Sunday, August 27, 2017

Classic Book Review: The Boys of Summer

Here's an idea: take a popular former baseball team, track down the members after, say, fifteen or twenty years, see what they are doing now and write a book about it.

Sounds like a winner. Only if you present that to a publishing company today you will most likely receive a giant yawn and a "been done a million times already, bring me something original."

But if you had come up with that idea in 1970, you might have had a potential classic on your hands. That's what Roger Kahn did with this book. Kahn had been a young reporter following the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and 1953. In 1970 he looked up the old gang, visited them at their homes and places of employment, and then wrote it all up. And in doing so, he invented a genre, one that has been copied so many times in the ensuing years that it's become passé. It's important to remember this in a historical concept when reading this book; if for no other reason than to give Kahn credit.

Of course, Kahn had a lot of luck. Not only was the team to which he was wed great, it was a team full of history and characters, and one that was on the cutting edge of the most socially prominent experiment in sports history. He had been in the perfect place at the perfect time. Had he been a young beat reporter for the Hobie Landrith, Johnny Temple, Wally Post Cincinnati Reds of the early '50s, the book wouldn't have been nearly the same.

These were the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers, the first racially integrated baseball team. They were a team of immense talent and success, but one that seemed doomed by luck to fail at the most crucial times. Also when owner Walter O'Malley pulled up stakes and fled to the gold mine of Los Angeles in 1958, they came to symbolize the heartbreak of jilted fans and the western mobilization of society. Kahn excels in placing the era under well-preserved glass for future generations. Such was the impact of the book that the group of Dodgers--Jackie, Campy, Pee Wee, Oisk and the Duke of Flatbush--will forever be known as the Boys of Summer and, in fact, the term Boys of Summer has become indelibly etched into our lexicon.

The Boys of Summer is actually two books. The first part is an autobiographical narration of young Kahn as he grows to manhood in the thriving borough of Brooklyn amid post-depression Americana. He poignantly writes of his relationship with his father, a modest, henpecked man of immense intellectual powers who lacks the ambition and confrontational nature that could have made him wealthy. Father and son are united forever by the game of baseball.

Kahn contrasts his father with his mother who is described as a manipulative, nagging, pseudointellectual elitist. The viciously insensitive mother reveals the death of Kahn's grandfather, who died unexpectedly of a massive coronary while the child was away at camp, thusly: "'Would you like to see your name in the New York Times?' Olga reaches into a bureau . . . and shows me a clipping from the New York Times. Rockow, Abraham, D.D.S., suddenly on June 30. Beloved grandfather of Roger."

Interwoven in the images of his childhood, Kahn describes the team as viewed from his perch as a young writer. He conjures images of the players in their prime: strong, athletic men of diverse backgrounds who formed a close team. The autobiographical first section, while quaint and nostalgic, is not nearly as enduring as the portrayal of the men from the team, which became timeless; the players immortalized. Kahn reveals the character and personalities of the men in the clubhouse, which is often at odds with their popular heroic public images. He shows the fears and worries of the players; their raw language, prejudice, pettiness and also shows the dangerous, hard side of professional baseball.

The second part of the book finds the players in middle age, in various stages of success in their post-baseball lives. Some are executives and public figures, while others are hanging on in low-paying blue collar jobs, their previous athletic heroics all but forgotten remnants of another life. The images of the former players and their real-life tragedies are stark. The loss of youth, loss of physical powers among men who made their living based on those physical powers is an unavoidable sadness.

Before Kahn, ex-athletes were most often forgotten as the years moved on past their playing days. Remember, this was the time in which athletes were not set for life after a few years of playing--making millions of dollars in contracts with millions more awaiting in the insane memorabilia market. Back then, ex-athletes faced a lifetime of hustling employment after retiring from sports. Few members of the formerly adoring public bothered to think how these men viewed their past heroics, years removed from the spotlight.

Of course, one reason the book has endured so well is that Kahn  did it very artfully. His prose is thought-provoking, insightful and awe-inspiring at times.

He wrote of the postseason failings of the Dodgers and the affection of their fans: "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat."

When he describes his father hitting him grounders with hardballs and explains the coming of age moment millions of boys of that era experienced, he writes: "There is no faking on sharp grounders. You put your head down and follow the ball and hope that the last bounce will be true. . . . A kind of test is under way. . . Gordon Kahn is testing to see if his indulged, skinny, quick-tongued son dares show his face to hard ground balls. The bald mustached man . . . and the boy are reaching, sensing, challenging and I suppose loving one another through a fifty-cent baseball. . . . Head down, head down. The baseball smarts, but pain passes and I feel a crown of sweat and all sensations are obliterated by pride. I am showing Gordon Kahn that I am not afraid of the ball."

Of the 1951 Bobby Thomson playoff home run that beat the Dodgers out of a pennant: "Defeat, particularly dramatic defeat, confirms our worst image of ourselves. We are not effective, after all, not truly competent, not manly in crisis. . . We stand naked, before an unflattering mirror, hearing hard laughter that includes our own."

