Bill Veeck, who in his full-throttle lifetime owned the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox, and thus knew a little about baseball, once observed, “Roger Kahn is doomed to go through life having everything he writes compared with ‘The Boys of Summer.’”
As it turns out, Veeck was dead center. In introductions, in print, whenever the name Roger Kahn appeared, it was invariably followed by, “the author of ‘The Boys of Summer.’” Not that it bothered Kahn, who went right on writing. If fans, baseball people and Sports Illustrated wanted to hail his work, which sold more than 3 million copies, as the finest baseball book ever written, well ....
Forever linked to his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, the subject of his signature work, Kahn died Thursday in New York, his literary agent Robert Wilson said. He was 92.
Acclaimed by many as the best baseball writing in the country, his prolific output was widely diverse. He wrote more than 20 books, two of them novels, the others dealing with such topics as politics, Jews in America, racial injustice, student unrest and boxing, and countless magazine articles on whatever else he found interesting or disturbing.
He had also been sports editor of Newsweek, editor at large of the Saturday Evening Post, a columnist for Esquire magazine, a writing professor at three colleges, and a friend and admirer of poet Robert Frost.
Even so, he often wandered back to baseball, his first love. Besides his 1972 epic, “The Boys of Summer,” in which he recalled his childhood as a fan of the Dodgers, the team he covered as a sportswriter in the early 1950s, then examined the same players’ mostly unhappy lives after baseball, he wrote eight other books about baseball and baseball players and their lives.
He lifted the title of his major work from a poem by Dylan Thomas, who described “the boys of summer in all their ruin.” In an era when all but the very best ballplayers made ordinary money, most returned to normal working lives after retiring from baseball. Here, for instance, is how Kahn found retired outfielder Carl Furillo, who had turned fielding crazy caroms off the right field wall in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field into a science:
“The carom of life is harder for Carl Furillo to play. ... He is a bitter hardhat putting elevators in Manhattan office buildings. He thinks baseball used him badly. ‘The bad leg had me walking funny and I had to have two operations for a ruptured disk. That comes on account of the injury but I figure, flip it, I gotta take care of myself. ... ’ The question that dangles, or caroms, is the bitterness justified? Or is it ‘E-9’ for the right fielder in the larger playing field of life?”
One season, Kahn bought and operated a minor league team, the Utica Blue Sox in upstate New York, so that he would be properly prepared to write “Good Enough to Dream,” a book about baseball in the lowest of the minor leagues, another hit among baseball cognoscenti.
With all the accolades, though, came occasional controversy, conflict and utter sadness.
His 1989 book on the disgraced and baseball-banned player-manager Pete Rose, for instance, in which he professed belief in Rose’s claims that although he’d gambled on other sports he’d never bet on baseball games, was widely panned as ridiculously naïve, if not downright deceitful.
Wrote one critic of “Pete Rose: My Story,” “Of all the devastation Rose has wrought on the game he purports so grandly to love, the soul of Roger Kahn as ravaged in this book is one of the saddest ruins to behold.”
Then Kahn was flayed anew when Rose, years later, finally admitted that he had, indeed, bet not only on baseball but on his own teams’ games.
“[Rose] was always surrounded by a bodyguard of liars,” Kahn told Bill Dwyre of The Times in 2007, “and so the question had to be put to him, before we went forward with the book. I must have ... asked him five times, ‘Did you bet on baseball?’ And the answer was always the same. He’d look me in the eye and say, ‘I’ve got too much respect for the game.’
“I regret I ever got involved in the book.”
Kahn also was on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” ABC news program the night in 1987, when longtime Dodgers executive Al Campanis, on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, told a national TV audience that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or, perhaps, a general manager.”
“My first sense was shock,” said Kahn, who had been close to Robinson and was a friend of Campanis as well. “My next thought was, ‘How can I bail him out?’ ... Then I got to thinking that I wouldn’t want to hear this kind of talk at a party, much less on a TV show in front of millions of people, so I can’t bail him out of his position at all.”
He didn’t, Campanis ignored Koppel’s attempts to let him recant and shortly afterward was no longer a Dodgers executive.
Kahn endured a bitter divorce from his second wife and an ensuing six-year legal battle over money and child custody, but worst of all was the suicide death of his troubled younger son, also named Roger. A student at UCLA, battling depression and drug abuse, he intentionally overdosed while Kahn was trying to sort out the myriad problems with the Rose book.
Kahn was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1927, and came by his love for baseball and writing naturally. His father, Gordon, a teacher at Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School, was a diehard Dodgers fan who began taking Roger to games as an infant. His mother Olga, also a teacher at Jefferson High, much preferred literature, leading family readings of classical authors.
In 1948, the year after Robinson broke the color barrier, Kahn, having attended New York University off and on, went to work for the New York Herald Tribune as a copy boy. There, he met the paper’s legendary sports editor, Stanley Woodward, and occasionally wrote stories for the section.
In one of his submissions, he used the phrase, “a dubious battle.” Asked by Woodward where he had run across that description, Kahn answered, “A novel by John Steinbeck. He took the title from [English poet John] Milton: ‘In dubious battle on the plains of heaven.’”
Replied Woodward, “You know Milton and you like baseball. Keep running errands and answering the phone. Something may turn up for you in sports.”
By 1952, Kahn was covering his beloved Dodgers for the paper, and forging a bond with Robinson. He saw firsthand the racism Robinson had to battle, although his paper wouldn’t let him write about it, and supplied much of the content for Robinson’s short-lived Our Sports, a magazine aimed at an African American readers.
Said Kahn in a New York Times interview in 1996, “Robinson has been called a pioneer, prophet, visionary and SOB. He could be any or all. Mostly, I remember him as a man who would risk anything, even his life, for what he believed in.”
Kahn covered the Dodgers for several seasons, becoming the best-paid beat writer in New York at $10,000 a year. Then, after calling Ebbets Field a “sarcophagus” in a story, he was taken off the Dodgers and reassigned to the New York Giants, with whom Willie Mays was fast becoming, as Kahn described him, “the most exciting player” he had ever seen.
By 1956, the still-young Kahn had moved on to Newsweek and his career was off and running.
“All my life, I’ve tried to write literature,” he wrote on his website. “I am aware that, like Stan Musial and Ted Williams at the bat, most of the time I’ve failed. But the critical word is ‘try.’ That effort has been the wonder of my life.”
Kahn is survived by his third wife, Katharine Johnson, son Gordon, daughter Alissa Avril and five grandchildren.
Kupper is a former Times staff writer.