This is the second in the Centennial Soapbox's summer reading series.
After reading The Boys of Summer, the only thing that I could say is, "Wow."
The always-entertaining Roger Kahn tells a beautiful tale of the team that, though it was probably the best team in baseball in its time, always managed to come up just a little bit short in the end. The focus of the book is the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950's, a team stocked with colorful characters, including the ever-interesting Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, spitballer Preacher Roe, the lovable Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, and legendary Ebbets Field. Seabird 56 turned me on to this book, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. Much like the Dodgers of that time, it comes in at 2nd on my list of favorite books, but in no way is that an indictment of Kahn's work. I enjoyed every page of The Boys of Summer, and you will too, even if you're just a casual baseball fan.
Kahn delves rather deeply into his own story, which adds to the enjoyment of the book. He grew up just across the tracks from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and was naturally a Dodger fan. One of Kahn's beliefs is that "in a perfect world, the Dodgers would have stayed in Brooklyn, and LA would have gotten the Mets". As a sportswriter in the 1950's, Kahn had the incredible fortune of covering the team that he loved for the New York Herald Tribune. This would be a special privilege for any fan, but the Dodgers of that era made it an experience unlikely to be rivaled by any in the future. The Dodgers were the center of baseball integration. Not only that, they were also really, really good, and the black ballplayers on the team played a major role, especially starting pitcher Joe Black, second baseman Jackie Robinson, and catcher Roy Campanella. Kahn was able to witness everything that this team did for two years from the inside, and his book tells that story.
The first half of the book takes the reader through Kahn's childhood to the time when he first got a job at the Herald Tribune, then to the time when he became the beat writer for the Dodgers in 1952, a season after watching the heartbreak of Bobby Thomson's infamous "Shot Heard 'Round the World" of off Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca the year before. He writes of the games, the NL Pennant wins in the following years (and subsequent World Series defeats), and the experience of being a traveling sportswriter covering a team that he rooted for. (One of the best lines occurs at the end of the book in his reflection for the millenium, when he talks about the press box being neutral. He says, "I was neutral, alright. Neutral for the Dodgers.") He tells of it all in a very unique writing style, and his analogies, metaphors, and dry wit - "Any newspaperman who speaks of the 'music' of rolling presses is either faking, or has had so much to drink that he will next sentimentalize appendicitis" - are simply unmatched.
The best part of the whole experience that he shares, though, is his interaction with the players. He tells the tale of the players during his seasons on the field, but the second half of the book is dedicated to the lives of the Brooklyn Dodgers after they all retired. He catches up with Gil Hodges, who had gone on to manage the Mets. He catches up with Preacher Roe, who had retired to operate a supermarket in West Plains, MO. He talks to Carl Furillo, a bitter outfielder who was blackballed after calling a lawyer over a contract grievance and went on to work on the original construction of the World Trade Center in New York City. Pitcher Joe Black, outfielder Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson - there are tales of recollection from all of them. Of particular note in the book are the post-baseball stories of pitcher Carl Erskine and catcher Roy Campanella.
Erskine was always good for a line. One of his best was, "I've had my best luck with Stan Musial by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base." However, his life turned far more serious after baseball, and his personality was what would help him through it. His son, Jimmy Erskine, was born with a developmental disability; he was mentally retarded. When Kahn catches up with Carl Erskine, he speaks of Carl and Jimmy, father and son, splashing in the pool. Though there were many baseball memories shared between Kahn and Erskine, nothing is as touching as the depictions of Carl and Jimmy Erskine together.
Campanella, the black catcher that was as good as any in baseball, also has a story that would seem tragic to most. He would play as an interesting supporting character in any fiction book or movie, and his trademark of butchering words - "onliest" instead of "only" - would get a laugh out of any audience. When the story turns tragic and trying, Campanella seems like the perfect guy to fit that role. It is all too real, though. After baseball, the man they called "Campy" was in a car accident, and he became a paraplegic. When Kahn catches up with Campy, he is in a wheelchair, and he has a new wife after his first wife left him. The same quiet, fighting spirit that helped Campy catch double- and triple-headers in the Negro Leagues shows through beautifully in Kahn's narration of the meetings between the two in the 1970's. Campy would live into the 1990's, fighting adversity the whole way, just like he and the rest of Major League Baseball's original African-Americans did in the 1940's and 1950's.
Kahn's book is one that will be on my shelf for the rest of my life. Its story belongs in fiction, but it is a non-fiction book, something that is so tangible for many, yet so much a figment of everybody's imagination. Simply put, it is a must-read. Even non-baseball fans would enjoy the narration as told by Roger Kahn. It is a true classic.