Advertisement
Share

The Boys Turn 26

Twenty-six years ago this March, what is probably the most famous American sports book was published. “The Boys of Summer,” David Halberstam observed recently, “is the one we all shoot for. It was the work that showed us that a sports book could be about a lot more than just sports.”

“The Boys of Summer” has sold more than 2.5 million copies through some 55 printings, and on March 10, Harper Collins is publishing a new edition, with a fresh afterword by the author, Roger Kahn. Here, in a special adaptation for The Times, he tells of the circumstances of the book’s creation and touches bases with all the survivors from that memorable Dodger team.

*

The line-up went like this:

Advertisement

Catcher: Roy Campanella; first base: Gil Hodges; second base: Jackie Robinson; third base: Billy Cox; shortstop: Pee Wee Reese; outfield: Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Andy Pafko, George Shuba; pitchers: Clem Labine, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe.

In the 10 years from 1947 through 1956, the Dodgers won the pennant six times. Campanella, Robinson, Reese and Snider--half that starting line-up of position players--are in the Hall of Fame.

Epilogue for the 1990s and the Millennium

When the Saturday Evening Post fell dead at Christmastime in 1969, I felt the pain one suffers upon the loss of a particularly loving relative.

Advertisement

By this time, soon after my 41st birthday, I was tending three children, supporting one wife who was pursuing a graduate degree at Columbia and helping out a former wife with alimony checks.

In these circumstances, the abrupt loss of my $35,000 annual retainer was unsettling. Even worse was knowing that the Post calamity sundered bonds with gifted and generous editors. Sundered them forever. Great editors. The late Otto A. Friedrich and William A. Emerson Jr. at the Post qualify as cultural treasures. Like the right wife. Or a perfect third baseman. Each is irreplaceable.

I could have gone to work for a news magazine, but I didn’t want to bow to a salaried regimen and the censorship and corporate thinking that went with that secure and suffocating life. I hoped to keep my spirit and manual typewriter free. And all the while make a living.

One book, I thought. I’ll write one book that I want to write, a book for readers, of course. But first a book for myself alone. I’ll write about things and places and people I have loved. Newspaper days. My father. Ebbets Field. Jackie Robinson. A baseball team. The players who laughed and wept in a society that beats down men of muscle and sweat.

Advertisement

My father, as a man of muscle and sweat, who knew botany and Gibbon, relished vector analysis and stirred to the restless chords of the Cesar Franck Symphony in D minor, had himself been beaten down. I would write a book about people who knew defeat and rose to heroism.

If I can just get that one book written, I thought, whether it succeeds or fails, my own life will assume a meaning. If I get that book done and it doesn’t sell, I’ll go back to one of those groupthink news magazines and take the money and the pension rights and complain not at all.

Or very little.

The title came immediately to my brow. I had heard the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, recite on two occasions. Once he drank himself silly and spouted randy doggerel, such as Getting Fanny’s Bun. On the other evening he spoke with great control, in tones of surpassing beauty. That was the night I heard Dylan say, “I see the boys of summer in their ruin. . . .”

Advertisement

The title troubled some at the publishing house. It came from a poem, for goodness sake, and poetry doesn’t sell. Didn’t I know that? Others, thinking of a popular play, “The Boys in the Band,” announced that Dylan’s line and my title suggested homosexuality (as though that were an evil).

In my first contract for this book, an editor substituted his own title idea. Safely, prosaically, dully, he wanted to call the book “The Team.” Months of dialogue followed before I was able to win a debate that should not have been begun.

When I was three-quarters finished with the manuscript, my muses disappeared. They had been working hard and took an unauthorized rest trip to their homeland near the Peirian Springs that run down Mount Olympus. A fortuitous meeting with Carl Erskine in New York lured them back into my riverside work room.

Erskine remembers saying, “If you don’t finish this book, then how do you think you’ll feel when Dick Young [a brash and gifted tabloid sports columnist] comes out with it next year?”

Advertisement

My own recollection summons up more inspirational words. “You can finish. You have to finish. Everybody on the team is counting on you to finish this book.” The thought of letting down these people, splendid ballplayers and good men: the thought of failing to make a memorial to the Herald Tribune, to Ebbets Field, to my father. . . . That failure would try my spirit.

By the following wintry dawn I was back typing.

When I had written the final word--"home"--in the spring of 1971, $380 remained in the family checking account. Our stocks, our savings accounts, our weekend place in the Berkshire Hills, all had gone to fund a single book. With my enthusiastic support, my wife decided to throw a party.

“I might as well celebrate,” she said. “After all, I’ve become the world’s outstanding expert on Pee Wee Reese, under the age of 30.”

