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The Boys of Summerby Roger Kahn
Synopses & Reviews
The Trolley Car That Ran By Ebbets Field
That morning began with wind and hairy clouds. It was late March and day rose brisk and uncertain, with gusts suggesting January and flashes of sun promising June. In every way, a season of change had come.
With a new portable typewriter in one hand and a jammed, disordered suitcase in another, I was making my way from the main terminal at La Guardia Airport to Eastern Airlines Hangar Number 4. There had been time neither to pack nor to sort thoughts. Quite suddenly, after twenty-four sheltered, aimless, wounding, dreamy, heedless years, spent in the Borough of Brooklyn, I was going forth to cover the Dodgers. Nick Adams ranging northern Michigan, Stephen Dedalus storming citadeled Europe anticipated no richer mead of life.
A stocky man, with quick eyes and white hair, said, "Yes. I'm Fresco Thompson. You must be the new man from the Herald Tribune." Fresco Thompson, vice president and director of minor league personnel, stood at the entrance, beside a twin engined airplane, all silvery except for an inscription stenciled above the cabin door. In the same blue script that appeared on home uniform blouses, the Palmer-method lettering read "Dodgers."
"How do you like roller coasters?" Fresco Thompson said. "On a day with this much wind, the DC-3 will be all over the sky. Perfectly safe, but we're taking down prospects for the minor league camp and a lot have never flown." He gestured toward a swarm of sturdy athletes, standing nervously at one side of the hangar, slouching and shifting weight from foot to foot. "We may call on you to be nursemaid," Thompson said. "Some ball players are babies. Let's go on board. Theco-pilot will see about your luggage. We'll sit up front. Might as well keep the airsickness behind us."
Thompson smiled, showing even teeth, and put a strong, square hand on my back. "Come on, fellers," he shouted over a shoulder, and the rookie athletes formed a ragged line. Looking at them, eighteen-year-olds chattering and giggling with excitement, one recognized that they were still boys. The only men in the planeload, Thompson indicated by his manner, were the two of us. We had flown and earned a living and acquired substance. We were big league. Entering the DC-3 under the royal-blue inscription I felt with certitude, with absolute, manic, ingenuous, joyous certitude, that the nickname "Dodgers" applied to me. Beyond undertaking a newspaper assignment, I believed I was joining a team. At twenty-four, I was becoming a Dodger. The fantasy ("He performs in Ebbets Field as though he built it; this kid can play") embraces multitudes and generations ("Haven't seen a ball player with this much potential since Pistol Pete Reiser back in 1940, or maybe even before that; maybe way before"). I strode onto the plane, monarch of my dream, walking up the steep incline with the suggestion of a swagger and dropping casually into seat B2. "What the hell!" Something had stung me in a buttock. I bounced up. A spring had burst through the green upholstery. A naked end of metal lay exposed. "What the hell," I said again.
"Nothing to worry about," Fresco Thompson said. "The people who maintain the springs are not the same people who maintain the engines." He paused and raised white brows. "Or so Walter O'Malley tells me."
"Seat belts," the plot announced. Fresco turned and counted heads."Eighteen," he said, "and eighteen there's supposed to be." The little plane bumped forward toward a concrete runway and the seabound clouds of the busy March sky.
In the end, I would find, as others since Ring Lardner and before, that Pullman nights and press box days, double-headers dragging through August heat and a daily newspaper demanding three thousand words a day, every day, day after blunting day, dulled sense and sensibilities. When you see too many major league baseball games, you tend to observe less and less of each. You begin to lose your sense of detail and even recall. Who won yesterday? Ah, yesterday. That was Pittsburgh, 5 to 3. No, that was Tuesday. Yesterday was St. Louis, 6 to 2. Too many games, and the loneliness, the emphatic, crowded loneliness of the itinerant, ravage fantasy. Nothing on earth, Lardner said, is more depressing than an old baseball writer. It was my fortune to cover baseball when I was very young.
From brief perspective, the year 1952 casts a disturbing, well remembered shadow. It was then that the American electorate disdained the troubling eloquence of Adlai Stevenson for Dwight Eisenhower and what Stevenson called the green fairways of indifference. That very baseball season Eisenhower outran Robert A. Taft for the Republican nomination and, hands clasped above the bald, broad dome, mounted his irresistible campaign for the Presidency. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy rose in Washington and King Farouk fell in Egypt. Although the Korean War killed 120 Americans a week, times were comfortable at home. A four-door Packard with Thunderbolt-8 engine sold for $2,613 and, according to advertisements, more than 53 percent of all Packards manufacturedsince 1899 still ran. Kodak was rising from $43 a share and RCA was moving up from $26. The New York theatrical season shone. One could see Audrey Hepburn as "Gigi, Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh as "Ceaser and Cleopatra, Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer in "Venus Observed, Julie Harris in "I Am a Camera and John Garfield, who would not live out the year, bearing his special fire to Joey Bonaparte in a revival of Odets' "Golden Boy. It was a time of transition, which few recognized, and glutting national self-satisfaction. Students and scholars were silent. Only a few people distinguished the tidal discontent beginning to sweep into black America.
Kahn recreates the magic of Dodger baseball as played in Ebbets Field during the brief dream when Brooklyn was the center of the universe. Along the way, he masterfully interweaves the story of his own youth, from early fandom to young reporterhood, traveling with and writing about his childhood idols.
This is a book about some young men who learned to play baseball during the 1930s and 1940s in such places as Reading, Pennsylvania; Anderson, Indiana; Plainfield, New Jersey; Woonsocket, Rhode Island; and then went on to play for one of the most exciting professional teams that the major leagues ever fielded--the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s--the team that broke the color barrier with Jackie Robinson and set many other records besides.
It is also a book by and about a once-young sportswriter for the Herald Tribune who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s within shouting distance of Ebbets Field, was nurtured on Joyce and Shakespeare and occasionally escaped to see his bumbling heroes play, and then had the miraculous good fortune in the 1950s to cover the Dodger team for the Tribune.
Finally, this is a book about what's happened since to Jackie Robinson, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and the others, no longer boys but men in their middle years with their glories behind them. For some, they have been happy years; to others, fate has not been kind. In short, it is a book about America and how it has progressed from the 1930s to the 1970s, about fathers and sons, prejudice and courage, triumph and disaster. Told with warmth, humor, wit, candor and love, The Boys of Summer is delightful and exhilarating.
About the Author
Roger Kahn is the author of many prizewinning articles on subjects as diverse as Robert Frost, Mickey Mantle, Jascha Heifetz and Eugene McCarthy. Of his previous books he is proudest of The Battle for Morningside Heights and The Passionate People, and a book for children called Inside Big League Baseball. Of The Boys of Summer he writes, "There are a plethora of books on sports. This one is not on sports but on time and what time does to all of us. King Lear is on the same subject as The Boys of Summer, and my work differs from Lear in that it isn't as good."
Mr. Kahn lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.
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