“At a point in life when one is through with boyhood, but has not yet discovered how to be a man, it was my fortune to travel with the most marvelously appealing of teams,” the book begins. “During the early 1950s, the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers were outspoken, opinionated, bigoted, tolerant, black, white, open, passionate: in short, a fascinating mix of vigorous men.”
A handful of previous books — among them “The Long Season” (1960) by Jim Brosnan and “Ball Four” (1970) by Jim Bouton, both written by active ballplayers — had sought to illuminate the game in close-up, without a mythologizing sheen.
Fiction by the likes of Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris had set characters redolent of America against the backdrop of the ballpark. Arnold Hano’s undersung “A Day in the Bleachers” (1955) described one game of the 1954 World Series from the point of view of the man in the stands.
But “The Boys of Summer” — along with “The Summer Game,” the first collection of Roger Angell’s revelatory New Yorker pieces about baseball, published the same year, 1972 — more or less created a new literary category: long-form narrative baseball reporting.
While Mr. Angell’s elegant essays were contemporaneous reports on the game, Mr. Kahn seized on techniques of the so-called new journalism, becoming a character in his own narrative, for one thing. And with a title taken from a Dylan Thomas poem, he turned his book into a meditation on fathers and sons, the passage of time, teamwork, civil rights and the nature of men — themes so seductive and enduring that in connection with baseball they ring as clichés today.
Though reviews of “The Boys of Summer” were hardly uniform raves, it became one of those books that are routinely described as classics. In 2002, Sports Illustrated placed it second on its list of the best 100 sports books of all time, behind only A.J. Liebling’s revered collection of boxing pieces, “The Sweet Science.”
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