Sports

Roger Kahn’s Legacy Goes Beyond The Boys of Summer

The late author forever changed how sports writers could portray athletes.

Roger Kahn, smiling, superimposed over Jackie Robinson swinging a bat, with other former Brooklyn Dodgers behind him.
Roger Kahn is famous for his book about the post-glory days of the Jackie Robinson–era Brooklyn Dodgers. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Brooklyn Nationals/Wikipedia, Stephanie Rogers/Wikipedia, and Bob Sandberg/Look Magazine via Wikipedia.

The baseball writer Roger Kahn died last week. He was a surly, proud character who only got surlier and prouder in his old age. He would have resented being called a baseball writer. But that’s what he was, and there’s nothing wrong with being a baseball writer.

Kahn will forever be remembered as the author of The Boys of Summer, the ruminative, emotional book built around the post-glory years of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers players that he covered as a young newspaper reporter with the New York Herald Tribune. The Boys of Summer is itself a great legacy: a book that was beloved by baseball fans upon its release in 1972 and that has managed to grow more deeply entrenched in the sport’s firmament since.

But The Boys of Summer was just one part of a longer project that defined Kahn’s career. Kahn’s great achievement was the way his work helped recast professional ballplayers as emotional, vulnerable human beings. He trafficked in the classical notion of athletes as mythical heroes, but he simultaneously was hip to the fact that maybe being a hero isn’t all it’s cut out to be.

At the time Kahn was working, the popular conception of the ballplayer more or less ended as soon as they took off their uniform. But it was exactly because Kahn so admired ballplayers in uniform that his portraits of their humanity out of uniform turned out to be so moving.

For example, in 1956, Kahn collaborated with Dodgers center fielder Duke Snider on an essay for the now-defunct magazine Collier’s. The essay (which, full disclosure, I discuss a bit in my upcoming book, Stealing Home) is a remarkable document for the time: an exhaustive account of all the ways that it sucks to be a professional baseball superstar.

The essay grew out of a conversation between Kahn and Snider at a bar called Holiday House on some Dodgers road trip. You can see Kahn’s fingerprints all over it, especially in how he places Snider in the lineage of historically great baseball legends, simultaneously signaling the importance of baseball mythology and undercutting it.

“Sometimes you hear talk about ‘the good old days when there were fellows like Ruth and Cobb who really loved baseball,’ ” Snider (really Kahn) writes. “Maybe they did, but they didn’t exactly go broke playing it.”

The piece brought negative attention to both writer and ghostwriter. Snider was accused of being ungrateful and a whiner. Kahn was accused of making the whole thing up to get a story, and of using Snider as a sort of dupe. But none of that was true. Both men addressed the fallout from the Collier’s essay in Peter Golenbock’s oral history book Bums. What Snider really wanted people to understand was that he took baseball seriously. But for Kahn, the piece aimed to correct for much more: He recited to Golenbock the names of some of the sports writers who mocked the essay, including the legendary Red Smith. “As one who writes books learns,” Kahn said, “newspaper commentary isn’t very perceptive.” Nevertheless, the Collier’s essay was unprecedented, and it was a preview of what Kahn would do with The Boys of Summer.

In that book, Kahn pulled back the curtain on the lives and vulnerabilities of once-beloved Dodgers players. But he did so in a way that made their glories seem ancient and gauzy and literary in an almost Victorian sense, even though he was writing less than two decades after the fact. Imagine a self-consciously literary book coming out now about the late-’90s Atlanta Braves that takes its title from Dylan Thomas and has a preface called “Lines on the Transpotine Madness.” Then imagine that the book also lays bare with devastating detail the post-baseball lives of its subjects. Imagine, like, Jeff Blauser, tending bar at an American Legion in rural central Pennsylvania.

In many ways, The Boys of Summer resembles other in-depth, immersive nonfiction writing that was happening at the time it was published in 1972. Kahn was about the same age, and had the same predilections and credentials, as many of the “New Journalists.” But his work was never read as new journalism. It just didn’t feel anti-establishment. Instead it ushered in a new way of thinking and writing about baseball: a more complicated form of nostalgia that empowered players and humanized them.

Kahn’s love of the sport, and of the men who played it, was one of his defining strengths (and weaknesses) as a writer. In the late 1980s, he collaborated with Pete Rose on an autobiography in which Rose repeatedly denied having bet on baseball. Not long afterward, the world learned that this was a lie, much to Kahn’s embarrassment.

Back in 1972, The Boys of Summer came out in the wake of two autobiographies that could have predicted Pete Rose’s cynicism: Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Curt Flood’s The Way It Is. Both of those books—memoirs by players who pushed back against the game’s most sacred traditions—went to great lengths to burst the bubble of baseball’s purity.

But while Bouton and Flood (and their respective ghostwriters Leonard Shechter and Richard Carter) provoked and prodded and challenged readers to think critically about baseball as an institution, Kahn gently led readers to a deeper understanding of the sport’s impact on the men who play it—and on the fact that no amount of baseball heroism can stave off the cruelties of time that come for us all.* Not a bad legacy for a baseball writer.

Correction, Feb. 10, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Leonard Shechter’s last name.