I used to look forward to the end of winter because -- of course -- I was sick of shoveling upstate New York snowfalls. But I also knew it meant that spring training was approaching and I could take out my glove, the one with the baseball stuck in the pocket, and anticipate my first spring catch with my son.
Spring training brought something else, however. I would get to see what Roger Angell was finding in Florida as he filed his elegant baseball dispatches for the New Yorker. The 93-year-old Angell reminded us recently with a long memoir piece why he will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. And as much as his selection is deserved, there is another Roger out there who has not yet gotten the nod.
And that is Roger Kahn, now 87, the journalist who has been the most prolific, profound, passionate and elegant baseball writer in America for more than six decades. His seminal work, The Boys of Summer, which grew out of his 1950s newspaper reporting, redefined how baseball players are viewed. As the author of 20 books - 13 of which are about baseball - and as a writer of hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, Kahn is the dean of American baseball writers. His place in the Hall of Fame is long overdue.
I fell in love with The Boys of Summer - now in its 80th printing with more than 300,000 copies sold - as a young reporter who hoped that journalistic writing could beliterature, not just reporting. And that is what Kahn has most brought to sports writing - a poetic flare that elevates the mere reporting of a ballgame into a look into the souls of the people who grace the diamonds.
The Brooklyn-born Kahn began as a sportswriter with the New York Herald Tribune, one of the best written newspapers in America. In 1952, at the age of 26, he was assigned to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers, writing nearly 2,000 stories as the team became a legendary part of American sports lore. He was one of the few to write about the ongoing racial insults hurled at Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. Kahn eventually fell out with the Tribunebecause his editors asked him to avoid race in his stories.
Kahn refused, saying many years later that writing sports means mixing "sliders with social history." Nonetheless, there are stories involving Robinson, with whom he became close, that Kahn has never written. And that is why his upcoming book, Rickey & Robinson, is something to anticipate. Rodale Press calls it "the true, unsanitized account of the integration of baseball" with "eye-opening revelations sure to generate controversy." But the book brings some sadness, also. Kahn says it will be his last.
If true, it will mark the end of a remarkable run - and all the more reason why he should be in the Hall of Fame. He has done it all when it comes to sportswriting.
While at the Herald Tribune, Kahn wrote many articles for the nation's premier sports magazine, Sport, on players ranging from Nellie Fox to Don Newcombe to Hank Aaron.
In 1956, he was named sports editor of Newsweek magazine and then from 1963 to 1969 was editor-at-large of the Saturday Evening Post when it was one of America's largest circulation magazines. When the Post folded, he wrote The Boys of Summer, a memoir of his years covering the Dodgers in which as he visits the "boys" he had known at Ebbets Field. It is a poignant and nostalgic look at how athletes age - and grow. Some view it as the best book written about baseball and Esquire magazine made it number one on its list of best baseball books. But certainly along with Jim Bouton's Ball Four, the book changed the way sports were covered, taking the focus off just the field.
The success of Kahn's book led him in various directions. For a decade he was a columnist for Esquire. In 1977 he wrote a column for Time magazine. More recently he has written numerous articles, mostly about baseball, for the Los Angeles Times' sports and op-ed pages. Five times his articles were voted the best in the country and awarded the E.P. Dutton magazine writing prize.
But it is his books about baseball that should be most remembered. In 1955 he co-authored an almanac about baseball and followed in 1962 with a baseball book for juveniles. In 1982 he wrote a novel about baseball. In 1985 he took a part ownership in a minor league baseball team and then wrote a charming account of the season in the acclaimed Good Enough to Dream. Books about Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose followed in 1986 and 1989. (The Rose book was a disaster because, just before publication, news about Rose's gambling surfaced.)
In 1993 Kahn brought readers back to The Era: 1947-1957, When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers ruled the world and warmly recreated his Memories of Summer: When baseball was an art and writing about it a game.
He explored the nuances of pitching in his 2000 book, The Head Game. And in 2002, he recaptured the memorable and tumultuous season when the New York Yankees battled the Boston Red Sox for a championship in October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin, and the Yankees' miraculous finish in 1978. In 2004 an anthology with many of his best baseball articles were collected in Beyond the Boys of Summer (which I edited and which includes a bibliography of his work up to 2003).
For many years Roger Kahn was invited to Cooperstown each summer to mingle with the greats of baseball at their annual induction ceremony. He belonged there - but his plaque also deserves to be on a wall for three reasons:
He has been America's most prolific and eloquent chronicler of baseball life for more than 60 years; he has been a passionate advocate about baseball's need to do better on race relations; and lastly his writing gives readers some of the most lyrical and thoughtful looks at America's national pastime that we will ever see.
The debate over whether Angell or Kahn is the better baseball writer is interesting. But no matter; both Rogers belong in the Hall.
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