Along with Roger Angell, Robert Creamer, Donald Honig, and Lawrence Ritter, Roger Kahn is one of the most highly respected authors to write on the history and sociology of baseball. The Boys of Summer, his study of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1940’s and 1950’s, is a masterpiece of baseball literature. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Kahn learned to love baseball from his father, a teacher who claimed to have played third base for City College of New York, and from his grandfather, with whom he attended Dodger games. When Kahn’s mother feared that his passion for sports would hinder his intellectual development and pleaded for him to read something, he chose Pitching in a Pinch, a 1912 how-to book by Christy Mathewson, legendary pitcher for the New York Giants.
When Kahn’s dream of being a baseball star himself evaporated because of his limited talent, he hoped to attend Cornell University but instead went to New York University. After three years there, he was a copy boy for the New York Herald Tribune, becoming a reporter in 1948. By 1952, he was covering his beloved Dodgers, growing to feel he was part of one of the best and most colorful teams of all time. His fellow sportswriter, Dick Young, became his mentor, teaching young Kahn to concentrate on the details of a game rather than its outcome. Kahn left the Herald Tribune in 1955 and later worked as a writer, editor, and columnist for Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, and Time.
Kahn wrote a book for young readers, Inside Big League Baseball; a consideration of his ethnic heritage, The Passionate People: What It Means to Be a Jew in America; and an account of antiwar protesters at Columbia University in 1968, The Battle for Morningside Heights: Why Students Rebel, before creating his best-known work. Inspired by his discovery that Dodger former third-baseman Bill Cox was a substitute bartender at an American Legion post, The Boys of Summer is really two books: the first, Kahn’s memoir of growing up Jewish in Brooklyn and falling in love with baseball in general and the Dodgers in particular, his affection for his father, and the sense of loss resulting from his father’s premature death; the second, his account of the often sad, empty lives the Dodgers of the 1950’s led after baseball. Like the best of sports books, The Boys of Summer uses a game to explore eloquently the essence of life itself.
How the Weather Was, a collection of essays, includes a profile of Al Rosen, the Cleveland Indians’ third baseman in the 1950’s, a Jew who attained the dream of baseball glory Kahn longed for as a boy; and a study of sportswriter John Lardner, with whom Kahn worked at Newsweek, in which he examines the essence of his own writing style. In A Season in the Sun, essays about different levels of amateur and professional baseball, Kahn recounts teaching his son to hit. Good Enough to Dream details his experiences in 1983, the year he spent as president and part-owner of the Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Pennsylvania League, and also returns to his memories of his youth and his feelings for his father, comparing his experiences with baseball to those of his sixteen-year-old daughter. (Kahn’s three marriages have produced three children, one of whom is deceased.) Joe and Marilyn presents biographies of baseball great Joe DiMaggio and Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe in an attempt to explain their brief marriage, divorce, and later friendship. Games We Used to Play collects twenty-seven of his best essays. Kahn goes back to his favorite period with The Era, 1947-1957: When the Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers Ruled the World, recapturing the major events and mythical figures of this era from the perspective of a historian without indulging in nostalgia. Memories of Summer examines baseball in the 1940’s and 1950’s from a personal perspective, with essays on Kahn’s relationship with his parents and his development as a writer. The Head Game focuses on the role of baseball pitchers. Kahn helped controversial figure Pete Rose write his autobiography, while October Men profiles the equally controversial Yankee legends Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin. A Flame of Pure Fire broke from Kahn’s usual sport to discuss the career of boxer Jack Dempsey in the 1920’s.
While all these works have their virtues and flaws, none has achieved anything like the status of The Boys of Summer. His first novel, But Not to Keep, concerns the personal problems of a journalist and ghost writer, and his second, The Seventh Game, focusing on a part-American Indian pitcher at the end of his career, is another of Kahn’s reflections on age and loss. Both lack the stylistic fervor of his nonfiction. For his primary achievement, he was inducted in 1987 into the Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame.
Kahn, Roger. Interview by Mike Shannon. In Baseball: The Writers’ Game. South Bend, Ind.: Diamond Communications, 1992. Kahn explains how he wrote The Boys of Summer.
Orodenker, Richard, and Andrew Milner. “Roger Kahn.” In Twentieth-Century American Sportswriters, edited by Orodenker. Vol. 171 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1996. A thorough examination of Kahn’s life and works.
Roberts, Frederic M. “Dem Bums Become the Boys of Summer: From Comic Caricatures to Sacred Icons of the National Pastime.” American Jewish History 83 (March, 1995). Discusses the lasting reputation of Kahn’s masterpiece.
Smith, Leverett T., Jr. “More Versions of Defeat.” Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature 5 (Fall, 1987). Compares The Boys of Summer with baseball books by Barry Gifford and Joel Oppenheimer.
Smith, Leverett T., Jr., and David A. Jones. “Jack Keefe and Roy Hobbs: Two All-American Boys.” Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 6 (Spring, 1989). Considers the baseball players in Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al: A Busher’s Letters (1916) and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) in the light of Kahn’s treatment of their real-life counterparts in The Boys of Summer.
Solomon, Eric. “The Boy of Summer Grows Older: Roger Kahn and the Baseball Memoir.” Baseball History 2 (Summer, 1987). Traces the autobiographical element and the theme of loss through Kahn’s baseball books and compares them to other works about the sport.