on March 22, 2002
It seems strange, looking back over the decades, to think that America seemed so close to perfect. The war was won, everyone had a job, family values ruled, and the Dodgers were in Brooklyn.
What more could you want? Off-hand I can think of any number of things, beginning with an end to racial segregation, but at least in that respect the Dodgers showed the way.
It must have been some lucky fate that guided Roger Kahn over the Brooklyn bridge all those years ago. He could have written a series of articles and forgotten all about the time he spent with the Dodgers. But he didn't. He revelled in the team, got to know the players, manager, staff and owner. The way the dynamics worked, the internal politics, the inside information.
And then he recalled those golden days for us, along with the players, years and years later, in what has got to be the best baseball book ever written. We look back through his eyes, and the eyes of those boys of summer, at a magic moment in America's history.
Were they just doing their jobs, those golden boys? Just throwing and hitting a ball around? Or were they conscious of their role in history? Do we read things into this book that weren't there? Do we see that season through misty watercolour memories of the way we were?
Up to the reader, I guess, but for me, I go back time and again to Brooklyn and that great team, so superbly described by Roger Kahn.
If you love baseball (and who doesn't?) then you must read this book. To understand what once was, and will ever be so long as summer comes and young men gather to throw a baseball around a diamond.
on February 9, 2002
As a former sportswriter who once covered the Dodgers, I can vouch for the authenticity of Roger Kahn's excellent book about the fabulous Brooklyn days and the tenacious loyalty of Dodger fans. While I did not cover the Dodgers until they reached their next and current home of Los Angeles, I had heard and read much about the great Brooklyn heritage and was delighted to read a book by a talented sportswriter who covered the Dodgers during that glorious period when New York City had three exceptional major league teams, the indomitable Yankees, likened to General Motors for efficiency, and who were situated in the Bronx, the Giants located a short trip from Yankee Stadium over the East River bridge in the Coogan's Bluff area of Manhattan, where they called the Polo Grounds home, and the Dodgers, who played to packed throngs of 35,000 roaring fans at Ebbets Field on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.
One of the most informative portions of this book was Kahn's revelations about the man who changed professional sports, Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line by becoming the first African-American to play in the major leagues. A fiercely proud man who fought hard for civil rights, through Robinson's lobbying Southern parks where the Dodgers played exhibition games abandoned Jim Crow policies of forcing African Americans to sit in separate sections. Robinson is described in one instance reprimanding thankful African Americans who thanked ushers for allowing them to sit with the general populace. "Don't thank them," Robinson called out from the field. "It's your right."
Kahn describes the tensions of tough pennant drives in the dog days of summer. On one occasion he is concerned that the combative Eddie Stanky, who has taken exception to what Kahn has written, will attack him physically. In another instance he does his best to calm an angry Duke Snider from attacking a writer with whom he has become upset. Kahn expresses concern that the strong, athletic Snider might seriously injure the writer and get himself in a great deal of trouble.
The fifties period described by Kahn was one where three great centerfielders in one city would all be honored with induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Snider was a fixture in centerfield for the Dodgers, while Willie Mays played the position for the Giants, with Mickey Mantle assuming it for the Yankees. All possessed great power with the bat and the exceptional fleet footedness of players playing a position where covering a great deal of ground defensively is a must.
Kahn knowledgeably addresses the qualitative factor with the Dodgers and the Yankees. During the fifties the Yankees and Dodgers met in the World Series in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. During the forties the teams had met in the post-season classic in 1941, 1947 and 1949. The Bronx Bombers won every series save one, the 1955 showdown when 22-year-old rookie lefthander Johnny Podres blanked the vaunted Yankees 2-0 in game seven, which marked the first and only World Series victory for the Dodgers during their Brooklyn existence. Kahn breaks down the two teams, concluding that the Dodgers rated a close edge among the regulars but that the Yankee advantage stemmed from superiority in the pitching department.
If you love great baseball writing, this is one book you do not want to miss. Kahn sets down his interesting facts with a thoroughly readable lucidity.
on June 12, 2008
How often do you read a book that you don't want to end? "The Boys of Summer" is one of them.
How often do you read a book at exactly the right time in your life, at a time when you are the most in tune with what the book is really about? For me, "The Boys of Summer" and I have met at just the right time.
It's not like I've been unaware of this book. Being a baseball fan, it's presence is just about as constant as it could ever be. As a lifelong New York Yankees fan, "The Boys of Summer" has always been "that old book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, who the heck cares?" Well, score that a two base error.
