- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Roger Kahn’s “Into My Own” is a closeted memoir, rather in the manner of the books Agnes de Mille wrote toward the end of her life: a series of vignettes about the people that meant the most to the author — defining influences, one might say.

Obviously, Kahn’s parents were ships in the night, because they get a page or two apiece, in more or less scattered sections. Kahn’s mother seems to have been a particularly hard, chilly nut to crack — forbissina, as Yiddish would have it: “She took little visible joy in my accomplishments, seeming to feel that the more prominent I became, the more she herself was diminished.”

Kahn is, of course, the author of “The Boys of Summer,” one of the classic sports books, so it’s probably ordained that some of his defining influences are overly familiar. Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese were undoubtedly admirable human beings, but Kahn and others have written about them so much that the sections are less trips around the bases than slogs through a well-worn trench.

Other sections, thankfully, are considerably fresher.

Kahn broke into the business in the late 1940s at the old New York Herald Tribune, so the book has a lot about newspapering in an era when newspapers really mattered. Stanley Woodward was the great editor every young writer needs, larger than life, infinitely respected and brutal on cliches. “If you refer to Chicago as the ‘windy city’ in my sports section one more time,” he told a reporter, “out! out! Out!”

Woodward ended up as the sports editor at the old New York Post, where he had little respect for young turks like Jimmy Breslin. “He makes things up, and he invents quotes,” Woodward snorted. Kahn explained that Breslin was a proponent of the New Journalism. “Then the New Journalism is the old [expletive].”

Not all of the great lessons were from editors. Legendary columnist Red Smith told Kahn that there were only two possible reasons for a sportswriter to appear in the office: to pick up a check, or to drop off an expense report.

Because Kahn has been a lifelong liberal, he delights in pointing out journalism’s very own hypocrisies. As late as 1953, reporters from African-American papers weren’t allowed to sit in the front row of the St. Louis Cardinals press box — six years after Jackie Robinson. No New York paper hired a black sportswriter until 1959, when the Times hired a man named Bob Teague.

One very interesting section, on Kahn’s grueling experiences ghostwriting Mickey Rooney’s memoirs, makes the reader realize that “Into My Own” is a fairly honest book about the realities of a peripatetic writing life — trying all sorts of things, finally finding a comfortable niche in high-end sports writing, at a time when the rules were different than they are now.

As Kahn puts it, “[major league baseball manager Leo] Durocher would manipulate sportswriters by financing their weaknesses; lending money to a man from the Times who was a neurotic gambler and buying whiskey for an alcoholic who worked for the New York Post. If either criticized his managing, Durocher warned, he would carry tales to their editors. A superficially charming and profoundly unpleasant character, Durocher drew a sweetheart press.”

There’s some other good dish. Kahn implies that catcher Joe Garagiola, who went a long way by playing dumb, went out of his way to spike Jackie Robinson on the field.

It’s a strangely unbalanced book, and not always a modest one; at one point, Kahn feels compelled to quote Joyce Carol Oates’ laudatory review of one of his books.

The last section, the story of Kahn’s son Roger, who committed suicide at the age of 23, was undoubtedly the hardest to write. Roger seems to have been buffeted by a difficult divorce, and spent years at the controversial DeSisto school, followed by unsuccessful grapplings with a drug problem.

For the most part, then, it’s a good news/bad news book, ultimately redeemed by a lengthy section on Robert Frost, with whom Kahn spent a lot of time in preparing a profile for the Saturday Evening Post. The great poet was also a great conversationalist, with the rare ability of being able to boil down the complexities and paradoxes of life without turning it into thin broth — as when he told Kahn: “There is more religion outside church than in, more love outside marriage than in, more poetry outside verse than in. Everyone knows there is more love outside the institution than in, and yet I’m kind of an institutional man.”

Frost also lost a son to suicide, and he said of that, “I, too, went the wrong way with him. I tried many ways, and every single one of them was wrong. Some thing in me is still asking for the chance to try one more. There’s where the greatest pain is located.”

Although this book is far from Kahn’s best, neither is it his worst — that would be the dismal “Joe and Marilyn,” which he neglects to mention.

Its virtues are captured in an anecdote. The young Westbrook Pegler, before he turned into an clinically unbalanced hate monger, wrote that there were only two kinds of sportswriters: the ones who write “gee, whiz” and the ones who write “aw, nuts.”

Roger Kahn is one of the very few to encompass both categories.

• Distributed by New York Times News Service.

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