Received with enthusiasm by critics and public alike, Kahn’s book succeeds on a number of levels. While it is more than “just” a baseball book, The Boys of Summer is quite good on baseball. Kahn is a keen observer and has the command of language needed to bring the game alive. Readers who have played baseball will nod recognition and perhaps long for another turn at bat, in the field, or on the mound. Those who have never played will be as close to the game as mere telling can bring them. More specifically, Kahn brings to life the considerable baseball talents of the 1952-1953 Dodgers, the mighty throwing arm of Carl Furillo, Jackie Robinson’s aggressive baserunning and all-round style of play, Duke Snider’s graceful home-run swing, Preacher Roe’s craftiness on the mound, Pee Wee Reese’s field leadership, Billy Cox’s amazing play at third base, Joe Black’s overpowering fastball during the 1952 season, and other elements that contributed to one of the finest and most colorful teams in baseball history. Kahn also captures the glory and pathos of a team that won two National League pennants, each of which was succeeded by a disappointing near-miss in the World Series. In addition to his mastery of events on the field, Kahn presents a convincing account of baseball’s front-office intrigues, profiling such wheeler-dealers as Branch Rickey, Walter O’Malley (who moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn), and Buzzy Bavasi.
The book also provides satisfaction for those who crave nostalgia, successfully evoking not one but several time periods in recent American history: the intellectually charged climate of the Great Depression, World War II, the start of the baby-boom years, and finally the sociopolitical chaos of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Kahn’s book cuts deeper than mere nostalgia, however, using its evocation of past and present to consider at least two important themes, race and the generation gap. The Dodgers were the first modern-day major-league team to become racially integrated. Jackie Robinson, the black player chosen to breach the color line, bore the burden of this dramatic event in the history of a country plagued by racial injustice. Playing just after a war had been fought against the ultimate racist, Adolf Hitler, and at about the same time that Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (the 1954 case that led the Supreme Court to strike down racially segregated schools) was working its way through the nation’s court system, the Dodgers whom Kahn chronicled were not merely playing ball. Along with their fans, they were conducting a crucial national experiment. Some white Dodgers never did accept Robinson. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers at the time, refused to acquiesce, trading the dissidents to other teams. Opposing players hurled obscenities, spikes, and baseballs at Robinson. Robinson, too, refused to acquiesce. In the end, most white Dodgers made the adjustment to integration, some with a fair amount of grace. Other teams soon saw the advantage of breaking the color line. Brooklyn fans, meanwhile, had learned to root for Robinson and other black Dodgers. Fans...
(The entire section is 1281 words.)
Kahn was not the first author to achieve literary distinction through the medium of baseball. Before Kahn was born, Ring Lardner had produced baseball stories of unquestionable literary merit. Bernard Malamud had already published The Natural in 1952. Nor was Kahn the first to present a behind-the-scenes account of real-life baseball. In 1960, Jim Brosnan, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, had published The Long Season, a very popular nonfiction portrayal of life in the big leagues. Brosnan’s revelations were tame compared to those in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (1970). Thus the public was about as disillusioned as it could get by the time Kahn’s book was published. Nevertheless, Kahn did break new ground with The Boys of Summer, achieving a rich combination of baseball lore, profound characterization, and social commentary in a nonfiction work of high literary quality. This penetrating treatment of American popular culture helped to lay the groundwork (and reveal a market) for a string of high-quality nonfiction works on baseball by authors such as Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell.
Kahn himself also has returned several times to the subject of baseball. A Season in the Sun (1977) is a collection of in-depth articles on various college, minor-league, and major-league baseball happenings during the 1976 season. Providing a loose sequel to The Boys of Summer, the book is dedicated to Kahn’s mother. The Seventh Game (1982) is a raucous baseball novel. Good Enough to Dream (1985) recounts Kahn’s experience as the owner of an independent team in the low minors. While only the last book has met with critical success comparable to that of The Boys of Summer, all three have achieved wide readership. In them, Kahn has continued to pay homage to the game of baseball, finding in it the stuff of truly universal human concerns.