- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 14, 2008

I encountered an old literary friend recently, and you can, too. His name is Roger Kahn, and he promptly reaffirmed his status as one of the best baseball writers ever to apply pen, typewriter or word processor to the erstwhile national pastime.

Kahn assumed his lofty ranking in 1972, when he published “The Boys of Summer,” a poignant retrospective on the Brooklyn Dodgers teams he covered for the late and definitely lamented New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s.

He has given us a dozen or so other books since then, including a quickly written and quickly forgotten saga on the tragic romance between Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. But none is better than his latest effort: “Into My Own,” a remarkable memoir on a remarkable life available in paperback.

Kahn, now 80, writes about many matters; his subjects include Robert Frost, Nelson Rockefeller, Eugene McCarthy, plus a searing account of the suicide of his son, Robert L. Kahn. You can savor the book without caring about baseball, but Kahn is at his best when he deals with the game.

And he is at his very best when offering eulogies for the two most enduring members of those Dodgers, pioneer Jackie Robinson and captain Pee Wee Reese.

On Robinson: “At 7:10 a.m. he died [of a heart attack July 24, 1972, at age 53] in an ambulance en route to Stamford [Conn.] Hospital. He was buried at Cypress Hill Cemetery near the border of Brooklyn and Queens, under a modest stone and an epitaph he had written for himself: ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.’ His own life was too short, of course. But what a legacy.”

On Reese, who notably befriended Robinson after Jackie broke baseball’s color line in 1947: “He died [of cancer at age 81] on August 14, 1999, a good day to play a little hardball. … Anywhere a white and black work side by side in friendship, Pee Wee is there. Where one finds humanity and kindness and humor and love, the captain is surely there as well. For all the torment that besets America, there is something profoundly right with a country that can produce a Pee Wee Reese.”

OK, so the praise is a trifle effusive. With Roger Kahn, you get what he felt and feels.

Considering Kahn’s exalted position as a sporting author, it is startling to recall that he covered baseball on a daily basis for only three full seasons. The Tribune switched him in 1954 to the New York Giants, where he quickly ran afoul of manager Leo Durocher, “a superficially charming and profoundly unpleasant character.”

Durocher told Kahn, “Write good things, kid, and I’ll teach you how to get women to go to bed with you.” The following season, after quoting Durocher accurately during a violent vetting about something or other, Kahn was ordered to apologize by his superiors at the newspaper because the manager denied making the comments. Instead, Kahn resigned to write for magazines.

While covering the Dodgers, Kahn refused to look the other way when racial matters intruded upon baseball. In 1953, he told how the club’s decision to play Jim Gilliam at third base instead of veteran Billy Cox pushed the club controversially over the game’s unspoken “50 percent line,” meaning no more than four black players could be in a team’s lineup.

Kahn became close friends with Robinson and Reese - unusual for a beat writer - and later worked with Jackie to produce a short-lived magazine called “Our Sports” for black fans.

In 1951, before taking took over the beat, Kahn covered a critical late-season Dodgers game in Philadelphia. When he reached the clubhouse, Reese marched him over to meet Robinson. As Kahn relates the incident, “I was a Brooklyn kid. I had just shaken hands with Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. That may be as much of heaven as I shall know on earth.”

As we have seen, Kahn likes to derive his titles from poetry. “The Boys of Summer” originally was contributed by Dylan Thomas and “Into My Own” by Frost. And that’s right and proper because Roger’s own prose often approaches poetry of a sort.

Read this one and enjoy.

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