Advertisement

Zero Mostel came and Rae and Jackie Robinson and Howard Fast, who, to my surprise, berated Robinson for testimony in Congress that refuted words attributed to Fast’s friend, the great African-American singer, actor, leftist, Paul Robeson. “Mr. Rickey asked me to testify,” Robinson said. “Back then [1949], if Mr. Rickey had asked me to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I would have done that too.”

Fast pressed on until I guided him away with a firm hand between the shoulder blades. Robinson looked uncomfortable. A few moments later when Zero Mostel trumpeted his name, Robinson cringed. In that Tevye voice, with which Zero captured Broadway in “Fiddler on the Roof,” he called: “Mister Jackie Robinson.”

Robinson flinched. He was a warm, if somewhat shy, party guest who had little stomach for arguing politics with a stranger over caviar canapes or poached brook trout. Jack liked to eat.

“Mister Jackie Robinson, you are my hero,” Mostel shouted. “And finally to meet you.” He lumbered across the room and gave Robinson a stout-armed, wet-eyed hug. After that, everyone romped and reveled.

Advertisement

By Monday morning the checking account had shriveled to $80. Monday afternoon an editorial assistant at Harper telephoned and said there were two offers on her desk. “New American Library wonders if you would accept $100,000 for paperback rights. We feel they may go higher. The Book of the Month Club has chosen ‘The Boys of Summer’ as a special spring selection. That is another $105,000, if I’m not mistaken.”

The Book of the Month Club assigned Red Smith to write a profile of me for its newsletter and Smith invited me to lunch, near the building that had housed the Herald Tribune. Floors that knew Virgil Thomson, Homer Bigart and John Crosby were now occupied by the employees of a health insurance company.

Smith was not only a splendid writer, he was a scrupulous reporter. Since I was not a hostile witness, he opened a notebook in which he had written a long set of questions.

“On exactly what date,” he said, “did you start as a copy boy for the Herald Tribune?”

Advertisement

To my discomfort and Smith’s, I could not remember. The best sports columnist extant asked me a reasonable question, and I had to plead nolo contendere. After drinks came, Smith and I rallied.

“The Boys of Summer” was published in March 1972, to varied reactions. Dick Young wrote a column calling it “a great book, or anyway half a great book.” He liked my account of growing up within shouting distance of Ebbets Field. He was less fond of my visits to the ballplayers.

Author Eliot Asinof praised my chapters on the ballplayers. “But to tell the truth, I don’t give a damn about how you grew up in Brooklyn.” A newspaper reviewer named Jonathan Yardley had trouble understanding the relationship between the two major sections of “The Boys of Summer.” Yardley complained, not entirely pleasantly, that I had written two books, not one.

I could parry that his reasoning makes “Canterbury Tales” 30 books, rather than one. But to what purpose? As Pee Wee Reese learned that it was folly for him to read the papers after the Dodgers lost, I have discovered that the harshest book reviewers are hypersensitive to critical comments on their own stuff. And they tend to have long memories.

Advertisement

Aside from that, most press comment was wonderful, from Peter Prescott in Newsweek, to George Frazier in the Boston Globe to Heywood Hale Broun in the Chicago Tribune to Dave Anderson in the New York Times. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Kirsch said, “This book brought me to tears more than once, and I say that without embarrassment. And to laughter and to quiet confrontation with the enemy, time.”

The first printing--12,000 copies--sold out in days. Harper bought 30,000 copies from the Book of the Month to keep stores stocked while more printings were prepared. Johnny Carson asked me to talk about “The Boys of Summer” on “The Tonight Show.” Dick Cavett devoted an entire 90-minute program on ABC to the book and to some of its principals. But sorrow was not far away.

On April 2, a heart attack killed Gil Hodges in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was managing the New York Mets. He was 47. In affectionate tribute, Reese remembered a fight he had gotten into with Dee Fondy, a 200-pound first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Hodges moved quickly, grasped Fondy by the uniform shirt and lifted him off the ground. “I don’t know where you’re going when I put you down, Dee, but you’re not going anywhere near Pee Wee.”

At Hodges’ funeral, Jackie Robinson said, “I always thought I’d be the first to go.” He called me a few months later, after “The Boys of Summer” moved to the top of best-seller lists. He began in the ballpark language we used to use. “You son of a bitch.”

Advertisement

“‘Why am I a son of a bitch, Robinson?”

“Your damn book has my telephone ringing all the time. I get no peace. Some of them called me an Uncle Tom for working for white bosses. Now they’re finding out I wasn’t an Uncle Tom after all because of your damn book.”

“You’re welcome, Jackie.”

He was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, and he was all but blind when a heart attack killed him on the morning of Oct. 24. He was 53. Way down in Georgia, Dixie Walker said, “I’m as sad as I could possibly be. Oh, I said and did some stupid things when Jack came up. But before the end, Jack and I were shaking hands.”

