Grace Lichtenstein

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730

Any baseball book that begins with a quotation from Dylan Thomas can't be all good. But then, ["The Boys of Summer"] is about a team so extraordinary that Marianne Moore wrote poems to it, so perhaps Roger Kahn's pretentiousness is not entirely out of place. The "boys of summer" were named [Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Andy Pafko, Billy Cox and Carl "Skoonj" Furillo]. They were the starting lineup of the best team the majors ever saw—the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950's.

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As Kahn makes clear, they were remarkable both for the depths of their personalities and for the range of their skills. Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider took turns hitting 40 home runs a season. Hodges, Billy Cox and Carl Furillo were acknowledged as the finest glove men of their day. Jackie Robinson taught a new generation how to steal bases. Two, Robinson and Campanella, made the Hall of Fame.

Given the assignment of breaking baseball's color line in 1947, the Dodgers, captained by Pee Wee Reese of Kentucky, made it look easy and won the pennant too. Yet in the clutch games (against the Phillies in 1950, the Giants in 1951, the Yankees in 1952 and 1953) they inevitably choked. "Wait 'til next year," was more than a slogan; it was a way of life….

As a young sportswriter for The Herald Tribune, Kahn covered the Dodgers for two of their most heroic, frustrating seasons in 1952 and 1953. The first half of the book is both an autobiography and a history of the team, with emphasis on those years.

Kahn is at his best describing how the Dodgers were able to achieve a feeling of racial harmony in a time before the Supreme Court had made integration an acceptable American idea. Robinson, he relates, broke down many of the initial barriers simply through the force of his intelligence and his overpowering gifts as an athlete…. Forced to sleep in black hotels throughout the South, Robinson nevertheless instructed the other black players to mix with whiles at team dinners. Baited with racial epithets by Eddie Stanky, Robinson made sure the press got the story.

Not that the team itself didn't have its own racial tensions. According to Kahn, when Junior Gilliam was about to become the starting second baseman Billy Cox and others openly bad-mouthed the "nigger" who would make the Dodgers the first team to have more than four blacks on the field at one time.

Kahn notes, too, that newspapers (then as now) shied away from telling the truth about racial conflicts in their sports columns. "Write baseball, not race relations. Story killed," wired an editor after Kahn filed a piece on the Robinson-Stanky feud.

Unfortunately Kahn … gives us in this first section far too much of the Kahn family and the Tribune city room, and too little of the Dodgers themselves. Also, since he stopped reporting the team after 1953, his review of its last four seasons in Brooklyn is skimpy. One could take serious issue with his judgment that the 1955 Dodgers, who brought Brooklyn its first World Series crown after 75 years, were "past their prime." Maybe that victory was an anticlimax for a writer who had gone on to other things.

The second half of the book consists of interviews Kahn conducted with 13 of the fifties Dodgers, "the boys of summer in their ruin." Here the old memories take on a new dimension, because there is a sad irony in many of the portraits….

Not every portrait is successful—Robinson in particular remains a two-dimensional symbol—and there are gaps. Where is Don Newcombe, that hulking brawler? Where is Billy Loes, the only pitcher dumb enough to lose a bunt in the sun? What about Cal Abrams, Brooklyn's one sorry excuse for a Jewish star in the pre-Koufax years?

Never mind. What counts is that Roger Kahn has composed a very stylish piece of fifties nostalgia that puts us back in touch with our heroes without either cosmetizing or demeaning them. Those were simpler times, before baseball was toppled from its throne as the national pastime, and the intervening years have not been kind to the sport or its players…. "The Boys of Summer" is a measure of the distance between then and now.

Grace Lichtenstein, "The Last Days of the Daffy Brooklyn Dodgers," in The New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1972, p. 32.

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