"I always wanted to write literature," says Roger Kahn from his chair in the shade overlooking a bucolic oasis of sloping lawns, manicured beds, and crystal blue pool water. Kahn is the author of 17 nonfiction books, including The Boys of Summer (now in its 65th printing), which earned him national fame and celebrity with its publication in 1972. He has also penned two novels and hundreds of magazine articles in a career that has already spanned a half century. He has been called the dean of American sportswriters and the best baseball writer in the country, but Roger Kahn didn't set out to write about sports.
Mr. Kahn beams from the back deck of the clapboard house in Stone Ridge he shares with his third wife, Katherine Johnson, a psychiatrist. "I caught for Joe Black [Major League pitcher from 1952 to 1957] on the street in Harlem. He's throwing a 95- mile-per-hour red rubber ball at me with no glove. After a couple of those, well, I bought a glove off a kid on the street for a dollar. Worst glove I ever had, but better'n nothin' against Joe Black."
Roger Kahn, 77, was born in Brooklyn within earshot of the cheers from Ebbets Field. His father was an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan, while his mother was militantly opposed to baseball conversation of any kind. Young Kahn attended the "WASP" Froebel Academy, where he received a classic education steeped in "Latin, Milton, the Greeks, the Russians." But out on the athletic fields of that institution, Roger Kahn was known as "Izzy", in reference to his Jewish last name that cloaked the Alsatians and Catholics who peopled his family setting. Kahn was determined to change the "Izzy" moniker by sheer prowess on Froebel's football field.
"I ran a kickoff in for a touchdown. It was great! And this blond kid, Presbyterian, walks around the end zone and says, 'Nice, Iz...There's a lesson.' Sports and cultural politics are synonymous in Roger Kahn's writing.
He started out as a copy boy for the New York Herald Tribune. "Copy boys were the lowest form of life." Working shifts from 4PM to midnight or 8PM to 4AM found young Roger loitering around the sports center. "Hey, Copy," famed sports editor Stanley Woodward asked him one day, "What if I told you the pennant race was an indubious battle? What would you say?" Woodward had a penchant for literary writers and classic references.
Kahn's Froebel Academy education put him in good stead. "'Indubious battle' was a term used by Steinbeck, who took it from Paradise Lost, wherein Milton describes a battle upon the plains of heaven." The adult Kahn's eyes twinkle at the memory.
"Woodward told me, 'Stick around, kid. Something may come up.'" And something did. That something was baseball.
It was the beginning of the "golden age," when the sport was the celebrity and the players its supporting cast. World War II was becoming a memory, and America's eyes turned to baseball. It was the time when Jackie Robinson broke the game's color line and the Brooklyn Dodgers became a winning team against the all-white New York Yankees. Kahn began writing about the Dodgers in 1952, traveling with that first integrated team and bearing witness to those early years.
"Jackie's at bat and the manager of the Cardinals holds up a pair of shoes and says 'Boy! Boy! Shine these, hey, porter!' He's been in the game six years!" Kahn says, still incredulous. "Later I said to Jack, 'I think this shit is disgraceful.' And Jackie answered, 'You think it's disgraceful, then write about it.'"
Roger Kahn nods, his face a mask of resolve. "I took it as a mandate. I think about it. I write about those whose understanding of the human condition has changed my understanding of the human condition." Kahn "smoked out racists" and reported controversial events in the sports world for the New York Herald, but ultimately left newspaper writing when the then Herald sports editor made it clear he wanted editorializing kept out of his pages.
In 1956 Kahn was named editor at Newsweek, moving to the Saturday Evening Post from 1963 to 1969 as the editor at large. The following decade would find him writing for Esquire magazine; his articles were voted best in the country five times.
Roger Kahn complemented his writing with a stint as a baseball team owner. In Good Enough to Dream, he chronicled owning the Class A Utica Blue Sox during its 1983 season. Kahn says the experience made him "hostile to the press." In that year, his Utica team won its division and beat the Mets and Orioles farm teams in playoffs. Those wins cost him seven players to the draft. With the prospect of rebuilding the team, compounded by some $25,000 in losses over and above ticket sales, and three kids approaching the heavy tuition college years, the team was sold away.