On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson at first base. As most baseball fans (and fans of American racial history) know, this was significant because by being African-American, Robinson broke the color barrier and integrated baseball. The role played by the clubís manager, Branch Rickey, is also known to observers of the game. In short, Roger Kahn is not describing anything new in this book, although he spent two seasons as the Dodgers beat writer for his newspaper and befriended many players during his tenure.
What makes this book both singular and interesting is Kahnís distinctive voice. Reading a Kahn book is much like listening to the old-time curmudgeon at a neighborhood bar--what he is saying may not be new (and a lot may be apocryphal), but the way he says it draws you in to the narrative and keeps you hooked
until the denouement. This is because Kahnís reportorial style gives you the fly-on-the-wall feeling, a feeling that you (through Kahnís proxy) were there at these pivotal moments. So, through a deeply felt narrative that takes ample detours (some needless, such as those covering Kahnís enmity with
the irascible columnist Dick Young, but most of them fully warranted), Kahn retells the integration saga that takes us into the racially charged milieu of the 1940s and shows the courage of people such as Robinson and Rickey. The books provides some new material, such as a distinctive and contrary take on the alleged strike that players of the St. Louis Cardinals club were about to implement on the eve of facing Robinson for the first time, but principally retells an old story in a distinctive way.
Ever since his seminal The Boys of Summer (considered by many to be one of the finest books about sports), Kahn has adroitly combined superb reportage with lapidary writing to be a pharos among sports writers. The current book about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey is putatively his last. While this is sad news for the reader, it is important to fully savor Kahnís last hurrah.