"Yep. You got a secret weapon like that, you don't want to go showing it around."
-- Roger Kahn and Preacher Roe
I finished a long overdue reread of The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn's classic memoir about the men who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early fifties. The Dodgers were the best team in the National League for most of the late forties and early fifties, in large part because they were the first team to integrate, but they also seemed star-crossed. Branch Rickey, who had assembled the team, once said that luck is the residue of design, but that didn't seem to be working out for the Bums. They blew big leads down the stretch in 1950 and 51 to the Whiz Kid Phillies, and Bobby Thomson's Giants, respectively, and in the years they did win the pennant, they always wound up losing to the Yankees in the World Series. It became part of their charm. As Kahn notes, "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat." The rallying cry of Brooklyn fans became "Wait til next year."
Intellect isn't much in this game. They say Einstein wasn't much of a hitter
-- Fresco Thompson
In the first half of the book, Kahn talks about growing up in Brooklyn, and how he came to be sitting next to Fresco Thompson on a DC-3 to Miami in March of 1952, enroute to taking over the job of Dodgers beat writer for the Herald Tribune. (The book is also a bit of a memoir about the Trib, which had gone out of business not long before Kahn started working on the book.) Kahn covered the team for two seasons, and it was a great team to cover. Both years the Dodgers went to the Series, and lost to the Yanks. There were four future Hall of Famers, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella, and Gil Hodges (and maybe even Dick Williams, as a manager) may yet get in. The team was also a living, breathing social experiment, and Kahn records the tensions that resulted from that. There was a dichotomy in the way the black players were perceived. Jackie and Campy are respected as fellow players and men by the white players, but when Jim Gilliam is brought up in '53, Billy Cox is irate over the possibility that he's going to lose his job to a black.
The second half of the book comes fifteen or sixteen years later, when Kahn goes to visit many of the players he knew. He talks about the fact that athletes suffer two deaths, the first being the end of their careers as athletes, and he wanted to see how his old friends had managed that. He finds them doing all the things that one might expect ex-ball players to be doing in an era before they were paid millions of dollars to play. Cox is a bartender. Carl Furillo is a laborer installing elevators in the then under construction World Trade Center towers. Preacher Roe is a grocer. Joe Black and Robinson are business executives. (One thing that I find interesting is that Black and Robinson, both black, were probably the most well educated men on the team.) Campanella, a quadraplegic since the auto accident that ended his career, owns a liquor store. Only Hodges is still in baseball, as the manager of the Mets. Most seem comfortable with their lives, and only a couple seem to miss baseball much. Campy is upbeat, despite his injuries, while Furillo, the Reading Rifle, is the bitterest man alive, having been unjustly jettisoned by the team. Snider comes off very much as the prototype for today's totally self-absorbed player, which is a shame. He was one of my early heroes. Robinson, of course, is the central figure, but in one of the great ironies of all time, the other man who towered over that clubhouse was named "Pee Wee." Reese was the captain, the man from Kentucky who openly accepted Robinson on the team. Their concerns are those of middle aged men, i.e., their jobs and their families. One of the threads that runs through the book is the relationship between fathers and sons, Kahn's with his own father, and some of the ex-Dodgers with their sons. There is also a thread of impending tragedy, especially in the chapters on Hodges and Robinson. Both talk about the heart attacks they'd suffered, and the reader knows that both would be dead within a year of the book being published.
It's an odd thing to be reading this book now that I'm older than Kahn and the players were when this was written. The first time I read this book, I was still in my twenties, and that colored my impressions a lot. Back then I had trouble wrapping my brain around the fact that Preacher Roe only sounded uneducated, or that Charlie Dressen, the gruff and uneducated manager of the team, could show moments of great kindness. Now, knowing the kind of money that players make today, it's kind of quaint to read the stories about the players carpooling in from Bayside to Ebbetts Field.