When the venerable Saturday Evening Post shut its doors in 1969, Roger Kahn, a feature writer at that magazine, was at professional loose ends. He did not want to go back to the world of daily newspapers (he got started at The New York Herald Tribune), and his stint at other magazines had left him unfulfilled. He turned to freelance writing, and it is a good thing that he made this critical decision because the magazine world’s loss is the reading public’s immense gain.
One of Kahn’s early ideas for a feature article was a look back at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s – the team that Kahn covered as a beat writer and the same team that Kahn and his father rooted for as fans. In The Boys of Summer, Kahn reflects on the Dodgers and his own boyhood following the team. He visits with the Dodger greats to find out about their life after baseball and their own reflections on the team. What makes this arguably the seminal sports book, the book against which all other books in this genre should be judged, is Kahn’s ability to both paint a lyrical, moving account of his heroes and allow us to share intimate times on and off the field with icons such as Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and Duke Snyder.
Kahn covered the Dodgers in the early 1950s – a time that most baseball fans know an era of great futility for the team. The Dodgers came close on several occasions only to fall agonizingly short of the pinnacle, losing in both 1952 and 1953 to the New York Yankees in the World Series, and the fans’ cry of “Wait Till Next Year” had both a sense of yearning as well as desperation. Kahn was not exactly your objective beat writer. He grew up in Brooklyn, and he and his father rooted fervently for the team, much to the chagrin of his erudite schoolteacher mother who felt that there were better ways for young Roger to spend his time. That The Herald Tribune was aware of the strong link between the team and the community is illustrated in the newspaper’s sports editor’s Stanley Woodward’s quote “baseball writers develop a strong attachment for the Brooklyn club if long exposed.” Making no pretences in being an unabashed admirer of the club, Kahn wrote about and befriended Jackie Robinson and others long after they retired from the sport. His friendship with the ballplayers allowed him to probe deep into their minds when he visited them in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The book is filled with wonderful prose, with lines such as “… about as well as any man could edit inside a sarcophagus, but he possessed a transcending sense of privacy, which sometimes collided with his craft,” a reference to an editor. It is replete with vivid imagery. But above all, it is redolent with a candor tellingly emphasized by a statement made by Jackie Robinson upon the book’s publication. In the epilogue to the reissued edition of the book, Kahn quotes Robinson as saying that the book removed any doubts that people had about Robinson being an “Uncle Tom,” a black player who sided with the whites for personal gain. Kahn time and again describes Robinson as a fierce competitor and a proud African American who withstood the constant barrage of racial taunting to cement his place in Dodger history.
This is a book that belongs on every sports lover’s bookshelf. It is a literary masterpiece that masquerades as a sports memoir.