I love listening to old men tell stories. A good one will transport me to a different time and place, make me feel, create both nostalgia and excitement. That’s what it felt like to read Roger Kahn’s classic book, The Boys of Summer. It was truly a transporting experience.
The first part of the book is Kahn’s own story of growing up in Brooklyn in the 30s and 40s and falling in love with the Dodgers. He even includes the requisite tales of sneaking onto the roof of a building adjacent to Ebbett’s Field to get an obstructed, but free, view of games. It’s a classic story of boy meets baseball and it’s love at first site.
Kahn’s story takes a unique turn, though. His mother was an elitist academic who despised baseball and pushed him into poetry, music, and literature. His father was his access to the game, but even he was a genius in his own right – the co-host of a trivia and Q&A radio show and well-published writer. So of course, as Kahn developed his love for the game he also developed a gift for words, and when he finished college what would he do? Naturally he joined the sports department at the New York Herald Tribune. From there he was promoted to be the beat writer for Dodgers.
The Boys of Summer begins to make a shift at this point. Instead of “boy loves baseball” it begins to tell the stories of the grown men who played the game – stars like Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese as well as lesser known men like Carl Erskine and carl Furillo. Kahn tells the story of these men as players, friends, antagonists, and ball players. In this way it is as pure a baseball narrative as you’ll find.
What happens in the second half of the book, though, is what sets The Boys of Summer apart as a classic. Kahn travels around the country to visit each of those players decades after they quit playing ball. He visits their homes, meets their wives, sees their places of business. He tells the story with their words, their observations, their feelings. In some cases it is joyful and uplifting, in others hollow and sad. But all the stories are significant because of their humanity and reality rooted in the baseball diamond but extending far beyond that.
The Boys of Summer is the best baseball books I have read, and it is more than that. It is a beautifully written piece of literature. If you enjoy baseball, history, writing, or significant stories of people this book is for you.