Advertisement

In Connecticut I shared grief with Robinson’s doctor, Arthur Logan. “It’s for the best,” Arthur said. “His whole circulatory system was breaking down. In months, or a year, we would have had to amputate his legs. Can you imagine Jackie Robinson blind, without legs, in a wheelchair? Death isn’t always the worst thing.” Then Dr. Arthur Logan began to cry.

In 1978, Billy Cox died of esophageal cancer at a Harrisburg hospital. He was 58. In a splendid obituary, John Radosta of the New York Times quoted Walter O’Malley as saying, “He was the best glove Brooklyn ever had.”

Carl Furillo spent his last years working as a night watchman, despite the ravages of leukemia. He was 66 when he died on Jan. 21, 1989. Carl Erskine spoke the eulogy in Reading, Pa.: “I remember how tough he was, how strong he was, how consistent he was. When he hit a single, it was a bullet. When he hit a home run, it was a rocket. And his arm portrayed his strength.

“But he also had great sensitivity and tenderness. When Charlie Dressen wanted to compare things, he said they were like dirt and ice cream.”

Advertisement

Carl Furillo was like steel and velvet.

Roy Campanella’s brave life ended on June 26, 1993, in Woodland Hills. The cause was a heart attack. Campanella was 71. One reporter remembered a comment about Campy from Ty Cobb, perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever. Cobb, not noted for gushing, said, “Campanella will be remembered longer than any catcher in baseball history.”

The other Dodgers are bearing up as one would expect, with courage and dignity. Let me mention them in the order in which they have appeared.

The clothing company for which Clem Labine worked and designed no longer exists. Labine moved on to work for a bank and then retired. He maintains homes in Rhode Island and Florida. Clem’s son Jay, who lost a leg in Vietnam, is doing well, working for a Rhode Island state agency. After the death of Clem’s first wife, he married a notably charming woman from an Italian-American family in Providence.

Advertisement

“We’re very happy,” Barbara Labine said. “That may be surprising, since I didn’t know any baseball when we got married. You couldn’t listen to ballgames on the radio on the weekend in our house. Grandma preferred grand opera.”

George Shuba still resides in Youngstown, Ohio, where he is comfortably retired from his post-baseball job in the post office. Carl and Betty Erskine celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Oct. 5, 1997. Carl rose to the presidency of the First National Bank of Anderson, Ind., before easing back to a role as vice chairman of the board. Jimmy Erskine, their son who suffered from Down syndrome, lives at home and holds a job nearby at the Hopewell Center for people with developmental difficulties.

Andy Pafko lives in Mt. Prospect in the Chicago area. Once a year he returns to his hometown of Boyceville, Wis., to talk to students at the local high school. He has donated his baseball memorabilia to the school.

Joe Black has moved to Phoenix. He does consulting work for VIAD, formerly Greyhound, and helps out in a program for old ballplayers who have fallen on hard times. He was prominent and eloquent in organized baseball’s 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson and integration of the sport.

Advertisement

Pee Wee Reese is a remarkably youthful 80. “What should you write about me?” he asked. “Just the usual stuff. That I’m a hell of a guy.” Indeed he is. Reese has survived two cancer operations. He even hired a personal trainer to keep him in shape for his 90th birthday. Pee Wee’s son, Mark, has become a filmmaker. Three years ago, Mark hired me to narrate a television series on the Dodgers that he wrote, produced and directed for ESPN. When I refer to Mark as the Shakespeare of the New South, I’m not entirely kidding.

Duke Snider has weathered problems with the Internal Revenue Service and cholesterol. He has undergone five coronary bypass procedures. He remains cheerful. When I last visited him in Fallbrook, he had moved into a condominium overlooking a golf course. I remarked that the green expanse beyond a picture window was pleasing. “The most pleasing thing,” Duke said, “is that I don’t have to mow it.”

I have saved the closing words for Preacher Roe, who soon will be 83. Roe is retired but vigorous in West Plain, Mo., and proud that every one of his grandchildren has gone to college.

“I know one of these days the good Lord is going to come calling,” Preacher says, “and when that happens I certainly hope he sees fit to send me up to heaven. But heaven will really have to be something to be better than what we all had long ago in Brooklyn.”

Advertisement

Writing about old Brooklyn and the Dodgers has become heady stuff. Everybody these days wants to try. The cliche that old Brooklyn was the borough of “dese” and “dem” and “dose” has perished and a curious phenomenon sweeps the land from Cambridge to San Diego. I call it Brooklyn Chic. No, it wasn’t “dese,” “dem” and “dose,” and it wasn’t Paris in the 1920s, either. But Brooklyn was one wonderful place to be a baseball fan.

Unique in my adventure is that an ordinary sandlotter, myself, forged such glorious friendships with people called Reese, Labine, Erskine, Snider, Black. “A family,” Carl Erskine says, “is more than blood.” I cannot think of a finer family than mine.


Advertisement