From the author of A Season in the Sun, a memoir from one of America’s foremost sportswriters about his life and influences.
After successful seasons as a newspaperman and magazine writer, Roger Kahn burst onto the national scene in 1972 with his memorable bestseller, The Boys of Summer, memorializing the Brooklyn Dodgers. Here he wrote a book for the hearts and minds of his readers. Chronicling his own life, Into My Own is Kahn’s reflection on the eight people who shaped him as a man, a father, and a writer.
Into My Own is the touching memoir of an unassuming man, whose great love of baseball and literature led him into extraordinary experiences, opportunities, and friendships. Even amidst great family tragedy and personal difficulty, Kahn prevailed—amongst poets, writers, politicians, and most of all, ballplayers.
“In this engaging memoir, Kahn…looks back at baseball and much more as he presents his episodic reminiscences as free-form essays arranged loosely around iconic figures from his past…Kahn has a graceful, personal style, full of deftly evoked color and characters, with a bit of the newspaperman's hard-bitten swagger and a two-fisted liberalism one doesn't see much anymore.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Roger Kahn
“As a kid, I loved sports first and writing second, and loved everything Roger Kahn wrote. As an adult, I love writing first and sports second, and love Roger Kahn even more.”—Pulitzer Prize winner, David Maraniss
“A work of high moral purpose and great poetic accomplishment. The finest American book on sports.”—James Michener on The Boys of Summer
“Kahn has the almost unfair gift of easy, graceful writing.”—Boston Herald
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Into My Own
The Remarkable People and Events That Shaped a Life
By Kahn, Roger
Thomas Dunne Books
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Reality brightens my dream, to become a writer.
It may seem curious, at least it does to me, that an old Herald Tribune hand tapping a keyboard would so soon cite a primal dictum of The New York Times, as quoted by Arthur Gelb in the 662-page memoir he called City Room. Early in the book, along about page 136, Gelb quotes Adolph Ochs, paterfamilias of the family that runs the Times, as saying, "The most useful man on a newspaper is one who can edit. . . . Writers are galore."
Quoting Ochs around the Times may not be precisely like spouting Luke in a Southern Baptist church, but it comes close. The old man burst out of Chattanooga and took control of The New York Times in 1896, a publisher of ferocious ambition, an astounding work ethic, and a brilliant head for business. Even in the twenty-first century, six decades after his death, he remains the principal architect of what is probably the most successful newspaper on earth. There is a nice ring to his surprising phrase "writers are galore," but in this instance, as in a few others, Baron Ochs was wrong.
The greatest newspaperman I have known was R. (for Rufus) Stanley Woodward, a huge, myopic former Amherst lineman whose glory days came when hewas sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. During that stretch, from the 1930s into the 1960s, "Coach" Woodward pitched batting practice for the Yankees in a uniform borrowed from Lou Gehrig, discovered Red Smith, saved the baseball career of Jackie Robinson, and invented the modern sports page. He also took time out to cover World War II and, in 1944, armed with a Boy Scout knife and a sheaf of pencils, landed behind Nazi lines in a glider, the better to observe the horrific Battle of Arnhem. He did all these high deeds, and, on another level, he managed to convince me in my youth that if I worked hard, double-spaced my copy, read Paradise Lost, and learned to remain vertical after drinking four martinis, there was no reason, no reason at all, why I could not become a writer. Woodward was the man Ernest Hemingway wanted to be.
Woodward's credo, which he learned as a cub reporter at the Worcester Evening Gazette from an editor named Nicholas J. Skerrett, went like this: "The American newspaper is the greatest institution in the world." I think all of us who have worked for American newspapers feel that way, at least some of the time, which is why we get so upset when we see the art and craft of newspapering abused. Within Woodward's mighty frame--six feet two, 230 pounds--beat the sensitive and vulnerable heart of an idealist. He was a classicist, a humanist, and a liberal, who loved farming and played the violin. But above all he was an idealist.
