Classic book review: The Boys of Summer

After more than a year, I finally finished The Boys of Summer this afternoon.  Written by Roger Kahn and first published in 1971, the book is part oral history about the Brooklyn Dodgers and part recollection by the author of covering the team as a young reporter in the early 1950s.  I’ve read many baseball books.  This numbers among the very best.

To be sure, it is not quite perfect.  The latter two-thirds of the book, where Kahn interviews thirteen former Dodgers is plodding at times, a he-said-this, then-he-did-that style of writing that would lull were the subject matter not so historically compelling.  The book is also unabashedly sentimental, by Kahn, a Brooklyn native and lifelong Dodger fan.  At times, it feels overwritten.

Taken on the whole, however, the work is astonishing.  Overwrought though the emotional appeal may sometimes be, it is powerful again and again throughout the book.  Kahn captures a quadriplegic Roy Campanella in tears remembering past glories, the funeral for Jackie Robinson’s oldest son, killed in an automobile accident at 24, and in an epilogue written years later, Pee Wee Reese wheelchair-bound, cancer-ridden and close to death.  Perhaps the most moving passage captures the death of Kahn’s father:

I drove down dark streets at reckless speed.  The sidewalk was a rotten place to die.  Pebbled cement scrapes a twitching face.  A man deserves privacy at the end, and anesthesia.  Surely my father had earned that for a gentle life.

The historical contribution is also undeniable.  Even if the writing were abominable, and it’s not, I would be interested to read about the codas for men like Robinson, Campanella and Gil Hodges.  Kahn’s level of detail is also meticulous.  One of my college writing professors said a good writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.  Kahn’s book is layered with dialogue and asides, material I struggle to capture.  It’s much easier to tell than to show.  Kahn does the latter, admirably.

There are a lot of baseball books and many fade into obscurity after a short time.  Kahn’s work endures, a rare sports entry in the canon of Western literature.

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Before I end here, I wanted to add two points, not significant enough to figure into a review but worth noting nonetheless.

Early on, Kahn reveals a small tell, probably unremarkable to most readers but glaring to a past sportswriter like myself.  Kahn writes on page four, “Beyond undertaking a newspaper assignment, I believed I was joining a team.  At twenty four, I was becoming a Dodger.”  Going through journalism school, I learned objectivity.  I covered many teams, from prep to pros and I was never a member of them, saved for the few school teams I actually competed for.

Late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon put it better when interviewed for a book on sportswriters, No Cheering in the Press Box. Cannon said:

Most of the guys traveling with ball clubs are more publicists than reporters. A guy might be traveling with the Cincinnati Reds, though it could be any team, and he refers to the ball club as ‘we.’  I’ve seen sportswriters with World Series rings, and they wear them as though they had something to do with the winning of the World Series.  Maybe they’re entitled to them.  Maybe their biased cheerfulness helped the club.  I wouldn’t know.  I would not wear a World Series ring.

Kahn, to his credit, does little to suggest objectivity, noting in the epilogue, “I was neutral all right.  Neutral for Brooklyn.”

A more stinging critique of Kahn’s style comes from a different breed of writer, Jim Bouton.  Where Kahn wrote dignity and grace and heroism, Bouton captured players as ordinary louts, pill poppers and womanizers in Ball Four, his playing diary about the 1969 season.  In I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, the follow-up to his bestseller, Bouton derided Kahn:

Not long ago Roger Kahn, a writer who did not like Ball Four, wrote in Esquire about a player who was losing his skills and knew it. ‘It is something to cry about, being an athlete who does not die young,’ Kahn wrote.   And all I could think was, bullshit.  Only a man who never played the game could have written that line.  It’s fake, like the men who cry when they can no longer play baseball are fakes.

While I doubt Kahn didn’t legitimately believe what he was writing, Bouton may have a slight point about the value of experience.  Regardless, I appreciate both of their perspectives.

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