Penny Abell | Serpentine Drive
Roger Kahn published his best known and most lucrative book, The Boys of Summer, in 1972. The book has sold 3,000,000 copies in 90 printings. It is still available in a Harper Perennial Modern Classics paperback and a Kindle edition.
Writing for the New York Herald Tribune, Kahn covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for two consecutive winning seasons, 1952 and 1953, each of which ended in a World Series loss to the New York Yankees. He wasn’t on the beat to cover the agony of the preceding year. In spite of lingering heartache, I accepted the assignment to write this appropriately brief review of Kahn’s memoir.
The Boys of Summer appears on numerous “Best Sports Books” lists, including its #2 spot on a 2002 list of 100 Best Sports Books, selected by the Sports Illustrated editors. I consider this to be yet another example of SI’s poor editorial judgment.
Kahn writes too much about Kahn and too little about baseball. He stretches for a literary style, with the pretentious title of the introduction: “Lines on the Transpontine Madness” and closes the intro with a Shakespearean quotation.
Nevertheless, vivid sports writing can be found in this introduction:
Center field belonged to Snider, rangy and gifted and supple. Duke could get his glove thirteen feet into the air. The centerfield wall was cushioned with foam rubber, and Snider, in pursuit of high drives, ran at the wall, dug a spiked shoe into the rubber and hurled his body upward. Pictures of him in low orbit survive.
In my judgment, great writing about baseball comes not in books, but in essays, often from writers who are better known for other genres. Consider John Updike, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” and A. Bartlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind.” Roger Angell, the best baseball writer ever, published his essays in The New Yorker. Collections include The Summer Game, Five Seasons and Season Ticket.
The Boys of Summer will still appeal to some people, mostly those for whom it will be a rereading: people who know who Oisk is, who saw games through the eyes of Red Barber and Vin Scully, and who still care about Clem Labine’s memories. I loved it – both times.