Something I didn't know about JFK

With the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination coming up on Sunday, I coincidentally learned something interesting about our late president.

Turns out he could have been a baseball man, instead.

In finishing The Boys of Summer yesterday, I came upon a passage late in the book that described how Kennedy’s father, Joseph, nearly purchased the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, after the death of one of its major stockholders, John Smith. Team owner Walter O’Malley told author Roger Kahn about how he’d confronted his fellow shareholder Branch Rickey after hearing rumors.

“I said to Rickey, ‘What’s going on?”‘

“‘Well, with John Smith dead, I feel it’s time to sell. I told Mr. Kennedy you might disagree, but if he acquired my stock and Mrs. Smith’s, he’d have control. He’s got this son, John, who is brilliant in politics but has physical problems. Mr. Kennedy thinks running the Dodgers could be the greatest outlet in the world for John.’

“It might have been Jack Kennedy, president of the Dodgers, but Joe rejected the deal when he found he’d face an unhappy minority stockholder in myself. He didn’t buy, but if he had, Jack Kennedy could be in this chair and alive today.”

I like a little revisionist history as much as the next guy. Here are some other things to ponder.

Dwight Eisenhower played semi-pro baseball, George H.W. Bush played collegiately, and there’s an old rumor that Fidel Castro tried out for the Washington Senators. That never happened, though Castro did play baseball. Meanwhile, George W. Bush thought strongly, back in the ’90s, about becoming commissioner of baseball. The former Texas Rangers owner chose a different path, of course, though in some alternate universe, he got his dream, and Bud Selig instead became president and still found a way to cancel the All Star game.

Ronald Reagan got his start in show business in the 1930s broadcasting sporting events over the radio. Games were broadcast from a studio back then, as opposed to a press box at a ballpark, and the radio men recreated the action from a ticker and were allowed a certain amount of creative license. Apparently, the ticker went down one time for a Chicago Cubs game, and Reagan killed seven minutes of air time making up a story about how some fan caught a foul ball.

No wonder he wrote his own speeches years later.

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.

__________________

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.

My top five baseball books

Anyone who reads this space consistently will find that I make a lot of references to baseball books in my writing. Most of these are in fact books that I own. I’m proud to say I have a pretty decent personal baseball library that I’ve been accumulating since childhood. For whatever reason, baseball is a sport that lends itself to wonderful, poetic writing (along with boxing and horse racing I’ve heard) and today, I offer five essentials, the five baseball books I’d want to bring to a desert island were I ever stranded there:

1. The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn

This is actually the latest book that I’m reading, and I’m only about 100 pages in, though already it’s wonderful. Kahn offers an autobiographical look at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, drawn from his days as a young beat writer for that team. Lots of former players are interviewed, including Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider.

2. Summer of ’49, by David Halberstam

This takes somewhat of a similar approach to Boys of Summer, with lots of interviews of former players, though this time, it’s the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees of the 1949 pennant race who are chronicled. A Harvard graduate and former Vietnam correspondent, Halberstam offered a book full of depth and insight. He ends with a nice quote from Ted Williams, though on an interesting side note, Joe DiMaggio refused to participate in the book.

3. The Glory of their Times, by Lawrence Ritter

Possibly the very best baseball book out there. The book is an oral history of the early days of baseball, comprised of interviews with about 20 ballplayers whose careers spanned the beginning to middle of the 20th century. One of those books that also provided a public service, it’s no surprise that the original tapes Ritter made interviewing the players are now in the Hall of Fame. In fact, a number of the players profiled here later were inducted into the Hall, possibly because the book brought awareness to their careers. Ritter later wrote another great book, The Lost Ballparks, about demolished fields.

4. Ball Four, by Jim Bouton

This one broke ground when it came out. A diary of the 1969 season by Bouton, an acerbic relief pitcher, the book exposed players as drunks, amphetamine users and philanderers. Though comparatively tame today, the book violated the unwritten code of clubhouse privacy and shook baseball. The San Diego Padres burned a copy of the book before a game, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had a meeting with Bouton in an attempt to coerce a retraction, and Pete Rose taunted “Fuck you Shakespeare” from his dugout. Incidentally, the book is also funny, intelligent and just vulgar enough to be charming.

5. Baseball, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward

This was released in conjunction with Burns’ epic 1994 documentary of the same name and is basically a written account of what aired on PBS. Filled with pictures, oral histories, essays and anecdotes, this is probably the finest chronicle of baseball history among the several that I own. I hope Burns offers an updated version at some point.

I could recommend a whole slew of other titles, though I’ll keep this short today.