The book that pulled Roger Kahn from the crowd of New York sportswriters whacking away at old Underwoods and Olivettis and Smith-Coronas was “The Boys of Summer.” It was published in 1972, and it was a wonder.
Mr. Kahn was 45 years old when the book was released. He wrote about the Brooklyn Dodgers that he had covered in the early 1950s for the New York Herald-Tribune when he was 25, pretty much the same age they were. He had followed them into their athletic retirements, tracked them down in their hometowns and modest circumstances, talked with them about past memories and present problems. This does not sound like a revolutionary approach today, when mega-channel television is filled nightly with walks down memory lane alongside aged linebackers and former relief pitchers, but it was different when Mr. Kahn did it. Very different.
Here was Jackie Robinson, brokenhearted at the death of his son from a car accident on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut. There was Pee Wee Reese, now the owner of a storm-window company and a bowling alley and part of a bank in Brandenburg, Ky. Here was Duke Snider, bemoaning the failure of his avocado farm in Fallbrook, Calif. There was Roy Campanella, confined to that damnable wheelchair in White Plains, N.Y.”I’ve accepted the chair,” Campanella told Mr. Kahn. “My family has accepted it. My wife has made a wonderful home. I’m not wanting many things. Sure, I’d love to walk. Sure, I would. But I’m not going to worry myself to death because I can’t. I’ve accepted the chair and I’ve accepted my life.”
In the years since then, Mr. Kahn has written 14 books. They have been solid efforts, some more solid than the rest, but none has touched the success of “The Boys of Summer.” Over the years Mr. Kahn has reworked the material from his Brooklyn days. Natural enough, but it could seem like overkill. How interested are we supposed to be about that time, that place, those people? How many times can we read about them?
Well, at least once more for sure.
In what Mr. Kahn promises is his last book, “Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball,” he returns to Brooklyn and the Dodgers and the jangled emotions of 1947, when a black man finally played major-league baseball. He takes a moment that has been framed and hung on the wall as dusty history—dulled down by the passage of time to textbook importance in classrooms, commemorated with blustery annual speeches about Branch Rickey, the colorblind white general manager, and Robinson, the stoic black second baseman, who confounded the bigots and triumphed. He gives it fresh life.
Rickey is long dead, and Robinson is long dead, and Reese, Campanella, Snider and virtually everyone else around that Dodgers team are dead. The Dodgers have been in Los Angeles for 56 years. Mr. Kahn is 86 years old but is still here to tell the tale, which he does with grace, gusto and his unique perspective.
“The first meeting between Robinson and Rickey, on August 28, has become the stuff of both legend and fairy tales,” he writes. “In 1953, Robinson lay back on a bed in his room at the Hotel Schenley in Pittsburgh and while he talked I took notes, using my Smith-Corona portable typewriter. What follows is verbatim.”
The first time I saw Branch Rickey he was setting up a smokescreen with his cigar. Behind the smoke was a face revealing sincerity.
“Do you think you are capable enough to play baseball in the major leagues?” Mr. Rickey began.
“I don’t know. I’ve only played professional baseball for one year. I don’t know how the Negro Leagues stack up against the minors, let alone the majors.”
Mr. Rickey did not wait to deliver his punch line. “I am willing to offer you a contract in organized baseball. Are you willing to sign it?”
Mr. Kahn’s memories and clip files control all the action. He could be 91-year-old Lucy Marsden in “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” by Allan Gurganus, or centenarian Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man” by Thomas Berger, or the aging narrator in any number of works of historical fiction. Except this is nonfiction, and he was there. The direct quotes sound as if they were spoken last Thursday, not 50 or 60 years ago.
“It’s been what, six years since I came to Brooklyn and something like half the big-league clubs now will pick up a Negro player if he has the ability,” Robinson tells Mr. Kahn in 1952 as they sit by the swimming pool at the Sir John Motel, the all-black establishment where the athlete had to stay when he was in Miami.
“The Yankees—” Mr. Kahn starts to reply.
“The Yankees are not in that half. Or the Red Sox. Or the Cubs.”
This is anecdotal, casual history. The side trips are as entertaining as the main story. Mr. Kahn may talk about serious business, as you would expect in such a book, then become derailed by a mention of actor Errol Flynn. Or Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Or Dodger manager Leo Durocher, and how he met his movie-star wife, Laraine Day. The fun begins.
“On a slow train through Texas during spring training 1954, Durocher recounted an ensuing event,” Mr. Kahn writes. “He and Laraine began to hold secret meetings after the 1946 season, while Durocher also struck up a seeming friendship with Laraine’s husband, Ray. One night the three began to watch one of Laraine’s movies in the screening room of the large home she had purchased in the West Hollywood hills. Hendricks soon drank himself to sleep. Leo and Laraine embraced and proceeded to have at it full blast on a piano bench. Suddenly the reel of film snapped in the projector and began flapping loudly.”
The event that happened in 1946 was a story told in 1954, now told again, 60 years later. That is the magic of the book. Mr. Kahn praises the people he thought were heroes, settles scores with the people he didn’t like, fine-tunes the integration story that he thinks has become a bit too sanctified through historians’ eyes. He liked Rickey a lot, liked Robinson a lot, but who’s perfect in this life? Nobody. These are reminiscences of the living, breathing people he knew.
Hallelujah. Roger Kahn still has his fastball, and the boys of those long-ago summers live one more time for a different generation.
—Mr. Montville is the author of “The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth” and “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero.
My take: Montville is quite diplomatic (the concept of authors reviewing each others’ books has always been strange to me). He alerts the reader that, yes, the Rickey-Robinson tale has been told many times before, as has the whole “Brooklyn Dodgers as people’s choice” scenario. But Kahn — having been there — makes it more personal. The “problem” is that Kahn was not there in 1947, only picking up on the story five years later. So everything up to 1952, when he began covering the Dodgers for newspapers, is second-hand.
By the way, Kahn’s latest is not to be confused with this, published by Harvey Frommer in 1982.