Remembering Roger Kahn and the Game The Boys of Summer Played
Every once in a while I wish I had never read Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer.”
That’s not a reflection on a very good book, in which Kahn recounted covering the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune during the 1952 and 1953 baseball seasons and then revisited a dozen of the players almost 20 years later to get a sense of their lives after baseball.
Kahn, who died Thursday at the age of 92, had an affection for baseball and for the players with whom he spent two summers of their mutual youth. At the same time, he wrote about how exceptional skills with a bat, ball and glove did not make most of these men, give or take Jackie Robinson, any more remarkable as human beings than the fans at Ebbets Field who were paying to watch them.
I remember reading “The Boys of Summer” when it came out in 1972 and thinking that Kahn could have applied that observation to skilled people in any profession, from a great mechanic to the woman who makes the world’s best cupcakes at the corner bakery. When you’re exceptional in one area, people sometimes have unrealistic expectations for you in others.
But no one writes books about mechanics or bakers. Books get written about athletes and movie stars and politicians and tech zillionaires, on the presumption that because someone is famous, we must also care about the things for which they are not famous.
But the point in “The Boys Of Summer” isn’t that Pee Wee Reese or Carl Erskine or Billy Cox — or Roger Kahn for that matter, because he became well enough known over the years to have drawn a few unflattering comments himself — harbored an inner jerk. It’s more that if you hang around people for a couple of years, then visit them a few years later and hang around again, and you write honestly about it, you’re more likely to level out their life than to enshrine it on a pedestal.
Kahn wasn’t a cruel writer. Like Jim Bouton in “Ball Four” or Jim Brosnan in “The Long Season,” he was honest. Which is exactly why, once in a while, I wish I hadn’t read “The Boys of Summer.” I wish that all I ever knew about the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball players of the 1950s was the way they played baseball.
The funny thing is, if you’re talking about the 1952 or 1953 Dodgers, I don’t remember them at all. I was 3 and 4 years old. I didn’t start following the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1956, an eyeblink before they no longer existed.
But for those next two seasons, and then for another 62 years through articles, books, conversations and random surviving film, I’ve been catching up. I was 7 when I decided the Dodgers were my team, and it was the right call.
I’ve read about the games, skills and weaknesses of those earlier teams. Gil Hodges going 0-for-21 in the ’52 Series. The arm injury that ruined Karl Spooner. Duke Snider’s grace in centerfield, Carl Furillo’s arm. Roy Campanella’s every-other-year brilliance. Jackie Robinson, of course. And speaking of Jackie, Billy Martin’s killer catch to win the ’52 Series for the Yankees.
In many ways the 1950s Dodgers define the way I still look at baseball. Heck, they define the way I look at life.
For the decade that ended in 1956, the Dodgers and Yankees were the two best teams in baseball. The Yankees won seven World Series. The Dodgers won one. Welcome to life.
And yet, there’s also this. I believe Brooklyn’s one championship, in 1955, has a deeper, longer, more satisfying resonance than the Yankees’ seven — because it defied the gods.
What Roger Kahn did was add hundreds of colors and details to my picture of those Brooklyn teams.
Take the game where some Cincinnati Redlegs started singing “Old Black Joe” in the dugout when Joe Black was pitching for the Dodgers.
Black didn’t look their way, wrote Kahn. He threw fastballs at the heads of the next seven Cincinnati batters.
The black/white thing, triggered when the Dodgers brought up Robinson in 1947 and sent a wave rippling across the whole baseball pond, permeated “The Boys of Summer” in 1952. Two decades later, Kahn found, it wasn’t gone.
Kahn’s tale took us through small details, like manager Chuck Dressen speaking mostly in four-letter words, and larger details, like how players felt about this game they were playing.
It also told us how Kahn felt about his own game. He left the Herald Trib after the 1953 season to join a fledgling magazine called Sports Illustrated. When the editors didn’t seem to appreciate him, he quit there, too, and considered going back to newspapers. He decided not to. Already done that, he said. Don’t need to do it again.
He was, presumably, being honest. Some of us couldn’t and can’t imagine thinking that way, but Kahn did, and it worked out fine. It just brings me back to my original point, about reading his book.
Kahn made it clear more than once that my favorite player, Duke Snider, didn’t seem to love the game as much as I did. In one conversation, Kahn wrote, Snider told him about playing in the World Series at Yankee Stadium, standing in center field in front of 70,000 fans and dreaming about running an avocado farm.
I felt a slight involuntary wince when I read that in 1972. I felt it again when I read it this afternoon.
It didn’t change my opinion of Duke Snider. It didn’t diminish the thrill I remember feeling when I would open the Hartford Times late on a summer afternoon, find the box scores and see that Snider went three-for-four against the Pirates, with a home run and three RBIs.
When that was all I knew about Duke Snider.
There are just these moments when it would be nice if that were still all I knew.