A few months ago, I was having a conversation with friends about great American writers. We discussed them all…Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, etc. When I was asked directly who was my favorite American writer, I answered without hesitation, Roger Kahn.
One friend responded immediately, “Alan, we asked you who is your favoritewriter, not your favorite sportswriter. Now tell us who is your favorite American writer.”
Again I responded without hesitation, “Roger Kahn.”
What my friends did not realize is that Roger Kahn is much more than a sportswriter. To be sure, nobody can describe better than Roger Kahn great sports events and their backgrounds, particularly in baseball. Yet sports constitute a mere backdrop canvass upon which Kahn paints his portraits of the human condition.
Roger Kahn is also much more than just an author. He was indeed a partner of Jackie Robinson in his accomplishments in integrating Major League Baseball as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie confided in Roger, and Kahn was the great communicator of the inner Robinson to the American public. This in itself has made Roger Kahn a figure for the history books.
In 1976, at the time of the American bicentennial, Roger’s book, The Boys of Summer, published in 1972, was named in many surveys as one of the best one hundred books in American history. This outstanding work was really two books in one.
The first was Kahn’s narrative of the Brooklyn Dodgers during their pennant winning years of 1952 and 1953, when he covered the Dodgers for the now defunct New York Herald Tribune. The second was his description of what had transpired in the lives of these former Dodgers when he interviewed them in 1970. In most cases, these were men who had experienced their ultimate lifetime achievements as young men in their twenties and thirties, followed by trials and tribulations of life after their years as professional athletes.
Intertwined between both works was the ongoing description of the love between Roger and his father, Gordon and how their mutual love of the then national pastime of baseball enhanced their relationship. This was a theme to which I totally related, given my own memories of going to baseball games and watching and listening to them with my late, beloved father, Melvin Steinberg.
In addition to The Boys of Summer, Kahn wrote a number of other outstanding books and magazine articles, not only about sports but also such topics as Jewish life in America, the student unrest at Columbia University in 1968, literary figures, including Robert Frost, and musicians, including Jascha Heifetz. Roger Kahn does not just write about balls and strikes, errors and home runs. He is an authentic intellectual and Renaissance man.
To fully appreciate Roger Kahn, one must read his autobiography, Into My Own, published in 2006. I found this book to be as impactful as The Boys of Summer.
In Into My Own, Kahn writes with remarkable incisiveness not only about sports figures he knew intimately, such as Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. but also about Robert Frost, political figures Barry Goldwater and Eugene McCarthy, and Hollywood actor Mickey Rooney. The most moving chapter in the book, however, describes the life and death of his beloved son, Roger Laurence Kahn, at age 23. Kahn’s life has been one of both supreme triumph and devastating tragedy, and he writes of both in a style that is totally compelling.
For all my admiration of Kahn, I never thought of interviewing him until the advent of the National Basketball Association Brooklyn Nets in November, 2012. The team plays at the Barclays Center, located at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush in Brooklyn, adjacent to the famous train station where nine New York City subway lines and the Long Island Railroad intersect.
The irony is that this was the same intersection where Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had wanted to build a domed stadium for his ball club to replace the late, lamented, fabled Ebbets Field. He would develop the stadium at his own expense, as long as Robert Moses, the then de facto regent of New York City would condemn the land and enable O’Malley to buy it at a relatively low price.
Moses refused, instead offering O’Malley city owned land in Queens at the site where Shea Stadium was later built. O’Malley said that if had had to move the ball club out of Brooklyn, he might as well move the team to Los Angeles – which is exactly what he did after the 1957 season.
Brooklyn has served as the venue for many of Kahn’s works, including The Boys of Summer. In fact, no other writer has ever captured the essence of Brooklyn in the halcyon days of the Dodgers as did Kahn, when the Borough of Kings still had an identity as a separate city in itself, and the Dodgers were the unifying rallying point.
I had attended some Nets games early in the 2012-2013 season, and I had felt in the crowds the same enthusiasm and Brooklyn identity that the Dodgers once generated. I resolved to interview Kahn, and I attempted to arrange for an interview by contacting him through his website.
I sent with my request some articles I had written about sports in order to enhance my credibility with Roger. One of my articles caught his eye, a column I wrote upon the death of Gino Cimoli in February, 2011. Gino was the starting left fielder of the last Dodger team to play in Brooklyn, the 1957 edition.
Cimoli scored the Dodgers' final run in Ebbets Field, ironically in a 2-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 24, 1957. In the April, 1958 opening game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants in Seals Stadium in Gino's native city of San Francisco, he became the first Major League batter in a game on the West Coast.
Gino also played a key role in the victory of the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series, getting the base hit that began the Pirates’ five run eighth inning rally in the seventh and deciding game, ultimately won by the Buccos on Bill Mazeroski’s ninth inning home run.
So I was most delighted to receive an email from Roger that said, “Well anybody who remembers Gino Cimoli is for real.” I have met Presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel, famous Major League Baseball and National Football League stars, and heavyweight boxing champions. I can say with hyperbole, however, that getting the opportunity to interview my favorite author, Roger Kahn, topped them all.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.