The Boys of Summer

I completely forgot I had it, gathering dust and nearly hidden on my bookshelf. It was a book I bought a long time ago, a book I never read.

Not that you could tell from looking at it. The front cover is torn in the middle and masking tape covers the spine of the book. Without it, the cover and the back would have been lost many years ago. About one-third of the back cover is gone, revealing, on page 402, the final words of the epilogue.

The book is “The Boys of Summer,” by Roger Kahn, who is still considered by many to be one of the best living sports writers today. The story is fascinating. Kahn, in his mid-20s, was tapped to cover the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers as they played in front of adoring crowds at the long-departed Ebbets Field. Quotes and stories from players like Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Pee Wee Reese and Carl Erskine litter the inside of the book, as Kahn sets upon his journey to cover the team that first captured his love when he was a child.

That’s the first half of the story. The second half features Kahn, as a wiser, more worldly man, traveling across the country nearly 20 years later to meet those old ballplayers and discover how their lives had twisted and turned after they hung up their glove and cleats for the final time.

I acquired the book about the same time I took possession of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” and Sparky Lyle’s “The Bronx Zoo.” I’d never read Kahn’s tome. I tried several times to start, but the book was dense and the history of the author didn’t interest me. Not true for “Ball Four” and “The Bronx Zoo.” Those books were lighter and funnier, and though many years would pass before I could appreciate many of the jokes in those words, I had reread and reread those works a dozen times or two.

About a month ago, I was in the basement, looking through my bookshelf, when my eyes ran across “The Boys of Summer.” I thought I’d give the dog-eared book a read. And you know what? It was really good. And you know what else? I’m glad it took me so long to discover.

First, a quick sampling on page 158 of “The Boys of Summer” with Kahn talking about buying World Series tickets for his friends:

I bought a pair for each game, at $6 a ticket, spending a total of $84, which was $12 more than my weekly salary. Then I offered the tickets to friends who had not called. Both strips were gone in a day. All Brooklyn panted for my tickets, but as it did, I made a modest economic discovery. Once $84 is removed from a checking account, to be repaid in multiples of $6, it is gone. Friends gave me cash and
checks, but the small installments always dissipated. It was months before my account recovered. Whatever the arithmetic, $6 times 14 never equals $84.

And in a similar, two paragraphs from Bearcats Rising (though my editor added part of it – the good stuff), talking about former UC quarterback Ben Mauk, who had applied to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility:

Mauk, though, wasn’t finished. He had one more stratagem. Unbeknownst to the NCAA – or anybody at UC – Mauk had badly injured himself as a high school freshman. He was going to argue that an old injury had prevented him from playing as a true freshman at Wake Forest … Like the 2006 season, an injury had cost him 2003 as well.

It was simple. Two plus two equals six. Two injuries, two lost seasons, which equaled a sixth year of eligibility. That was Mauk’s ultimate logic. If some were suspicious of an old injury, well, all’s fair in love and litigation. <

Anyway, if I had read the book when I was 10, I wouldn't have appreciated Kahn's writing, his stories, his journey. I would have brushed off the historical perspective, read it to learn about Robinson and Reese and probably never perused – or thought about – it again.

But I, like Kahn, am wiser and more worldly, 20 years after I first put the book on my shelf. My life has turned in directions I couldn't have imagined, much like the players Kahn covered. I can appreciate the way Kahn wrote, the way he did his job at a time when newspapers were THE information source for people smart and dumb, the way his journey into middle age reflected in his writing.

I'm glad I found the book a month ago, and I'm glad I read it. I'm glad I took the book with me from Marietta to Athens to Augusta to Cincinnati. Even if it takes me another 20 years to reread the work – if I ever do – I'm glad that I saved it all that time. I can appreciate now what Kahn was trying to say.

Before, I wouldn't have understood.

Boys of Summer (front)

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