Roger Kahn, elegant ‘Boys of Summer’ author, dies at 92
MAMARONECK, N.Y. (AP) — Roger Kahn, the writer who wove memoir and baseball and touched millions of readers through his romantic account of the Brooklyn Dodgers in “The Boys of Summer,” has died. He was 92.
He died Thursday at a nursing facility in Mamaroneck, a Westchester County suburb, son Gordon Kahn said.
“Roger Kahn loved the game and earned a place in the pantheon of baseball literature long ago. He will be missed, but his words will live on,” Major League Baseball said in a statement.
The author of 20 books and hundreds of articles, Kahn was best known for the 1972 best-seller that looked at his relationship with his father through their shared love of the Dodgers, an object of nostalgia for the many fans who mourned the team’s move to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.
“At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams,” Kahn wrote.
“The Boys of Summer” was a story of lost youth, right down to its title, later borrowed for a hit Don Henley song about a man longing for his past. Kahn’s book moved back and forth between the early 1950s, when he covered the Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune, and 20 years later, when some were ailing (Jackie Robinson), embittered (Carl Furillo) or in a wheelchair (Roy Campanella).
The book was an instant hit, although Kahn was criticized for sentimentalizing his story.
“Here is a book that succeeded for me despite almost everything about it,” wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a late book critic for The New York Times.
Retired Dodgers broadcasting great Vin Scully knew Kahn well from their days with the team — Kahn was a beat writer covering the club, and the same age as Scully.
“You couldn’t travel with them without getting emotionally involved. Roger captured that familial spirit of the players in those days,” Scully told The Associated Press on Friday. “The feeling in Brooklyn was always us against the world — the world would be the lordly pinstripers in the Bronx and almost lordly Giants in Manhattan.”
Scully said Kahn singularly distilled the essence of what it was like to be a Brooklyn player and fan of the team.
“He got it right,” Scully said. “Every year in Brooklyn it was wait till next year. It was only right that in all their years they wound up winning only one World Series and then left.”
Among those featured in the book was Carl Erskine, a star pitcher for those Dodgers.
“I turned 93 in December and for a lot of us who played with Brooklyn then and were in that book, I wouldn’t say it gave us eternal life, but it certainly enhanced our careers,” Erskine told the AP from his home in Anderson, Indiana.
Erskine said he and Kahn bonded over their love for poetry. That once came in particularly handy.
“It was still the early days of airplane travel for teams, and we were on one of those piston planes, flying over Pittsburgh on the way from Cincinnati back to New York,” Erskine recalled. “It was pretty bumpy, and were sitting next to each other. To calm our nerves, I started reciting a poem from Robert Service, it was ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee.’ That was able to distract us from the anxiety of that rough plane ride.”
Many years later, Erskine said they were together at a banquet in New York and Kahn mentioned he need to talk to the pitcher about something.
“So we went over to Toots Shor’s and he told me a sad story. He told me he was dry, that he was working on a book but couldn’t finish it and didn’t know whether anyone would read it,” Erskine said.
Hearing what the book was about — it was “The Boys of Summer” — Erskine spurred Kahn by invoking the name of a prominent New York newspaper writer from the Brooklyn era.
“How’d you like to wake up and find out that Dick Young had written your story?” Erskine prodded.
Erskine said he and Kahn stayed in touch over time, from letters in past days to emails in more recent times.
Kahn began his prolific career in 1948 as a copy boy for the Tribune, and soon became a baseball writer, working under famed sports editor Stanley Woodward. He recalled Woodward as “a wonder” who once cured a writer of using the cliche “spine-tingling” by telling him to “go out in the bleachers and ask every one of those fans if his spine actually tingled.”
He started writing about the Dodgers in 1952, and by age 26 was the newspaper’s prominent sports reporter, earning a salary of $10,000, and also covering the city’s other teams, the Giants and the Yankees.
In 1956, he was named sports editor at Newsweek magazine, and served at the Saturday Evening Post from 1963 to 1969 as editor at large. He also wrote for Esquire, Time and Sports Illustrated.
Kahn’s sports writing often drew on social issues, particularly race. He wrote at length about Robinson and his struggles in breaking baseball’s color line, and the two formed a long friendship.
“By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing. But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player,” Kahn once wrote. “To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.”
When Kahn was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig called him “an icon of our game.”
Among Kahn’s other sports books: 2004’s “October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees’ Miraculous Finish in 1978,” 1986’s “Joe and Marilyn: A Memory of Love,” and 1999’s “A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s.”
One book caused lasting embarrassment: Kahn collaborated with Pete Rose on the 1989 authorized autobiography “Pete Rose: My Story.” Rose, the major league’s all-time hits leader, had recently been barred from baseball for betting on games and the book featured his insistence that the allegations were untrue.
But Rose acknowledged years later, in a subsequent memoir, that he did gamble. Kahn said his “first reaction was to reach for the barf bag.”
“I regret I ever got involved in the book,” Kahn told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “It turns out that Pete Rose was the Vietnam of ballplayers. He once told me he was the best ambassador baseball ever had. I’ve thought about that and wondered why we haven’t sent him to Iran.”
Kahn also wrote two novels and two nonfiction books not related to sports: 1968’s “The Passionate People: What it Means to be a Jew in America,” and the 1970’s “The Battle for Morningside Heights: Why Students Rebel.” He maintained a friendship with the poet Robert Frost, whom he profiled in the Saturday Evening Post.
He later taught writing at several colleges and lectured at Yale, Princeton and Columbia. In 2004, he served a one-semester fellowship as the Ottaway Endowed Professor of Journalism at the State University of New York in New Paltz.
Kahn was born in Brooklyn in on Oct. 31, 1927, and inherited his love of baseball from his father, Gordon, who played third base for City College.
“There was nobody I enjoyed talking baseball with as much as this green-eyed, strong-armed, gentle, fierce, mustached, long-ball hitting, walking encyclopedia who was my father,” he wrote in his 1997 “Memories of Summer.”
Both of Kahn’s parents were teachers in Brooklyn. His mother, Olga, taught English literature and composition in high school. In recalling the influences on his life as a writer, Kahn mentioned how at bedtime his mother would tell him stories of Greek mythology.
Kahn lived in Stone Ridge in New York’s Hudson Valley.
In addition to his son, survivors include wife Katharine Kahn Johnson and daughter Alissa Kahn Keenan. Another son, Roger Laurence Kahn, died in 1987.
A funeral service is set for Monday in Katonah, New York.