"I APPRECIATE that it's something in itself to be 86 years old and able to say, 'I have a book coming out,' " said Roger Kahn as he sat on a couch in his home in upstate New York cradling a tumbler filled with scotch and ice. It was one o'clock on a winter afternoon, and storms had left snow piled high around his yard. Kahn, gesturing toward the windows, said he had liked the feeling of the snow falling as he was writing. Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball, to be published this month by Rodale, is the 20th (and, he says, final) book of Kahn's career, and it taps again the wellspring that has yielded much of his most important work.
Kahn began working for the New York Herald Tribune in 1948 as a 20-year-old who had grown up in Brooklyn, a Snider's throw from Ebbets Field. He started on the Dodgers beat in '52, and it was two decades later that Kahn left his indelible mark on baseball literature—on literature, period—with The Boys of Summer, a ruminative, beautifully observed, part-narrative, part-memoir about relationships, time and the Jackie Robinson Dodgers as they were and had become. The Boys of Summer changed the notion of what a sports book could be, and it succeeds today as well as it ever did.
Kahn revisited his baseball matrix in the 1993 book The Era and 1997's Memories of Summer, and he does so again now, most directly, in Rickey & Robinson. Some historical events bear repeated reexamination, and because Kahn served as an attentive witness to baseball's integration in 1947, the book feels like a report from the front lines. The broad strokes and many of the details of the Branch Rickey--Jackie Robinson journey may be familiar to readers, but Kahn spins the tale well and delivers, along with a knowing perspective, memorable scenes.
In the summer of '52 at Ebbets Field, for example, Kahn took in a Dodgers-Phillies game alongside Earl Warren, soon-to-be Chief Justice of the United States. Together in team owner Walter O'Malley's box, they watched as Robinson commandeered the base paths, stealing second and looking for more, the lone black figure among the all-white Phillies. Warren, writes Kahn, was enthralled, and Kahn leads you to wonder where in Warren's memory that game lived when, less than two years later, he and the court ruled that segregating schools by race was unconstitutional.
Kahn—who says he at first wanted to title this book Black on White—outlines the run-up to '47 with worthy, unambiguous drama, casting a sharp set of characters. He explores the sometimes Biblical contradictions of Rickey's most powerful motives—fairness and money—and he shows with nuance Robinson's confidence and certitude across the years.
Kahn also gets into dishy stuff about the old New York newspaper world, defining his friends and foes, amplifying bourbon-soaked exchanges with the Daily News's Dick Young and articulating the role that Lester Rodney of the communist Daily Worker had in championing integration. Kahn even tries to iron out long-conflicting reports about an averted players' strike that had been led by members of the Cardinals as a protest against Robinson in '47.
All along Kahn draws from his experience, slipping into first person, interjecting his unveiled opinion. So if this is not quite the "untold story" of integration that the subtitle promises, it is certainly a uniquely rendered one. A good deal of Kahn's writing has centered around memoir, particularly his 2007 book, Into My Own (the title is from a Robert Frost poem), in which Kahn describes the troubled, heroin-wrenched life and 1987 suicide of his son Roger. A quarter of a century hence, the death remains in Kahn's every day, a shadow on the globe.
Above the fireplace in Kahn's living room hangs a painting of children on a Little League field, wearing ordinary clothes, gloves and ball caps. One of them is Kahn's boy Roger, at about 10. On the mantel sits an array of books by writers such as John Lardner and Red Smith, men whom Kahn knew and loved, but most of the titles are Kahn's own.
Soon a copy of Rickey & Robinson will reside on the mantel too, another reminder of the crucial understanding in Kahn's career: That the introduction and impact of Jackie Robinson, and what the Dodgers did in the years around him, were not only the best thing ever to happen in major league baseball, but also, Kahn will tell you, in his own writing life.
Faces in The Crowd
The Case for
Home runs hit through Sunday by the Yankees in their 112-year history, the most of any major league franchise. Leftfielder Brett Gardner, who has 40 career homers in pinstripes, got the 15,000th during Sunday's 5--2 win over the Blue Jays.
Touchdowns scored by Pearl (Miss.) High running back Jordan Wright, tying a state record. Wright finished with 422 yards rushing on 44 carries in the Pirates' 69--54 win over Bastrop (La.) High.
Points, the size of the deficit overcome by the Cowboys on Sunday, matching the largest comeback win in franchise history. Dallas trailed St. Louis 21--0 before winning 34--31.
Yards allowed by Florida in its 42--21 loss to Alabama last Saturday, the most the Gators have surrendered in a game in their 109-year history.
Record of the reigning Super Bowl champions in rematches of the NFL title game in the next year's regular season. The Seahawks, who beat the Broncos 43--8 last February, beat Denver 26--20 in Seattle on Sunday.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
NOAH K. MURRAY/USA TODAY SPORTS (GARDNER)
DAVID EULITT/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM (FOOTBALL)
WILLIAM PURNELL/ICON SMI (COWBOYS HELMET)
TAYLOR BALLANTYNE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GATORS HELMET)
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (SEAHAWK)