Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
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 all over the country followed suit, coming to see the color of a man’s uniform rather than that of his skin. Robinson never lost his fire, but neither did he lose control. Baseball was successfully integrated. With this development, the United States took a step closer to being the country its ideals claim it to be. To be sure, it would not be the last step. Few, however, would deny that it was an important one.
Yet, by the time Kahn was hunting down former Dodgers, black militants were turning their backs on and even openly disparaging the controlled defiance of Jackie Robinson, advocating armed resistance or, at the very least, conspicuous insolence. Nor was integration the unquestioned goal. As in some previous historical periods, separatism was being extolled by a number of black leaders. Just as Robinson’s fiery image had amounted to a rejection of the consummately patient stance taken by most of the established black leaders of his time, Robinson was now being spurned.
Such is often the relation between generations, Kahn seems to be saying, regardless of whether race is involved. Kahn portrays his own alienation from his parents in the first half of his book. Indeed, even baseball cannot fully bridge the distance between Kahn and his father at the time of the latter’s death.
The relationship between father and son also is crucial in the sections on Dodger curveballer Carl Erskine, whose chapter revolves around his patient love for a young mongoloid son; Clem Labine, whose teenage son lost a leg in Vietnam; and Jackie Robinson, who could only watch as his eldest son, Jackie Jr., struggled against drug addiction only to die in a tragic automobile accident. The bonds between generations, between fathers and sons, are strong. They open us to different kinds of hurt. Gaps (or barriers) appear, and they are sometimes wedgelike, clouding our understanding and threatening our sense of control. (Kahn also explored this theme in The Battle for Morningside Heights: Why Students Rebel, published in 1970 while he was working on The Boys of Summer.)
In addition to the power of these themes, Kahn’s book is distinguished by its candor and, therefore, also by the depth of its characterizations. The Boys of Summer is not a bitter or a cruel book. It is only mildly gossipy. The book does, however, contain revelations of character that undoubtedly led, or at least could have led, to hurt feelings. In short, it seems as though Kahn allowed truth to win out over sentiment or perhaps even civility. Thus, Kahn is open about Roy Campanella’s unwillingness, as a player, to stand behind his statements to reporters, Billy Cox’s indifference to the racial slurs of his companions in a Pennsylvania bar, Carl Furillo’s unrelenting bitterness toward Dodger management and the lords of organized baseball. Kahn’s candor sometimes gets in the way of what his readers may want to believe about their favorite players, but it also lends the book the authenticity of great literature. The book is so true that it sometimes hurts. As a result, the old Dodgers come alive as real, complicated, sometimes happy, sometimes troubled human beings, people whom the reader may never meet but with whom he will have experienced genuine communion. This is no less true about Kahn’s parents, whom Kahn also does not idealize. Only Kahn himself remains somewhat in the shadows, with only a few hints of the restlessness in his own life: a first marriage that went sour during the period covered by the book, a second one that would survive the book’s publication by only a year or so.
It is through his convincing characterization that Kahn achieves a final thematic accomplishment: casting profound light on just what it is that makes a team. It is not the presence of superhuman virtue or heretofore undiscovered compatibility of personalities. Harmony remains imperfect, even problematic. Yet, somehow, disparate individuals work together toward a common purpose. The Dodgers were not all best buddies. They did respect one another, however, and they left their personal differences aside in order to cooperate. Such a working relationship lacks the beauty and grace of universal brotherhood; pouring champagne over a teammate’s head or leaping onto a twenty-person victory pile may never replace more conventional forms of religiosity. Still, the model of the team, as presented by Kahn, gives one hope that it is within the bounds of human nature for diverse people to put their differences aside in order to pursue a variety of worthy ends.