Wednesday February 12, 2020
Roger Kahn (1927-2020)
“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”
That's from page 2 of Roger Kahn's “The Boys of Summer,” and since I read the book in the mid-90s I think I‘ve thought that line about once a month. Lord knows I’ve quoted it often enough. After the KC Royals lost the 2014 World Series, for example. Or in this interview about the Replacements. Or trying to console myself after the Seahawks' horrific loss in Super Bowl XLIX. Or in this MSNBC piece about baseball movies. Probably too often. Although I doubt Roger would have minded.
Growing up, the best baseball writing in the eyes of my father, and thus in mine, was all about the Rogers: Angell and Kahn. Angell, who wrote like one, did regular features for The New Yorker, which were collected into books, the most famous of which was “The Summer Game.” But Kahn had the more famous book, “The Boys of Summer,” about the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers. I always thought it was about the ‘55 team that finally won the World Series for that hapless borough, just before the hapless borough lost the team forever, but it’s actually about the 1952 and ‘53 squads—the team that Kahn covered for The New York Herald Tribune. It’s also about Roger Kahn: his childhood, his cub reporter years, his years covering the Dodgers.
It's about becoming a man. He clues you in on the first sentence, which is my kind of first sentence:
At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams.
The Dodgers actually helped in this. The gig did. Part of it is standing your ground, and Kahn was asked by a Dodgers pitcher to stand at the plate while he worked on his fastball. As a way of hazing the new guy? Who knows? But as the ball got closer and closer, Kahn forced himself to stay planted and achieved a kind of victory doing so. Another time, when Roy Campanella objected to something Roger had written, Kahn told him to read another newspaper: “I would,” Campanella said, “except the Tribune is the onliest paper I can get delivered in time for me to read it in the shithouse in the morning.” Kahn shot back: “I‘ll remember that when I write about you.” Afterwards, Jackie Robinson both credits and chastises Kahn: “What you wrote,” he said, “was silly. Some guys thought it was anti. But you were right to stand up to Campanella.”
More than half the book is the Dodgers team in retirement. Roger Kahn searched them out, pre-Google, and visited them and wrote about what they were doing and what they remembered. This section is thus reminiscent of “The Glory of Their Times,” although, in that book, Lawrence Ritter was an invisible interviewer, wholly behind the scenes, while Roger lets us know about his travels, and where he ate, and what he thought. A theme develops about fathers and sons—linking it with the earlier chapter on Kahn and his father. Clem Labine’s son lost a leg in Vietnam, Carl Erskine's was born with mental difficulties, Jackie Robinson's was busted for drug possession then died when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car. The Dodger players, many ensconced in white-collar, middle-management positions, become identifiable. Andy Pafko is self-effacing, Carl Furillo is bitter, Preacher Roe is backwoods bizarre, Carl Erskine is courageous and tough and seemingly boundless. Roy Campanella's story is truly heartbreaking, not so much because of the accident that made him quadriplegic, but because of how his first wife dealt with it. She sought out other men; she slapped him when he could not lift his arms to defend himself. When she is finally struck down with a heart attack at 40, it almost makes you believe in divine retribution.
Overall, “The Boys of Summer” is not only a tribute to Kahn's father, who loved baseball, but to his mother, who loved literature. Kahn created literature out of baseball. He was one of the first to do so.
Here's the Times' obit.
And here's the rest of that quote, too. Seems appropriate now.
You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.