators at one of the team’s southern exhibition stops comes to a head when Reese, by the simple exigency of being a fellow white southerner, walks over to put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder. This is only one of several devastating episodes in which Robinson figures. In counterpoint we get to know the gentle giant Roy Campanella, whose cool approach to winning friends contrasts with Robinson’s fiery harder-they-come defiance, and Joe Black, the businesslike, friendly gentleman who was the first pitcher of color to win a World Series game.

Jackie Robinson Leaping

But it is most acutely in the second half of this centaur work the first stanza of that eponymous Dylan Thomas poem resonates most awfully through the post-baseball lives of the athletes young Roger so admired:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin

Lay the gold tithings barren,

Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;

There in their heat the winter floods

Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,

And drown the cargoed apples in their tides….

For apples, think of that fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil back there in the garden. There are enough unflinching depictions of pain to tear at any heart: Jackie and Rachel Robinson, having achieved prosperity through baseball and Jackie’s executive stewardship of Chock Full O’ Nuts, Rachel’s psychological counseling and teaching, nearly lose their son to the Vietnam war, then to the addiction he brings home from it, and the criminal life in which he becomes immersed as a result. We re-imagine the awful publicity and press crush the couple bear when Jackie Jr. is arrested for drug dealing; still the stolid, upfront man he has always been, Robinson responds to a barrage of questions on the courthouse steps: “Somewhere between here and Vietnam we lost him.” Will you stand by him? “Yes, of course we will.” They bear with their son through months of difficult withdrawal and rehab, proudly watch him transform himself into a drug counselor and teacher—only to lose him shortly thereafter to an automobile accident. Anguish of loss only amplifies when, a few years later, Kahn loses his own son to a heroin overdose, and thoughts of Robinson’s bravery in shouldering his own grief come back to comfort him.

There’s the tragic bravery of Roy Campanella, paralyzed in a crash as well, expounding quietly on how good life has been with his second doting wife. And there’s Clem Labine, coping with his son Jay’s bitterness and alienation after losing a leg in the same Vietnam war which had so bitterly warped Jackie Robinson’s son. On an inspiring note, we meet the pitcher Carl Erskine who talks about the love his adolescent Downs Syndrome child Jimmy has brought into his family’s life.

Towards the end of the book an aging Kahn finds himself standing on the sidewalk beside the location of long demolished Ebbets Field advising in the production of a documentary based on his book. The site is now home to a massif of brick faced apartments. Like Joyce, Kahn has come a commodious vicus of recirculation to the site of his own Howth Castle of baseball, now an extension of that myth indissoluble from the team itself. “In a perfect world,” he muses, “The Dodgers would have remained in Brooklyn and Los Angeles would have gotten the Mets.”

If the opening lines of “I see the boys of summer” provided Kahn with his title and design, nothing so much as the closing lines of the same poet’s “Fern Hill” sum up this magical work on a legendary team, and on the way life transports us all:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means

Time held me green and dying

though I sang in my chains like the sea.