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Farewell To Roger Kahn, Who Gave Us "The Boys Of Summer"

The groundbreaking look at the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s and what happened to them is a classic.

“The Boys of Summer” have returned to the dugout now -- actually the cluttered top shelf of a small, untidy bookcase in my cozy, untidy study – after a week of strenuous workouts.

Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Billy Cox, Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Preacher Roe, Clem Labine of Woonsocket and the great, pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950s slid from similar dusty “dugouts” to the sports pages of America with the news of Roger Kahn’s death on Feb. 6 at the age of 92.

Kahn, a rookie sportswriter in 1952 and later an essayist, author, and raconteur, revived the story Robinson, Reese and the others in his 1972 classic, “The Boys of Summer,” an ode to a bygone era of baseball heroes and simpler times that, upon reflection, were not so simple at all.

Kahn broke new ground in sports journalism by sharing his own life story, that of a Brooklyn kid who grew up to write about his dream team, the Dodgers, and then, close to 20 years later, revisiting them and describing life after the cheers had faded to faint echoes in distant memories.

I met “The Boys of Summer” shortly after the book was published. I had graduated from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, on June 4, 1972, and the next day started as a general assignment reporter for The Woonsocket Call, a thriving afternoon daily in a textile town with a proud French-Canadian heritage. I made $93 a week, gross, rode to work on a Raleigh three-speed that my soon-to-be in-laws gave me for graduation, and lived in a one-bedroom apartment on Winter Street in the North End that in September would become home for my bride and me. 

While exploring the maze of one-way streets in downtown Woonsocket one afternoon, I came across a small bookstore, on Arnold Street, I think, and spotted a book about baseball. The dust jacket drew me in.

The Boys of Summer, printed in Dodger blue at the top. 

Roger Kahn, in red in the middle.

A four-line description of the treasures within, in black just beneath: “A warm, delightful narrative of growing up within shouting distance of Ebbets Field, working for the Herald Tribune in the Jackie Robinson years . . . and what’s happened to everybody since.”

A photograph of the Ebbets Field façade at the bottom.

 The Dodgers were my second-favorite team after the Red Sox. I grew up in Methuen, Mass., 28 miles north of Fenway Park, in the 1950s and ’60s. I loved baseball. Rode my bike everywhere with my glove looped over the handlebars and a bat clutched in one hand or pinned to those handlebars by my thumbs. I lived and died with the Red Sox. Mostly died in those days. 

As a kid, I knew next to nothing about the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbetts Field, the bitter rivalry with the New York Giants and the Yankees. After Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, pitcher Don Drysdale began making regular television appearances on The Donna Reed Show, which debuted that same year. A hard-throwing lefty, Sandy Koufax, became one of the best pitchers in baseball. He earned my everlasting respect when he declined to make a World Series start because it fell on the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur. I loved the crossed LA on the team’s blue cap and Dodgers stitched in script across the jersey front. In 1960 I broke my right elbow, and my parents consoled me with a copy of Sport magazine. Dodgers pitcher Larry Sherry, MVP of the 1959 World Series, was on the cover.  

I flipped through the pages of “The Boys of Summer”, gazed at the black-and-white photos and decided I had to have this book. As a young newspaper guy, reading about a legendary baseball team through the eyes of a young sportswriter toiling in the land of Giants, Dodgers and Yankees a generation earlier was an irresistible lure. 

But I had a small problem. This hardcover, first edition was $8.95. I grossed $93 a week. “The Boys of Summer” would cost me about 10 percent of my weekly salary.  I dug deep and paid.

What an investment. I learned about Brooklyn; baseball in the 1950s in New York, then the epicenter of the game; pennant runs and World Series heartbreak; the cunning of Branch Rickey, the courage of Jackie Robinson, the wisdom of Pee Wee Reese. Best of all, I learned what happened to great ballplayers when they grow too old for the game and return to the ranks of ordinary people.  For example, Carl Furillo, a slugging right fielder with a cannon for an arm, was installing elevator doors at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan when Kahn caught up with him in 1970. What a revelation to read of Clem Labine’s career as a Dodger pitcher and later as manager of a sportswear company in Woonsocket, where he had grown up, and of his strained relationship with his son Jay, a Marine whose leg was blown off in Vietnam. Story after story, memory after memory, fill 439 pages.

 My copy of “The Boys of Summer” is in pretty good shape after almost 48 years. The dust jacket is a bit frayed at the edges and the pages tinted yellow with age. But the prose between the covers is as crisp and vibrant as it was in 1972. “The Boys of Summer” was a great read then and still is now, the best of Roger Kahn’s impressive list of books and No. 1 on my list of all-time great sports books. I should take it out of that bookshelf “dugout” more often.