Sunday, July 01, 2007

Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing About It a Game (Roger Kahn)

If he does nothing else in Memories of Summer, Roger Kahn makes it clear that he writes a damn fine opening sentence. First sentence of the book:

I saw my first World Series game in 1920, seven years before I was born.

Opening his newspaper account of the last game of the 1952 World Series, when he watched his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers—with their fans’ never-ending cries of “Wait till next year”—lose to the Yankees, winners of four Series in a row:

Every year is next year for the Yankees.

Covering Willie Mays’s first spring training game back from the army in 1954, in which he hit a 400-foot home run and caught a center-field blast by running 50 feet straight back and catching it over his shoulder:

This is not going to be a plausible story, but then no one ever accused Willie Mays of being a plausible ballplayer.

Nicely done, sir.

Maria rescued this book from a pile at her work (along with Barbarians Led by Bill Gates; review). I read quite a few baseball books as a kid,* although I don’t think Kahn’s best-known book, The Boys of Summer, was among them. I suspect I’ll have to read it now. Kahn is, first of all, a superlative writer. I’m not generally one for weather descriptions, but when I hit this one, I stopped dead, then re-read it, then re-read a few more times:

An autumn shower fell on Brooklyn Thursday morning, making puddles in the sidewalks along Sullivan Place and sending little rivers running down the cobblestone gutters of Bedford Avenue toward Empire Boulevard and Fred Fitzsimmons’ Bowling Lanes.

Kahn had early aspirations toward poetry, and it shows—that sentence is perfectly balanced, and I could probably go on at length about its r and s and z sounds if I wanted to cross over into Book Reviews for Former English Majors instead of Book Reviews for Real People.** I’ll leave it at this: I’ve re-read it maybe five more times just now, and it’s not getting old.

Memories is a memoir starting with Kahn’s youth in Brooklyn, sailing through his brief attempt at college, and then settling down into the serious business of sportswriting as an art and career. Like Boys, it devotes many pages to the Dodger teams of the 1950s, which he covered as a newspaperman, but also equal space later to his coverage of both the Giants and the Yankees.

This is a baseball book, of course, but it becomes clear early on that Kahn is also tackling larger issues of midcentury racism. He naturally spends a lot of time on Jackie Robinson, a hero of those 1950s Dodger teams, a man Kahn knew and greatly admired. In the last third of the book, after he’s graduated from the daily grind of newspaper reporting into freelancing and columnist jobs with the nascent Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, he also devotes considerable space to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. On the field they were peers; off the field, one was black and one was white.

He tells a story that he didn’t write about at the time, for various reasons, when a casino security guard asked him to keep Mays away from the dice tables, and the casino manager, finding out who (the now furious) Kahn was, tried to bribe him into not writing about it, explaining more or less that they just didn’t want black men at the dice tables because they could get too close to white women. This contrasts sharply with a scene elsewhere in the book, when a racist editor of his more or less demanded that he write about Mantle because Mantle was “a clean-cut, nice-looking white kid.”

And it contrasts all the more sharply—and not accidentally, I’m sure—in the face of Kahn’s portrait of the two men: the irrepressible, gentle intelligence of Mays; the alcoholic, unfaithful, often crude Mantle, Herculean and supernaturally gifted but also walled-off, even from himself. He professes, when Mantle’s adult son asks whether his father was a nice guy, to think that he was indeed a nice guy, but I wonder whether he would be as willing to reach that conclusion were Mantle a writer colleague, or an acquaintance, rather than one of the all-time baseball greats. When he went to visit the retired Mantle in 1971 to write a piece about him for Esquire, Mantle showed off a machine to help teach switch hitting:

“You still swing?”

“Oh, sure. Mostly lefthanded these days.”

“I’d like to watch.”

“Set it at ninety, will ya. I’ll hit a few.”

He didn’t miss. The tethered ball came in at a constant speed and could not curve or drop, but his batting eye, against ninety-mile-an-hour stuff, was phenomenal. That and his power. He swung so hard that each swing made him grunt. He hit for ten minutes and never missed. I had never seen anybody swing so hard. As best I could tell, some power came up from his battered legs, but most seemed to flow out of the upper body and the mighty arms and wrists. Swing. Crack. Grunt. Swing. Crack. Grunt. His timing meshed arm strength and wrist strength into an instant of phenomenally violent contact with the baseball. Again and again and again. It was only 68 degrees, but he was sweating when he limped away. I wanted to cheer.

Watching Mantle hit, Kahn gives way to the fan he is at heart, and the excesses of Mantle’s personality are inseparable from the excesses of his talent and power. Much can be forgiven for a fan.

Memories is an excellent read from start to finish. Kahn apparently has a photographic memory (literally—his father had one too), which no doubts helps the novelistic level of detail and scene and drama he’s able to bring to a memoir. Highly recommended for fans of baseball—or just fans of great writing.

* Particularly if you count the ten or fifteen times I read the Mickey Mantle autobiography The Mick between the ages of about nine and thirteen.
** A line I’ve probably crossed more than once. These footnotes aren’t helping.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Damn fine review. I like baseball but am usually not all that whipped up about it, and you've got me thinking about finding this book and reading it for the writing.