A Sportswriter Hits A Grand Slamby
MEMORIES OF SUMMER
When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing about It a Game
By Roger Kahn
Hyperion 290pp $23.95
Roger Kahn's mother hated baseball. So when the boy's father took the 7-year-old for a stroll through Brooklyn one April afternoon in 1934, he hinted that they would be heading toward the Botanic Garden, and he started off talking about ginkgo trees and sycamores. But when the father turned left on Bedford Avenue, the boy's heart leapt. Soon dad was walking faster. And as the boy trotted to keep up, the talk switched from botany to baseball. Roger Kahn was on his way to Ebbets Field for his first Dodgers game.
Talk about a charmed life. By the time he was 24, in 1952, Kahn was the Dodgers' beat reporter for The New York Herald-Tribune. He was riding the trains and pounding out 2,000 words a day on Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and company. It's this story of a sportswriter that he tells in Memories of Summer, a book that reads as effortlessly as his 1972 classic, The Boys of Summer.
When Kahn was covering the Dodgers, and later the Yankees and Giants, baseball was at the zenith of American sport, but only a dim image on TV. Most fans, including everyone south of Washington and west of St. Louis, lived the game through words--words issuing from a radio or the pages of a newspaper. Fans in those pre-ESPN SportsCenter days carried impossibly green fields in their heads, and they relied on sportswriters--genies of a sort--to put players on the field and summon them to life.
Based in New York, Kahn had the best stories to tell. The three top teams in the world then occupied the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. The Giants and Dodgers raged through fratricidal 154-game pennant races to see who would play David to the Yankees' Goliath in October. It was wonderful baseball, but also great social drama. For the Dodgers and later the Giants were racially integrated, while the Yankees remained all white. Consequently, the games meant far more than they do today. What's more, Kahn had every reason to consider some of the players he covered, especially Jackie Robinson, American heroes.
Not that he could write that in the paper. Editors at the Herald-Tribune censored social commentary from the sports pages. Their readers, they believed, didn't want those pristine fields complicated with matters of social justice. Keep it simple, they told him: the "heater" exploding into the catcher's mitt, the home run lofting over the Burma Shave sign. One day in St. Louis, Kahn summoned the nerve to file a story on a hotel owner who refused entry to the Dodgers' black players. Minutes later, he got a furious call from the sports desk in New York. The story never appeared.
The best drama in the book comes as Kahn and the Dodgers approach the 1952 World Series. For the Dodgers, of course, it's another chance to beat the hated Yankees for the first time. And for Kahn, who had never seen a World Series game, it meant climbing into the press box and hammering out a 3,000-word, front-page leader on deadline--this with his senior Herald-Tribune colleague, the legendary columnist Red Smith, looking over Kahn's shoulder. Added to the journalistic pressure, Kahn, the fan, was desperately--if quietly--cheering for his Dodgers. He wanted them to convince the skeptical Smith and everyone else that this team of black and white men was the greatest in the world. As Kahn spins this yarn, even one who knows the outcome of the series will flip pages avidly, hoping against hope that the Dodgers can turn history on its head and win.
Kahn takes us through his sportswriting career, emphasizing his battles with editors over his desire to discuss the players as real people. More fun than the sportswriting accounts--no surprise here--is the book's description of baseball and the antics surrounding it. One day in Pittsburgh, the young Willie Mays streaks back in center field after a vicious liner off the bat of Rocky Nelson. At precisely the right moment, Mays looks over his shoulder. But the ball has hooked behind him. So Mays simply reaches down with his right hand and grabs it, barehanded, at knee level. As the exuberant outfielder trots back to the dugout, beaming, Giants manager and prankster Leo Durocher orders the players to give him the silent treatment. While Mays waits for someone to say "nice catch," his teammates quietly fool around with their bats, visit the water cooler, dribble tobacco juice on the floor. "Hey Leo," Mays finally pipes up. "You don't have to tell me it was a great catch. I know it was." A moment later, a folded note is passed into the Giants dugout from the box of Branch Rickey, the man who four years earlier had brought Jackie Robinson into the big leagues. It was the finest catch he'd seen in 50 years of watching baseball, Rickey wrote.
The book is chock full of similar stories. Only one complaint: I kept waiting for Kahn to draw a line from the magic of the '50s to today's troubled game. I wanted him to convince me, as a lapsing fan, that Major League Baseball is still a treasure worth handing down to my children. Instead, Kahn closes the book with his own generation, catching up with a graying Mays in California, a dying Mickey Mantle in Texas. As Opening Day 1997 approaches, Kahn lets us know how great baseball used to be. And today? That's for us to discover.