Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Boys of Summer (Roger Kahn)

The legendary status of The Boys of Summer is well-deserved - it is unquestionably one of the finest non-fiction sports books ever written. However, be aware: It is the very opposite of a "feel good" read. In fact, I can scarcely remember a book that is so suffocatingly sad. The players of the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early Fifties (as well as a number of others associated with the team in various ways) experienced an unusually high number of foreshortened careers, personal tragedies (especially involving sons), and early deaths. It doesn't make for a cheerful book.

Is professional sports inherently a tragic enterprise? Kahn suggests as much. It may not really be that desirable to hit the peak of your life at age 25, with the skills for which you are valued in inevitable decline after that, and your ability to do what you do at all almost certainly over by age 40. Maybe the money makes up for this, and of course the money is better now than it used to be, but you wonder.

It could be that Kahn makes just a little too much of the aging issue, partly because of the fact that he is focusing on athletes, partly because attitudes were different then. He persistently describes a man's forties as a kind of middle-aged twilight, and I don't think that we look at it that way anymore (which is a good change!). Athletes still age out of their sports, of course, but a lot of them are thinking about that inevitability early on, planning their future careers in sports management or broadcasting or other businesses or even politics. One gets the sense that the old-time ballplayers didn't look ahead in that way, and faded back into ordinary life without much mental preparation. Some wound up doing OK, but many did not.

The Boys of Summer (Harperperennial Modern Classics)

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