The Dark Deniers

The Boys of Summer
Roger Kahn
A Review in the Re-Read Series

In the Spring of 1975 or 1976,  I can’t narrow it any further, Sister Margaret Lucille Gallagher conveyed one of those thoughts that haunt you for the rest of your life. As I recall it the class was given time for an assignment and, it being Spring and the class being aged 12 or 13,  as my classmates completed their work levity and hijinks ensued.

Except for one of the girls in the glass, I don’t exactly remember which girl. She picked up a book.

And for her trouble, she became the poster child for not wasting the precious gift of the limited time we are given on earth. As I recall, the lesson was succinct: “You’ll never get another April 18, 197X.  Rose [a pseudonym] isn’t wasting her time.”

So re-reading has always presented a challenge. Are literature professors wasting their time? And even if they aren’t, time spent on a re-read is time not spent reading something new. This is the kind of thing that could tie me up in knots if I let it. Luckily I embrace the anarchic and so let my attention wander where it may though, truth be told, the new very often dominates.

I first read The Boys of Summer in my ’20s.  Working in advertising, and not being particularly athletic or interested in spectator sports, reading a book like this was a way to cut corners. I may not have been interested in baseball but I was interested in history and what New York was like just before and during my childhood. Plus, I could pick up enough lingo to follow a conversation in a bar. We all cut corners, why pretend otherwise?

As critics have noted, Boys is really two books. The first is a memoir of growing up in Brooklyn, becoming a sportswriter and covering the Dodgers during 1952 and what became their 1953 World Series-winning season.  The second recounts Kahn’s visits with the ’53 starting line-up 15 years on. As a young man I dwelt on the first book, eating up the story of Depression-era Brooklyn and comparing it with my own family lore of Bronx  life in the same period. While Kahn drew vivid portraits of the team they couldn’t really win my heart–I was raised in a Yankee household and even my Dad, who had capitulated, had been a Giants fan. Bronx people don’t easily do Brooklyn.

The second part of the book consist of chapter length interviews/visits with that starting line-up.  What’s perhaps most astonishing in this post-Curt Flood era is that these guys went to work when they stopped playing. For every Duke Snider doing color commentary there’s a Carl Furillo working as a hard hat on the construction of the World Trade Center, a George Shuba working as a clerk typist at the local Post Office (!), a Preacher Roe running a rural green grocer. Even Jackie Robinson goes to work for Chock Full o’ Nuts.

Because fate is a cruel mistress these masters of the diamond aren’t spared the harsher side of life. Clem Labine‘s son loses a leg in the Vietnam War. Carl Erskine has a son with Down Syndrome. Jackie Robinson loses a son to the side effects of a misspent youth. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent now. Maybe it’s because I’m fast approaching fifty and am, therefore, older than any of these guys were around 1970. Maybe it’s because accepting my own heartaches enables me to have room for the heartaches of others. Whatever the reason, these guys are far more memorable and exemplary as human beings than as giants of sport.

Lest this space degenerate into a maudlin puddle, let me share the one philosophical gem buried deep in Part 2. At some point in the late 1950s, after the Dodgers had fled to LA but while Snider was still playing for the club, Kahn and Snider collaborated on a striaght-truth article about life in baseball. It wasn’t exactly Ball Four, but it pissed off the establishment in a major way. Evidently both Kahn and Snider suffered for it.

As Kahn recounts, only John Lardner understood. And he did so in a profound way. I can think of no better ending:

“You see,” Lardner said…”Duke thought if his dreams came true he would be a different person. He’s not unhappy about the dream. He’s unhappy that he’s still the same man. Happens to a lot of us. We get somewhere we wanted and find we’re still ourselves.”

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