Waking up to the realities and disappointments of middle age is not all that much fun, nor is it frequently reckoned on it's own terms with necessary insight. It's usually a lot easier to go to sleep, get up, go to work, and watch those ballgames nearly every day. Now that's something to hold onto. The daily cacophony of two children is a great distraction, particularly if one is happy to be distracted.
But what of the inevitable changes wrought by the inexorable march of time? How long should one dwell on realizing that not only are you as old as the ballplayers you watch on TV, but that it was twenty-five years since you realized it? When in the world did our favorite players become coaches and hall of fame candidates, to be seen only at old timers days? Am I an old timer now? What...???
"The Boys of Summer" does us a great and timely favor. It's a powerful reminder. It's a gentle and insistent reflection of ourselves and what our lives have done to us, and where we find ourselves now. What have we lost along the way? What have we gained?
The game of baseball has long endured. It is both unchanging and ever changing. It can be a great distraction. Author Roger Kahn shows how it can teach as well.
Baseball is youth. Enthusiastic, ebullient, exciting, entrancing. Baseball will always retain it's youth. as that is it's nature. But not us. Youth passes and passes away, as it must. Life goes on. We must make do, and my oh my, isn't that a bit sad?
I wasn't around for the Golden Age of Baseball, the 1950's in New York with the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants fighting for supremacy in New York, although the team from the Bronx seemed to mostly come out on top. "The Boys of Summer" is wonderfully evocative of that era, and I really appreciate the human dimension that Kahn so ably weaves into the book. The old ballplayers really come alive in full color, and of course black and white. Who cares about the Brooklyn Dodgers? Well, bless my soul, now I do!
I look forward to when my two young children are old enough to watch baseball with me. I miss talking baseball with my now dead father.
on November 11, 2007
Never really a dedicated sports fan, but a voracious and eclectic reader familiar with its reputation, I approached THE BOYS OF SUMMER fully expecting an excellent book about the Brooklyn Dodgers, but unprepared for what I found.
Less a team history than a memoir of the best of times and the worst of times, author Roger Kahn, a former sportswriter for the late NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE, has accomplished the nearly impossible task of preserving an era in amber.
At the outset, we are introduced to Kahn's endearingly pretentious and unusual family: The father, Gordon, called "Gore-DON" by his wife, Olga, both teachers; the maternal grandfather, Dr. Rockow, a refugee of the Russian Revolution who obtained his Doctorate of Dentistry in Bern, Switzerland; the deceased grandmother, who, before her death at forty, had acheived a European M.D. Degree in an era when most women in her world were barely literate, much less successfully professional; the younger sister, Emily, stricken with polio; and Roger himself, a well-educated young man whose passion was Dodger baseball.
[A previous reviewer is critical of the "Marxism" of the book, but obviously, s/he did not read past page thirty; in painting us a living portrait of his family, Kahn tells us that they read, among many others, "Karl Marx and Freud," and refers affectionately to his Russian-Jewish immigrant grandfather as an "old Marxist toothpuller." Kahn's family was somewhat unusual for its time in being stolidly and successfully middle-class and firmly dedicated to Middle European humanist intellectualism in Depression-era, overwhelmingly blue-collar Jewish Brooklyn; but to call this book "Marxist" or equate it with DAS KAPITAL is to say that THE CAT IN THE HAT is equivalent to GRAY'S ANATOMY because it was written by a Dr. Seuss.]
Living within view of Ebbet's Field, baseball was central to Roger's summer universe. This centrality was reinforced by his erudite father, who, when not discussing Joyce and Flaubert at the dinner table, was playing endless games of catch with his son and regularly taking him to games. With no appreciation of sports, Olga, "who had pretentions toward atheism" pleaded with God to intervene: "Please let him read one book; just ONE book." God's choice for Roger was FUNDAMENTALS OF PITCHING, which he carried around with him for weeks.
Whether Olga appreciated it or not, Roger was developing a Love For The Game, and he became the HERALD TRIBUNE's point man at Ebbet's Field just as the Dodgers emerged from a decades-long obscurity to become not only one of the preeminent franchises in baseball history, but also an historic team.
The Brooklyn Dodgers had always been iconoclastic. The only Major League team representing only a portion of it's home city (granted, Brooklyn had been an independent city until 1898), the team members lived locally and were well-known in their various Brooklyn neighborhoods.
From 1921 to 1938, the Dodgers were barely competitive. A chronically bankrupt franchise locally beloved but belittled as "dem bums," the fog began to lift in the War Years. The Dodgers captured a pennant in 1941. From 1941 to 1945 they played hard, but wartime manpower needs kept the team from truly excelling. It was not until 1947 that the Dodgers blossomed.
