If baseball ever had a poet laureate, his name would have been Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys of Summer.” Kahn died the other day, at 92. But his book ought to live as long as kids still want to attach narratives to games of pitch and catch.
The book’s a lot of things. It’s a love story about a ballclub, a sentimental journey to find traces of the legendary old Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s about a father and son finding common ground. It’s about proud men reacting to enormous pressure in front of roaring crowds, and strong athletic bodies giving way to age and infirmity.
And it’s about those men chasing the American dream and catching it, and watching it slip away.
In 2002, Sports Illustrated ranked “The Boys of Summer” in second place on the best 100 sports books of all time — with A.J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science” in the top spot — saying Kahn’s masterpiece was “a baseball book the same way ‘Moby-Dick’ is a fishing book.”
A Brooklyn native, Kahn was 24 when the old, vanished, warmly remembered New York Herald Tribune handed him the job of covering the old, vanished, lovingly recalled Dodgers of Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider, of Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, of Don Newcombe and Gil Hodges, and Carl Erskine and Billy Cox.
“During four consecutive years,” Kahn wrote, these Dodgers “entered autumn full of hope and found catastrophe. Twice they lost pennants in the concluding inning of the concluding game of a season. Twice they won pennants and lost the World Series to the New York Yankees.”
Kahn covered them in a glorious post-war era when baseball was still the national pastime, newspapers were daily miracles, and the Dodgers were “outspoken, opinionated, bigoted, tolerant, black, white, open, passionate.”
And remarkably successful –- up to a point.
Kahn tells us about the vulnerable human beings behind the box scores, men who’d grown up during the Great Depression and “the mongrels of poverty tearing at their heels,” found salvation and then fame in baseball.
And then, 20 years later, he goes back to find them in their retirement from the game.
That’s where he got the book’s title. It’s from Dylan Thomas: “I see the boys of summer in their ruin.”
By the early ‘70s, Jackie Robinson’s already on his way to an early grave. Roy Campanella’s a quadriplegic. Billy Cox is tending bar, and Carl Furillo’s a construction worker. The list goes on, each man coping with his inevitable fall from the glory years.
If Kahn had never written another word, “The Boys of Summer” would make him a Hall of Fame writer. But he wrote about 20 books altogether, including “The Passionate People: What It Means to be a Jew in America.”
And he was part of an era of great sports writers who often defined the very newspapers where they worked, including Red Smith, Shirley Povich, Jimmy Cannon, and John Steadman and Bob Maisel, too.
It was a great, extended era in sports, as well. But in America, change is the only constant.
“The team grew old,” Kahn wrote in 1972. “The Dodgers deserted Brooklyn. Wreckers swarmed into Ebbets Field and leveled the stands. Soil that had felt the spikes of Robinson and Reese was washed from the faces of mewling children. The New York Herald Tribune writhed, changed its face and collapsed. I covered a team that no longer exists in a demolished ballpark for a newspaper that is dead.”
For those of us who still remember Robert Irsay and the Baltimore Colts, and still remember a place called Memorial Stadium, and still remember newspapers called The Evening Sun and The News American, Kahn’s words, and his marvelous book, feel like home.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.