Discussing the outrage expressed by New York writers, who wrote that O'Malley had no loyalty to Brooklyn, only money, after the team left for the west coast, Kahn notes, "It amazes me to this day that once I stood in the ranks of journalists who, in the most furious words they could summon, indicted a capitalist for being motivated by a passion for greater profits."

On Kahn's first trip through the south with the team, he is appalled by the legally sanctioned segregation but is dismayed that older reporters just pull the blinds on the train and ignore it. "They accepted apartheid with a brief, angry grunt, the way they accepted a cramped press box, or a sinewy steak. . . It was odd, I thought. We wrote about the games, the players and the prospects. But, here in a wounding land, no one would report or could report the horror all about--racism. . . . unreasoning racial hate threatening then as it threatens now to shatter the country. I wish I could . . . figure a way to get the real story in the paper."

The players themselves offer indelible quotes on the loss of their identity that comes when they are no longer employed in the game. Clem Labine says, "Where are all the guys? Where's everybody you've been playing with? You're not in the fraternity anymore. That's one of the hardest things."

Read today, The Boys of Summer provides a historical look at attitudes on race at the time. Race is a major them throughout the book--how the players came to accept Jackie Robinson and the African American players who followed him, the challenges faced by those players, how they still faced challenges years later and the opinion of Jackie Robinson in 1970 of the status of integration and of the militant black movement that grew during the sixties. Robinson specifically denounced the violence of those who wanted to burn every trace of white society. Kahn writes, "He does not want society to burn. Burn America and you burn the achievements of Jackie Robinson. After ruinous anarchic blaze, who will remember the brave, fatherless boyhood, the fight for an inch of Army justice, the courage in baseball, the leadership and the triumph, of a free man who walked with swift and certain strides?" It is interesting to see how far we've come, or regressed, as an integrated society.

Paralleling the racial prejudice of the time is the equally appalling prejudice faced by handicapped children. The section on Carl Erskine prominently features the fact that his fourth child, Jimmy, had been born with Down's syndrome in 1960. At the time, the disease was callously referred to as Mongolism, due to the shape of their eyelids. Kahn included a medical definition of the condition which concluded with "such children are often imbeciles." While extremely stark and insulting, this definition refers back to the old classification of IQ in which below 25 was an "idiot," 26-50 was an "embicile," and 51-70 was a "moron." Unbelievable.

At the time of Jimmy's birth, Erskine and his wife were encouraged by doctors to leave Jimmy at the hospital, where he would be placed in an institution and "taken care of." They refused and brought him home to be a part of their family--almost revolutionary at the time. And even though Kahn seems to applaud the hurdles overcome by the Erskines, he is affected by the perceptions of the time as he writes about Jimmy very condescendingly, misspelling his attempted words phonetically and writing that he is overjoyed by simple accomplishments such as splashing in a pool and being able to bounce a basketball 4 or 5 times.

Overall, this book is deserving of its place on virtual every list of the top ten baseball books of all-time. The Boys of Summer may indeed lay in their ruin, but their gold tithings will never fade thanks to Roger Kahn and his magnificent book.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Sey Hey, Thanks For the Bat Willie

I'm a softy when it comes to stories about kids and sports heroes. Especially the good ones.

I was talking to Mike Filipiak, a 69 year old lifelong Cubs fan, recently. He said he and some buddies used to go to Wrigley Field as often as possible in the late '50s. "You could get a ticket for 65 cents in those days and, with not many fans coming to games back then, a lot of times we could get right on the rail next to the field."

Mike and his friends financed their trips to Wrigley by riding around on their bikes and collecting bottles for the refund. "You got 2 cents for pop bottles and a nickel for the big beer bottles. We'd go through cluttered alleys. It didn't take long to get enough for a ticket. Also a lot of times after games, the ushers would have us those long poker sticks with points on the end and we'd go up and down and pick up trash. When we finished, they'd give us a voucher for another game." Things have certainly changed at Wrigley Field over the years--it takes more than a few bottles and some trash to get a field-side seat.

"One time the Giants were in town. Willie Mays got up and swung and the bat flew out of his hands and sailed right at me. I grabbed the bat and my buddies stood up and said, 'Forget the game. We got Willie's bat. Let's get out of here.' But just then the ushers showed up and made us give it back.Willie had come over to the rail and was waiting as the ushers walked the bat over to him. He saw us kids and he acted like he couldn't believe it: 'You guys brought my bat back? Thanks.'"

Then, the great man paused and smiled. "He tapped the bat on the top of the dugout and said, 'You know what, I think this bat is cracked. Here, you might as well have it.' And he handed it back to me. How great is that?"

Being a kid, Mike took the bat home and used it for what it was made for--he played with it in numerous backyard games until it virtually disintegrated.

That Willie Mays bat seven decades ago didn't last long. But the memory will never fade.