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C.A.: 1990 Little Sun Writers Roger Kahn

(Today is National Pizza Day. One thing I miss about living in a larger city is the quality of pizza. People where I live act like certain pizza places in town are better than others, but frankly, it doesn't matter. Nobody here can do it like Bocce's in Buffalo or those places I ate at in Chicago or that one time in Philly. It's tough to screw up pizza. But something about those city pizzas put everyone else's pizza in their place. Time for Cardboard Appreciation. This is the 289th in a series):

Perhaps you heard the other day that Roger Kahn passed away at the age of 92.

Roger Kahn is one of the most acclaimed baseball writers who ever put pen to paper. He wrote "The Boys Of Summer," about the 1952 and 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers, a book that has been praised as the greatest baseball book in history.

I don't know whether that is the best baseball book or not. But I do know that because of that book, I am a sportswriter. Still.

It's not easy to become a sportswriter and it's even less easy to stay a sportswriter, especially these days. But even 40 or 50 years ago, it wasn't the life a mom would choose for her son.

Because of the uncertainty of the profession -- and my uncertainty about what I wanted to do -- I took many paths toward a career before settling on writing about athletes.

I began my post-high school career in computer sciences. It was the fastest-growing job industry of the early-to-mid 1980s and a way to ensure certain employment and a secure life, or at least that was the prevailing knowledge at the time.

I learned shortly that it wasn't for me. After a semester or two, I began to struggle with computer logic and the various languages I was required to learn. Cobol and Pascal and oh my god, I'm failing. I tried to stay with it because that's the type of person I am -- I don't quit early -- and I received a two-year degree, which then became the most useless piece of paper I ever worked to receive.

I always knew I could write. And I liked sports a lot. I changed my major to journalism, moved away from home, went to a different college and started to learn about being a reporter. Sportswriting still seemed an uncertainty and I immersed myself in national and world issues so I could be ready for reporting on the news. I subscribed to Time magazine and read every article. I knew everything about the U.S.'s conflict with Libya and the Chernobyl disaster.

I pulled away from exclusively following baseball at that time but I still harbored a desire to write about sports.

I owned a copy of The Boys Of Summer, this particular copy of The Boys Of Summer (note the wrinkles and cover paper loss). I don't remember how I came to possess it, whether I bought it at home and brought with me to college, or whether I bought it in the college bookstore, couldn't tell you.

But I do remember reading it regularly, on my bed, in the room reserved for me at my grandmother's home while I was going to college, day after day.

I had read Roger Angell's books and "Ball Four" and "The Bronx Zoo" while I was in high school, so I knew about the literary nature of baseball and the tell-all style of covering the sport at that time. Baseball was being exposed for what it was: talented men, imperfect humans, playing a game.

But The Boys Of Summer was different.

I didn't find Kahn's book an easy read. For me, it meandered. First we were on a plane with a 24-year-old Kahn and Dodgers front office executive Fresco Thompson and then suddenly we were in Kahn's childhood.

Why did I want to read about Kahn's childhood? For 30-plus pages -- what seemed like 200 -- we were growing up with Kahn in a home with Gordon and Olga and everyone else. Then for 30 more pages, Kahn told us about his formative years in the newspaper business, leading up to covering the Brooklyn Dodgers. Those 30 pages are more interesting to me now, but barely registered then.

Then, finally, around page 100, he transported me to 1952 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was fascinating, mixing with Billy and Preacher and Reese and Jackie and Dressen and Snider. These were real people. Real, profane people. (Every other word was "fucker" or "shit.") In between their very real conversations, they played baseball.

Kahn explained the appeal of the Dodgers franchise. First, the Dodgers, of the 1920s and '30s, were comical and inept. Fans were amused by them, but didn't go to their games because they were terrible. But during the 1940s, they became talented, and added the first black player in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson. They won games, but could never beat the Yankees and therefore became human in the eyes of fans, a team that mirrored what life really was --  wins, losses, inevitable defeat, conflict, emotions, thrills, disgust, outrage, heartbreak. People talked about them over dinner, across the country. These weren't the Yankees, these were the Dodgers, a team so lovable that one sports editor complained that he kept having to rotate his Dodgers beat writers because the reporters would inevitably become a fan of the team they covered.

At page 199, Kahn and The Boys Of Summer drops the hammer. He returned to those '50s Dodgers after they had retired. He went to their towns and homes and told the stories of what became of Erskine and Joe Black, Furillo and Campy. This is where I fell in love with the book and with sportswriting. This is where I knew I wanted to do this for a living.

