Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Roger Kahn

Title: The Boys of Summer
Author: Roger Kahn
Image via By the Book Reviews

I sought out The Boys of Summer after it was recommended by a commenter on one of my blog posts - a Paul S? anyone?  His profile is no longer active.  Kahn's book consists of two distinct parts, essentially two books in one.  The first chronicles the author's childhood in Brooklyn and his early career in  journalism.  The second part of the book recounts Kahn's later efforts to track down all of the key members of the Brooklyn Dodgers from the era he covered the baseball team in the early '50s, including Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson.

The newspaper world of the 1940s and '50s was quite different from what it is now, in as much as it survives at all.  Kahn's paper, the New York Herald Tribune, went out of business in 1966.  He climbed the rungs from copy boy to baseball beat writer on the brink of the team's glory years.

Kahn was a boyhood fan of the team, though I have discovered quite a lot of writers who have been drawn to the bittersweet tale of the Brooklyn Dodgers - seemingly ready-made for literature.  The team was awful for years, living in the oppressive shadows of both the Yankees and the hated rival Giants.  The Dodgers finally came into their own in the 1940s, but still didn't manage to win the World Series until 1955 after several close-shave heartaches.  In 1958, the team was gone - off to California. What's not for a sentimental writer to love?

Inextricably intertwined with the tale of those Dodgers is that of Jackie Robinson, probably the single greatest story in all of American sports.  Robinson started at first base for Brooklyn on April 15, 1947, effectively integrating baseball for the first time in 60 years.  Kahn knew Robinson personally (as he did all of the players featured in the book) and as such, his presentation of the story is more textured than most.  Hero?  Of course.  Transcendent figure in American society?  Most definitely.  But he was also a human being and Kahn writes eloquently of his multiple dimensions.

While the first part of the book is interesting, the real fun is in the second.  Over the course of three years, 1968-71, Kahn traveled the country to interview 13 members of the team he'd covered in the early '50s.  He asked them all how they first came to the game - delightful tales of being discovered in schoolyards and such, marvelously quaint in today's world of independent scouting agencies and consultant coaches.  The economics of player contracts have changed exponentially since the book was published so most of the retired players still had to work for a living.  Kahn also asked all of them about playing with Jackie Robinson - marvelous perspective from the people in best position to comment.

Social politics have come a long way since the early '70s.  Most noticeable is the discussion of Clem Erskine's son who has Down syndrome.  Kahn uses terminology which was normal for the time but wouldn't come anywhere close to acceptable 40 years later.  Comments on race and gender also frequently fall short of 21st century sensibilities.

29 comments:

  1. Though I'm not much of a sports fan (except for Aussie Rules football anyway :D ) I think I'd actually enjoy this read!

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    1. As I read sports books, I consider whether or not my wife will like them. She's an avid reader but generally hates sports. She might like this one. Baseball is a unifying theme but it's more about the people than the game. The material on the newspaper industry is particularly interesting to the non-fan.

      Aussie Rules - crazy game! I had some friends in Japan who played. Bones were broken.

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    2. Haha, yeah it can be pretty rough. Though in a game I watched the other day our boys got punished for things that were NOT punishable :P Stupid biased umpires.

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    3. West Coast Eagles? I love how Wikipedia can make me appear knowledgeable when the truth is closer to complete ignorance. I have on occasion caught games on television. Those guys really knock the bejeezus out of each other! Rugby and American football are practically non-contact sports in comparison.

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  2. That is a great book: lyrical in spots.

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    1. Absolutely. I'm often struck by the eloquence of journalism in the earlier part of the 20th century. A couple of years ago, I read a Satchel Paige biography which contained lots of old newspaper excerpts. Lyrical would be an apt description.

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  3. I'm not thinking, no matter how good it is, it's something I would get into, not being into sports. The stuff about Robinson sounds interesting (I do want to see 42) but not enough to make me want to read it.

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    1. Fair enough.

      I've not seen 42. I have misgivings about it. I would imagine it's a tricky story to get right. The personal reflections of the players who knew Robinson reveal a more nuanced man than I've seen in other works. It enhances rather than diminishes his iconic stature, I feel.

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    2. My dad and I didn't end up seeing 42 (I think it was you to whom I'd mentioned the possibility.) I can't remember where I got the idea that the movie probably didn't do the man justice. Too Hollywood-y? Maybe it was a review or maybe the thoughts of a viewer I respected. Can't quite remember. But somewhere along the line, I developed thinking similar to what you state here only your articulation is far better than mine. It resonates, though, is what I'm saying.

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    3. Reviews I've seen have been underwhelming. The subject is worthy of a great movie. I'm sure I'll see it eventually but I'm not in a big hurry.

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  4. Sounds like a really fun read! Comparable to the authorized Willie Mays biography I read a few years ago.

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    1. The James Hirsch book? I haven't read it but I'm thinking I should.

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  5. I would like to read this one. I just started watching 42 last night and finally--halfway in--got to the point where the movie starts to feel more real and less Hollywood.

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    1. Yes, that's my worry about the movie, too. I'm sure I'll see it at some point, though. I'd love to know what you think once you finish it, Jenny!

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  6. I really miss going to the Dodgers and the Angles games. There is something about being there that makes it so good. I love Baseball.
    This book sounds terrific. If I ever get out of the drug induced stupor I am in because of the drug I am now taking I might give it a read. Reading has become a chore now.

    I am so enjoying reading the book reviews.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. Thanks, parsnip!

      Do you have any affection for minor league ball? There's a team in Tucson, right? The Padres? Or is it too hard for a Dodger fan to root for them?

      It stinks that reading has become such a drag! How do you feel about audiobooks?

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    2. I love minor league baseball. Sometimes I think it is better than the Majors !
      There are problems with teams leaving Tucson and Phoenix built up the huge sport complex that pulls in all the teams now.
      Why anyone would want to be in Phoenix is a surprise to me but Tucson's squabbles has lost us teams.
      When I was growing up in Tucson the Cleveland Indians use to train here. I am still a huge Cleveland fan.
      Not a Padre fan but a good game is a good game. I am more of an Angle fan. Had season tickets for ever !

      cheers, parsnip

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    3. I love it, too - costs significantly less and you're a lot closer to the action. Vermont has a team in Burlington: the Lake Monsters, currently an A's affiliate. We used to live right down the street from the park. I try to make it for a few games a summer but haven't been yet this year.

      Sorry, I did know you preferred the Angels. I should be more on top of such things.

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  7. nonono no I just had to write Angel correctly... I always write "angles" instead ! I am so Daft !

    Of course this has nothing to do with your book review. Tangent anyone.
    Son had a hat from the ....Hickory Crawdads and the Charleston RiverDogs that I though was such a hoot. That is something I like the great names the minor teams have !
    And I love the Dodgers and I got to see a few games with Walter Alston before Tommy Lasorda took over.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. Yes, I understand.

      Parsnip, I love tangents. The team names are wonderful. Toledo Mud Hens is my favorite, perhaps only out of sentimentality for the show M*A*S*H. Albuquerque Isotopes is pretty good, too.

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    2. Are you a fan, Suze?

      I also like Lansing Lugnuts.

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    3. Okay, is that real? There *really* are Lansing Lugnuts?

      (You're putting me on.)

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    4. Totally real. Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. They've been the Lugnuts since 1996.

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  8. An interesting journey into our past, so I get from your review. I find those parts fascinating.

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    1. Yes, definitely - all the more so for the first person accounts.

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  9. Interesting review! It sounds like a good read for a historical perspective.

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    1. And yet, just a couple of generations removed. The world has certainly changed.

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