And as they blossomed, they made history as well, being the first modern Major League team to sign a black player, Jackie Robinson. Despite being vilified by certain elements, Robinson was MVP and led them to stellar heights. And despite a plethora of personal opinions about Robinson, the team as a whole responded positively to Robinson's amazing energy, and played magnificently for the next decade. Though not every Dodger was dedicated to Civil Rights, only one, aptly named Dixie Walker, asked to be traded, and was. The rest eventually accepted Number 42 as a teammate, and either liked him or loathed him for himself.
Perennial Pennant winners, they nonetheless could never overcome the dominance of their crosstown American League rivals, the Yankees, even in 1953, when they statistically outplayed the famed Murderers' Row team of 1927. The Dodger lament was always "Wait 'Til Next Year." It was not until 1955 that they could proudly claim, "This IS Next Year!"
But by then, the team had aged, Robinson was gone, and Kahn, too, had moved on. The last trolleys ran in Brooklyn in October of 1956, and with no more trolleys to dodge, the Dodgers vanished from Brooklyn in 1957 and took up residence in Los Angeles. Kahn ends the first half of his book by recounting the death of his father, but it is only one ending among many in that time.
Part Two of THE BOYS OF SUMMER brings us The Boys of Summer" in their autumn. Written in 1971, the book provides a series of encapsulated snapshots of each of the former team members in their fifties, some fat, some thin, some embittered, some wistful, some successful and some lost in time. The Boys in their age largely returned to their roots, most of them to little towns in the South and Midwest where they ran lumberyards, coached Little League, and were Presidents of their local Rotaries. Each has a story to tell, and so much of what made the Dodgers a truly great team is revealed in these pages.
Jackie Robinson stands out. It is hard, sixty years later, to realize how daring owner Branch Rickey was to sign Robinson at that time, and how difficult Robinson's journey was. "Brown v. Board of Education" was still seven years in the future, Jim Crow was rampant, Dr. King's Montgomery Bus Boycott was a decade away, and still Robinson overcame all obstacles, mostly because of his iron determination off the field and his spectacular talent on the field, attributes which his teammates, and then his opponents, came to respect.
The team's sudden, unexpected departure from Brooklyn is still lamented, and then-owner Walter O'Malley is still hated for it: "If a Brooklynite with a gun has only two bullets and Hitler, Mussolini and O'Malley are his targets, who does he shoot? O'Malley---twice."
Although some reviewers accuse Kahn of revisionism in his treatment of O'Malley, a close reading of the last chapters reveals something different. While most Brooklynites' long-standing hatred of O'Malley is real, it is the hatred of the townsman for the corporation that closes the mill, throwing the factory town into crisis---personal, and yet remote.
The bitterness remains. The Los Angeles Dodgers are still often referred to as the Los Angeles Traitors. In this reviewer's family, Dodger defeats, particularly to the Mets at Shea or to the Yankees, are greeted with, "Take that! That's what you get for leaving!" And it's been fifty years since they've gone. Of course, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn for seventy years beforehand.
Kahn's hatred of O'Malley is more immediate and visceral than the average fan's. He so clearly utterly despises O'Malley, who comes across as a self-proclaimed Manhattanite, a rude, self-righteous, pompous, wealthy and greedy snob, a businessman with no interest in baseball, a seeker only of the greenback who cared not at all for fan affections, and who dismissed Brooklyn as the Provinces; in short a man who deserved, and perhaps even wanted, to be hated.
The Irish Catholic O'Malley proclaimed himself a "Tory." He fined staffers a dollar each time they mentioned Branch Rickey by name. Robinson was a showboater in his estimation, and it was New York's fault the Dodgers left---if Brooklyn had wanted the team Brooklyn should have met his demands for a new stadium and other concessions.
With no Love of The Game, O'Malley's decision to move the team was based, solely and selfishly, on his desire to line his own pockets (he was always notoriously cheap with fans, players, and staffers), and to create his own power dynasty far from the interference of the New York Elites, to whom he was an also-ran.
Many people have written that the Dodgers left because "Brooklyn was changing" as "white flight" drove the middle classes to the suburbs. This ignores the fact that many areas did not change demographically, and that the process was neither sudden nor total. It also discounts the fact that minorities are not immune to an appreciation of the National Pastime. It ignores the fact that the Dodger departure was not so much an effect as a cause of these changes. Local historians mark 1957 as the end of an era in Brooklyn history.
Lastly, although the Borough was changing, it was also remaining the same, as the home of newly-arrived immigrant minorities. Brooklyn could (and should) have remained the home of this beloved team. It was thriving and would have continued to thrive. As Kahn says: "In a perfect world, Brooklyn would have the Dodgers and the Mets would be in Los Angeles."
Would that it were.