Those 45- and 50-year-old men, no longer ballplayers but regular citizens who were dealing with family problems, health issues, lawsuits and the bitterness and resignation, made me feel what writing was all about.

Sportswriting is so misunderstood today. People complain about sportswriters and their concocted "narratives," agenda and hyperbole. And, true, we fall into the trap, like any person in any job falling into their own trap.

But the beauty of writing about people -- if you're good at it -- is that the reader can see themselves in the people you are profiling. Or they can relate to the human experience. Sports is a vehicle for revealing the human condition in a sharper way than you see in other professions. And that's what attracted me about sports and writing about them.

"The Boys Of Summer" wasn't just about players and a team. It was about a community rooting for those players and team and a young man covering that team. It was about all of their hopes and dreams and disappointments. It was what it was like to be a fan in Brooklyn rooting for the Dodgers, and so much more. It was about life.

The 1950s tend to be romanticized in baseball and that was never more the case than during the 1970s when the entire decade of the '50s was romanticized, from American Graffiti to Sha-Na-Na to Wolfman Jack to Happy Days.

Kahn explained in 1972 that the '50s were really just as confused and jumbled as any other decade, maybe more so.

"The Boys Of Summer" said to me:

Players are human.

They have stories.

Here are their stories.

Their clear, unvarnished stories.

I decided as I read that book -- maybe not consciously -- that this is what I wanted to do for a living, if it was at all possible.

Less than a year later, I started writing sports stories for my college newspaper. I then became the sports editor, and then the managing editor for my college newspaper. I then received an internship in the sports department at a daily newspaper 40 minutes away. That led to a part-time job and then a full-time job.

Later this month, I will celebrate 30 years in the sports department where I was hired for my first full-time journalism job.

I am still a sportswriter. Long after many people left newspaper journalism, whether by their own choosing or someone else's. It's all I've ever known for a career. And I still have the most enthusiasm in this job for a sports story that explains the human condition in a way that hits my heart.

I owe at least some of my staying power to Roger Kahn and "The Boys Of Summer".

I should really read that book again.


Fred Pike said…
Fantastic post. I read the book years ago. I will check the library and read it again.
carlsonjok said…
A fantastic post. I loved The Boys of Summer also.

In my old age, I have to admit some level of annoyance with sportswriters who see themselves as Homer and every story as a retelling of The Odyssey. The hero's journey has become an all-too-common trope. But, there is some absolutely stellar writing out there as well. A couple years ago, Jackie McMullan did a multi-part series on NBA players who are dealing with issues around mental health that was absolutely, painfully beautiful.
Fuji said…
This was a great post. I don't really know much about journalism or the newspaper industry, but I grew up reading The Mercury News and seeing eight to ten different sections every day. These days, there are three, maybe four sections on a daily basis. I'm sure the evolution of the internet has played a major part in these changes that have taken place over the past three decades. And I think it's awesome that you've stuck it out the entire time. Congratulations on your 30th anniversary! That is quite the accomplishment.
Bo said…
Never read "Boys of Summer", but I owned a copy of "Good Enough to Dream" when I was a kid - I really liked that book.
BaseSetCalling said…
Another "IT" refugee here, who escaped via writing. I don't get real thrilled when people tell me how much money I could have made "coding." I moved on to write about rock music and one of my early co-workers is now probably seen on most sports fan's TV most every day on the NFL Network - Rich Eisen.

But as with Information Technology, I eventually couldn't find much connection to real people and real things in rock music by writing about it, even though it is technically possible to create solid writing and reporting about it, as it is about sports. But that is a lot, lot more difficult to do than with other kinds of journalism and very few cities in the world really need an actual rock critic, the way every town everywhere needs a sports reporter, who can connect real people to real things. So I moved on to other things and was happier still with working stuff, but eventually was pretty darn happy to discover your blog and realize that, hey, I could go back to writing and write about something I really enjoy, too, and do it just for fun.
POISON75 said…
Roger was truly a great writer & I recall that he helped in producing a video version of the Boys of Summer I wish I could locate a copy of the video I remembered renting it out at the local video store.
Matt said…
I also went to college for Computer Science - hated it, especially all that coding. So many wasted nights trying to find that one character that prevented a 200 line script from executing properly...
AdamE said…
Funny how what is considered the greatest baseball book of all time (if not the greatest sports book) isn't really about baseball. It is about fathers and sons and the passing of time for us all.

“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”

If you haven't yet, you should read the Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski. It is another baseball book that isn't really about baseball.
Nick said…
I've somehow never read "The Boys of Summer." I'll have to change that soon -- especially considering I've owned a copy for a while now (the same one you have, from the looks of it).

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