Obituaries

Roger Kahn, 92, lifted sportswriting to an art with ‘Boys of Summer’

Author Roger Kahn pictured in 1997 at his desk in his home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
todd plitt/ap/file
Author Roger Kahn pictured in 1997 at his desk in his home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Roger Kahn, whose 1972 book about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950s, “The Boys of Summer,” melded reportage, sentiment, and sociology in a way that stamped baseball as a subject fit for serious writers and serious readers, died on Thursday in Mamaroneck, New York. He was 92.

His son Gordon Jacques Kahn confirmed the death, at a nursing home. Mr. Kahn had most recently resided in Stone Ridge, New York, in Ulster County, after living most of his life in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Mr. Kahn’s 20 or so books, many about baseball, include a couple of novels, a portrait of the volatile but winning 1978 New York Yankees, a biography of Jack Dempsey, and a collaboration with Pete Rose on Rose’s own story, published in 1989, just months after he was banished from baseball.

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But it’s fair to say that Mr. Kahn’s most memorable work sprang from early in his career.

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In the spring of 1952, he was a 24-year-old reporter for The New York Herald Tribune when he was assigned to travel with the Dodgers. It was a rich time in the game’s history, especially in New York, the undisputed center of the baseball universe, home to three teams and three perfervid fan bases.

For 10 seasons, from 1947 to 1956, one New York team or another — the Yankees, the Giants, or the Dodgers — won every World Series but one. The Yankees were in the midst of their still unequaled streak of five consecutive World Series victories.

Just a few months before Mr. Kahn joined the Dodgers’ press entourage, the team had lost the pennant to the Giants, their crosstown National League rivals, in a three-game playoff, which ended with Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world,” perhaps the most famous home run ever hit.

That stunning playoff loss was one of many anguishing disappointments for Dodger fans of that era. Though they loved the players — among them Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella — and knew they were first rate, they lamented the team’s seeming inability to claim a championship. (In fact, up to that time, the team never had; Brooklyn finally won the Series in 1955, beating the Yankees.)

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It is this fecund territory that Mr. Kahn, looking back from a distance of decades, harvested in several books, often entwining memories from his own Brooklyn boyhood and his coming-of-age as a journalist with tales from the clubhouse and the barroom and the diamond.

“The Boys of Summer,” for which he revisited many of the old Dodgers years after their playing days, was the first and, by most estimates, the best of these — as influential a baseball book as has been written in the last 50 years.

“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,” the book begins. “During the early 1950s, the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers were outspoken, opinionated, bigoted, tolerant, black, white, open, passionate: in short, a fascinating mix of vigorous men.”

Though reviews of “The Boys of Summer” were hardly uniform raves, it became one of those books routinely described as classics. In 2002, Sports Illustrated placed it second on its list of the best 100 sports books of all time, behind only A.J. Liebling’s revered collection of boxing pieces, “The Sweet Science.”

“A baseball book the same way ‘Moby-Dick’ is a fishing book,” the magazine wrote of “The Boys of Summer.”

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Mr. Kahn’s book, it said, “is, by turns, a novelistic tale of conflict and change, a tribute, a civic history, a piece of nostalgia and, finally, a tragedy, as the franchise’s 1958 move to Los Angeles takes the soul of Brooklyn with it.”

“Kahn writes eloquently about the memorable games and the Dodgers’ penchant for choking — ‘Wait Till Next Year’ is their motto — but the most poignant passages revisit the Boys in autumn,” the article continued. “An auto accident has rendered catcher Roy Campanella a quadriplegic. Dignified trailblazer Jackie Robinson is mourning the death of his son. Sure-handed third baseman Billy Cox is tending bar. No book is better at showing how sports is not just games.”

Roger Kahn was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 31, 1927, just a few weeks after Babe Ruth and the Yankees swept the World Series from Pittsburgh. His father, Gordon, was a history teacher and baseball fan blessed with such a memory for wide-ranging trivia that he helped provide questions for the radio quiz show “Information Please.” Roger’s mother, Olga (Rockow) Kahn, taught English and had little tolerance for baseball but imbued her son with a love of mythology, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman.

He graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and spent three years at New York University before joining The Herald Tribune as a copy boy.

After his two-year stint with the Dodgers, Mr. Kahn covered the Giants for The Herald Tribune in 1954. He later wrote for Newsweek, The Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire.

In the 1960s he wrote two books on subjects other than sports: a consideration of his faith, “The Passionate People: What It Means to Be a Jew in America,” and a report on student unrest at Columbia University, “The Battle for Morningside Heights: Why Students Rebel.” He wrote regularly for The New York Times in the late 1970s.

What has been called the golden age of baseball in New York ended when the Dodgers and Giants announced in 1957 that they would leave for California. After “The Boys of Summer,” Mr. Kahn revisited those years in other books, including “Joe and Marilyn: A Memory of Love,” about the ill-fated marriage of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe; “The Era, 1947-57: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World”; “Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing About It a Game,” and “Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball,” which examined the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the executive who broke baseball’s race barrier by bringing Robinson to the Dodgers.

In other books Mr. Kahn examined the battle between the pitcher and the hitter (“The Head Game: Baseball Seen From the Pitcher’s Mound”) and the low minor leagues (“Good Enough to Dream”).

His novels were “The Seventh Game,” about a pitcher’s personal travails, and “But Not to Keep,” about a journalist’s personal travails. His book about the 1978 Yankees, “October Men,” traced a turbulent championship season.

Mr. Kahn’s marriages to Wendy Meeker, Alice Russell, and Joan Rappaport ended in divorce. In addition to his son Gordon, from his marriage to Rappaport, he is survived by his wife, Katharine Johnson Kahn; a daughter, Alissa Kahn Keenan, from his marriage to Russell; and five grandchildren. Another daughter, Elizabeth, died within a day of her birth. And another son, Roger Laurence Kahn, who struggled with mental illness and drug addiction, took his own life in 1987. Mr. Kahn wrote about Roger in a memoir, “Into My Own: The Remarkable People and Events That Shaped a Life.”

In the opening pages of “The Boys of Summer,” one passage expressed the purpose of much of Mr. Kahn’s writing: the nostalgic yearning that baseball, and Brooklyn evoked in people. Far fewer readers today would recognize the details, but the longing for something gone will always be familiar.

“I mean to be less concerned with the curve balls than with the lure of the team,” Mr. Kahn wrote about his beloved Dodgers before invoking the image of their home ballpark. “Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ballplayer’s chatter, notice details of a ballplayer’s gait and, at a time when television had not yet assaulted illusion with the Zoomar lens, you could see, you could actually see, the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played. You could know what he was like!”