Ogden Mills Reid, who had inherited great wealth, ran the Trib for four decades, until his death in 1947. In a staunch Republican way, old Ogden was an idealist, even as Woodward, and he championed the sometimes combative Coach. But Reid's will left the paper in the hands of his widow, Helen Rogers Reid, who had started her career as an impecunious social secretary. Helen was slight, strong-willed, jut-jawed, and tightfisted. She appointed herself publisher and designated her son "Whitie" editor in chief. Both these people were kind to me. Each took a personal interest in my work. But neither had old Ogden's overall tolerance for nonconformists, rebels, or, for that matter, martinis. After some clashes, which I'll get to presently, Helen and Whitie fired the best sports editor in the country and replaced him with a onetime college hockey star named Bob Cooke, formerly Whitie's Old Blue classmate at Yale.
Jolted, his adrenaline pumping wildly, Woodward immediately dictated, not wrote but dictated, a remarkable, forgotten book called Sports Page, which could be used as a primer today by every publication covering sports, although, Woodward being Woodward, it is livelier and better written than standard texts. In Sports Page, Woodward warned of "the unholy jargon, the tendency to call things by names other than their own." Typically that would be describing a shortstop's error as a "miscue." The shortstop, of course, does not carry a cue stick. Woodward ruled that "horrendous clashes of fearsome Tigers and snarling Wolverines, usually concluded in purple sunsets, are taboo." Copyreaders, whom he called "the comma police," sometimes may cut a good writer to dullness, "but they are essential if the vehicle [sports section] is not to be smeared with wild and indiscriminate pigments." Good copy editors were rare and valuable, but the lifeblood of a great sports section and a great newspaper flowed from its writers, or at least it should. "The giants of our craft," Woodward asserted, "Grantland Rice, W. O. McGeehan, and Westbrook Pegler, each gave something to today's school of writing. Rice contributed rhythm and euphony; Pegler a grumpy and grudging curiosity for fact; and McGeehan a certain twist, in the likeness of Anatole France, which could make an ordinary sentence interesting."
Rice is best remembered for creating the most remarkable lead ever written on a football game. Covering Army-Notre Dame in November 1924--Notre Dame, 13; Army, 7--Rice began:
Outlined against a blue-gray sky, The Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreyer, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on a bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
A cyclone can't be snared. It may be surrounded but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to their storm cellars at top speed . . .
Over drinks Red Smith liked to ask archly, "From what angle was Granny watching the game if he saw the Notre Dame backfield outlined against a blue-gray sky?" Further, there was no precipice below the Polo Grounds; the old ball park actually sat under the precipice called Coogan's Bluff. But such specifics are piffle. Rice's lead itself was a cyclone that swept away all before it. Or so I believe. (So did Woodward, and so did Red Smith when he wasn't being arch.)
William O'Connell "Bill" McGeehan, called Sheriff, had his golden years in the 1920s, which used to be called the Golden Age of Sport. When Luis Angel Firpo, nicknamed the Wild Bull of the Pampas, fought Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, for the heavyweight championship in 1923, Firpo knocked Dempsey through the ropes in round one. Sportswriters shoved Dempsey back into the ring and, although dazed, he continued to fight fiercely. Dempsey won by a knockout in round two, the ninth knockdown in about four minutes of championship boxing. Ring Lardner commented that Dempsey had turned big Luis Firpo into "the Tame Cow of the Pampas." More seriously Sheriff McGeehan wrote in the New York Tribune: "A pair of wolves battling in the pines of the Northern Woods, a pair of cougars in the wastes of the Southwest, might have staged a faster and more savage bout, but no two human beings."
Pegler is remembered, if at all today, for his venomous old age, when he moved into the western desert and wrote column after column attacking Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. But the earlier Pegler had been a superb and salty journalist who wrote that only two varieties of sportswriter existed on earth, "the ones who go 'gee whiz' and the one who say, 'aw nuts.'"
