The Boys of Summer isn’t quite what you expect. Though it covers the familiar ground of the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the ’50s, the author’s unique position and the hybrid framework of this memoir create a little gem of a book that is full of the stuff of life. Heartbreak, struggle, accomplishment, valor, friendship, bigotry and death all arising from a child’s game played by adults.
Kahn served as the Herald Tribune’s beat reporter for the Dodgers for a few seasons in the early ’50s, missing both the historically crucial 1947 season in which Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and the 1955 season in which Brooklyn finally won the World Series. Though Kahn experienced both of those seasons as a fan they factor less into this narrative than you would think.
Instead Kahn splits The Boys of Summer into two distinct halves. The first covers his boyhood learning to love baseball despite resistance from his intellectual mother and stretches to his years on the road with the team getting to know the players as people in the primes of their lives.
Though there are plenty of humorous anecdotes and stories of life in baseball in the front half, The Boys of Summer becomes something greater than just another baseball book in its second half. Twenty year after those pennant-winning seasons, Kahn travels across America catching up with the stars of those teams and seeing how life has treated them. Back then ballplayers didn’t make the titanic sums of money they do today, so even though these players took on the status of mythological heroes to thousands of little boys, they really lived ordinary middle-class lives after their playing ability diminished with age. Some of them were able to parlay their fame into favorable positions back in their hometowns while others struggled to pay the bills.
But their lives, perhaps not too unusual in the aggregate, become special in the specific. The pitcher-turned-businessman whose son loses a leg in Vietnam. The third-baseman who can’t escape the small-minded bigotry of his hometown despite playing with some of the greatest black players of all-time. The legendary slugger who desperately wanted to leave the game and go plant avocados. The catcher rendered paraplegic by a car crash who insists on maintaining his sunny disposition. And of course the immortal Robinson, weighing his legacy against the costs it imposed on his person and his family, and struggling to maintain a connection to the civil rights movement amidst the chaos and violence that exploded in the 1960s.
Though those Dodger teams only managed one World Series win before breaking the hearts of Brooklynites by departing for Los Angeles they made a huge impact on both baseball and the country by being the first team to achieve any kind of success through integration. Roger Kahn bore witness to all of it and turned it into a first-class look at not just the American pastime, but America itself.