In this house, I have three different hardback copies of Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer.” I also have one on my Kindle and one in my iBooks collection. And yet, not more than three or four weeks ago, I was in a used bookstore, and I saw a paperback copy of the book, and I thought to myself: “I should probably buy that.” And so I did.
I simply need that book around me at all times.
Roger Kahn died Thursday. He was 92. I never met him. I got a note from him once, a nice note, and as I wrote on Twitter, it was like getting a message from Olympus. A few years later, his book publisher, Mark Weinstein, asked me to write a blurb for Roger’s last book, “Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball.” It was like having Julius Erving ask me to endorse one of his dunks.
This is how I began that blurb:
“Roger Kahn’s classic, ‘The Boys of Summer’ changed my life — that and ‘Catcher in the Rye’ were the two books that made me dream of becoming a writer.”
That line is absolutely true and I wrote it in the hopes that it will sell a few extra copies of the book — that, after all, is what blurbs are for. But more than that, it was the message I wanted to get to Roger. “The Boys of Summer” might not be the best book I have read, just like “The Princess Bride” might not be the best movie I have seen and spaghetti and meatballs might not be the best meal I have had and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” might not be the best song I have heard and chocolate cake might not be the best dessert I’ve eaten.
But it is, to me, the most perfect book, just as the rest are the most perfect examples of joy.
Roger Kahn was a longtime writer and author, not only of baseball. Through the years, he wrote eloquently about the poet Robert Frost, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, the politician Eugene McCarthy and the writer John Lardner. He wrote about his son Roger Jr.’s struggle with heroin addiction and death by suicide. He wrote being Jewish in America, and he wrote about the roaring twenties when Jack Dempsey reigned, and he wrote a not-very-good novel version of his own troubled second marriage.
Baseball, though, is what brought out his writing soul. He wrote about the artistry of pitching. He wrote about the dreams of minor leaguers. He wrote about how Jackie Robinson changed everything. He also wrote a book with Pete Rose — “Pete Rose: My Story” — that he and Rose each came to regret for any number of reasons; that was not a particularly good match.
Mostly, he wrote “The Boys of Summer.” It was simply unlike any other sports book that had ever been written and, I would argue, unlike any sports book written since. The core idea came from his own unlikely and sudden rise from rabid Brooklyn Dodgers fan to Brooklyn Dodgers beat writer just as the team gelled into something magical and cursed. He was 24 years old when he was assigned to cover the Dodgers for the New York Herald.
And that team was inarguably wonderful — Jackie, Pee Wee, Preacher, Shotgun Shuba, Campy and the Duke. That team won pennants in ’52 and ’53. That team also lost the World Series both times to the inevitable New York Yankees.
In the first half of the book, Kahn writes about his own journey. “At a point in my life,” he begins, “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.”
In the second half of the book, Kahn went back to find them, those Boys of Summer, now 20 years older and trying to make their way in life.
When he first tried to sell “The Boys of Summer,” Kahn found no buyers. Who would want to buy a book about an old baseball team that wasn’t even good enough to win? And Kahn tried to explain to them that it was the fact those Dodgers did not win that made them so captivating.
“Their skills,” Roger wrote, “lifted everyman’s existence, a national team, with a country in thrall, irresistible and unable to beat the Yankees.”
But, beyond that, I’ve always believed that the book wasn’t about the Dodgers or winning or losing or any of that. Well, it was about those things but it was about more. In between the journey and the return, he wrote the most beautiful and haunting part. He wrote about burying his father, Gordon Kahn.
More than anything, this was a book about fathers and sons and the space in between.
“Outside, the summer sun was taunting,” he wrote of that moment after he chose his father’s coffin. “I walked to the car, a lawyer at each elbow, wholly alone. The wrongness of things seized me. At the Parade Grounds, boys were throwing footballs. It was that season; baseball would come again. The team was broken up and with my father dead there was no one with whom I wanted to consider that tragedy, and because there was no one I recognized that the breaking of a team was not like greater tragedy: incompleteness, unspoken words, unmade music, withheld love, the failure ever to sum up or say good-bye.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have read that paragraph. And it hits me every single time.
Of course, I was hardly the only person of my generation to read “The Boys of Summer” and have it alter the course of my life.
One of the three (well, four if you count the paperback) copies of Boys of Summer in this house is the original one, the one I first read. It is dog-eared and tattered and it has food stains everywhere. The spine has broken, the words on the cover faded long ago and I believe there’s an entire section from the middle missing.
Yes, I often think about throwing it away — I do have other copies, after all — but so far I keep it because it reminds me of the first time I read it, the way the words rattled my brain and launched my own hopes. I see it, and I think about a poem that Kahn quotes in the book by Saigyō, a poem I committed to memory all those years ago and have never forgotten.
Did I ever dream
I should pass this way again
As an old man?
I have lived such a long time —
Nakayama of the Night.
When I heard Roger died, for some reason, my mind immediately traveled to the chapter he wrote about George “Shotgun” Shuba, a relatively minor member of those Boys of Summer. Shuba was a good hitter who was famously (and self-consciously) sketchy in the field. This was 20 years after the Boys of Summer, they were both middle-aged men, and Kahn was praising Shuba for being such a natural hitter. Shuba was unimpressed by the analysis. “Ah,” he said, “you talk like a sportswriter.”
Then he took Kahn to the basement where he had baseball bats filled with lead. He’d swing those heavy bats again and again, 600 times a night, 4,200 times a week, 47,200 swings every winter.
“You call that natural?” Shuba said.
“I wish I’d known this year ago,” Kahn said. “It would have helped my own hitting.”
“Aah,” Shuba said in the stuffy cellar. “Don’t let yourself think like that. The fastball is by the both of us. Leave it to the younger guys.”
(Photo of Kahn in 1997: AP Photo / Todd Plitt, File)