Why is it that none of these worthies worked for Ochs's New York Times, or wanted to. First, to be sure, such writers as Rice and McGeehan were not "galore" and would not care to be so labeled. Besides, like most fine craftsmen, they did not want editors touching their stuff and, to repeat one of Adolph Ochs's graceless phrases, making their values "brought within the understanding of the reader." They were not, after all, writing for simpletons or, in Pegler's term, "the great unwashed."
Woodward was proud of his chief copyreader, a bespectacled character named Arthur Glass, who could and often did read works in Latin or classical Greek. But he would never have called Glass the most important man in his sports section. One result of Adolph Ochs's dictum about copyreaders was a concentration of power within the walls of the Times Building, where Ochs was most comfortable. The copyreader comes into the office, and there he stays, in the old days wearing a green eyeshade. Reporters, moving about the rough and tumble of their beats, become rough and tumble themselves, and independent. When I first was anointed a baseball writer, Red Smith told me that there could now be only two excuses for my appearing at the Herald Tribune offices on West Forty-first Street. One was to pick up a paycheck. The other was to drop off an expense account.
When the inside people, the copy editors and the rest, become empowered, as they were at the Times, they tend to develop a generic arrogance. They can change, cut, and edit a writer's stuff as suits their needs and pleasure. These folk may be pleasant and cordial in many ways, but they see as their duty correcting and improving prose written by others, whether or not they have the ability or understanding to do so. A notable example of editing by arrogance befell Red Smith after the Times hired a woman named Le Anne Schreiber as sports editor, in a partial (and unofficial) settlement of a sexual discrimination lawsuit brought against the paper in the 1970s by several female staffers. (That story was covered by the late Nan Robertson of the Times in her book The Girls in the Balcony.)
Smith had been visiting one of his favorite haunts, the racetrack at Saratoga, and was sitting beside a friend who owned a horse that was running comfortably ahead. Then the horse slowed--"flattened out" is the racetrack term--and most of the field galloped by. The horse finished far out of the money. Smith said, "Sorry," then considered the owner's face and presently wrote, "He looked as though he had just bitten into an apple and found half a worm." Without consulting Smith, Schreiber changed the sentence to read that the man looked as though he had bitten into an apple "and found a worm." The cream of Smith's jest was soured. Recounting this episode, and a few others, to me, Smith summed up Le Anne Schreiber in one sentence. "She is," he said, "the only editor who has ever made me scream."
The Ochs system of coronating editors created generations of misery on the Times's writing staff. Gay Talese, as a young man in the 1950s, complained consistently about what "the desk" was doing to his stuff. In time, pursuing happiness, he married a beautiful woman named Nan Ahearn and quit the paper. Years later Molly Ivins, the spicy, gifted coauthor of Bushwhacked: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, signed on with the Times but quit soon afterward. Her style and the Times desk people did not mesh. During my own years covering the Brooklyn Dodgers my Times rival, an earnest, elderly, and somewhat deaf sportswriter named Roscoe McGowen, used to wind down his daily stint by downing "three fingers"--sometimes six or nine--of good bourbon whiskey supplied by the ball club, after which he began to grumble, "I'd wish they'd let me write, really write, but they just won't." He wanted not simply to report ball games, he said, but also to contribute a regular column of chatty Brooklyn baseball notes that he would call "Oil for the Lamps of Flatbush." "Similar to the sort of conversational stuff they let you get into the Trib." Like Talese and Ivins after him and scores of reporters before him, Roscoe got nowhere suggesting something new to the ruling class of copy editors. He died at 80, not bitter, but surely disappointed. (In fairness, my own most recent original article in the Times, a 2005 op-ed piece, edited by one David Shipley, ran as written, and Shipley sent a note of thanks.)
But it was a wonder then and it remains a wonder today that I found a job at the Herald Tribune, not the Times. My classroom record had been erratic; the portfolio of my campus writing was slim. I was fortunate to come aboard at all. It was yet a greater wonder that my first Trib guide turned out to be Rufus Stanley Woodward.
Copyright 2006 by Hook Slide, Inc.
Excerpted from Into My Own
by Kahn, Roger
Copyright © 2006 by Kahn, Roger.
Excerpted by permission.
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