Most famous for his classic work The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn is widely regarded as one of the greatest sportswriters of our time. The Roger Kahn Reader is a rich collection of his stories and articles that originally appeared in publications such as Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Esquire, and the Nation. Kahn’s pieces, published between 1952 and today, present a vivid, turbulent, and intimate picture of more than half a century in American sport. His standout writings bring us close to entrepreneurs and hustlers (Walter O'Malley and Don King), athletes of Olympian gifts (Ted Williams, Stan Musial, “Le Demon Blond” Guy Lefleur), and sundry compelling issues of money, muscle, and myth. We witness Roger Maris’s ordeal by fame; Bob Gibson’s blazing competitive fire; and Red Smith, now white-haired and renowned, contemplating his beginnings and his future. Also included is a new and original chapter, “Clem,” about the author’s compelling lifelong friendship with former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Clem Labine. Written across six decades, this volume shows Kahn’s ability to describe the athletes he profiled as they truly were in a manner neither compromised nor cruel but always authentic and up close.
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About the Author
Roger Kahn (1927–2020) has been called the dean of American sportswriters and is the author of the best-selling classic The Boys of Summer. The author of eighteen nonfiction books and two novels, his books Memories of Summer: When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing about It a Game; The Era, 1947–1957: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World; A Season in the Sun; and Good Enough to Dream are all available from the University of Nebraska Press. Bill Dwyre was sports editor of the Los Angeles Times for twenty-five years and a columnist for nine years until he retired in 2015. He won the 1996 Red Smith Award for contributions to sports journalism, the AP Sports Editors’ highest honor.
Read an Excerpt
A Death Without Sunlight: Jackie Robinson Jr.
Esquire, November 1971
Young Jack had difficulties finding a comfortable place within and outside of his famous family. In time he went to Vietnam as an infantryman, turned on to heroin, died young. The story his platoon mates tell is stark.
I begin this collection with this work because our country has slipped into a pattern of ill-defined, semiconstant, probably needless and unquestionably murderous wars: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan to name four, excluding deadly brevities in Granada, Somalia, and Bosnia. I hope that this examination of one forgotten death spurs the outrage that it merits.
This poem is a death chant and a gravestone and a prayer for young Jackie Robinson who walked among us with a wide stride moving moving moving through blood and mud and shit of Vietnam.
Ethridge Knight, who himself is recovering from heroin addiction, had written these words through tears and reworked the lines many times and now ... he bowed his large dark head and showed them deferentially. Ethridge is groping back toward manhood at Daytop in Seymour, Connecticut, the institution where young Jackie Robinson tried to make himself whole in the brave late years of a brief life. ...
Knight, a published poet, is a resident of Daytop. He has stopped taking drugs, but he has not yet reached confirmation, the day when he is pronounced competent to reenter the world beyond. His judges, the people who run Daytop with some professional psychiatric consultation, are all former skin-poppers and mainliners. Junkies.
"Thanks, Ethridge," said Jimmy DeJohn, black-goateed and squat as a linebacker. He is an assistant director of Daytop and twenty-four years old. "You can go back to work." Ethridge drifted off soundlessly. "We don't talk about Jackie too much with the residents," DeJohn said. "It upsets them. They can't hear it."
Summer sat on the Housatonic River and on the valley cottages where one finds the pallbearers for Jackie Robinson Jr. — careworn George Tocci, Eddie Brown, eight years a Marine, and Jimmy DeJohn, who was married in a Catholic church last fall with young Jack as best man. "A few people were surprised to see a black guy best man at an Italian wedding," he said, "but the maid of honor, who was white, was proud to walk down the aisle of St. Margaret Mary's with someone that fine. And I was damn proud." Jimmy shook his head.
The summer day and death talk made incongruity. Nearby field corn had grown man high and in the river, beyond the curving blacktop, someone had anchored a jump and you could hear the skiers on the water, their voices exultant in youth. Summer and death and youth and death: an equation reason cannot solve.
The death facts may be stated simply. On June 17, 1971, at about 2:30 a.m., Jackie Robinson Jr. was found dead in the remnant of a yellow MG. He had driven off the Merritt Parkway at such high speed that the car, which belonged to his brother David, demolished four heavy oak guard posts. The engine came to rest a hundred feet from the chassis, which looked like a toy car bent double by the hammer of a petulant child. Only wire wheels remained intact. Police theorized that death was instantaneous. The coroner fixed cause as a broken neck. David Robinson identified the car and his brother's body. Jackie Robinson Sr., fifty-two, broke the news to his wife, Rachel, an assistant professor of psychiatric nursing at Yale.
Newspapers filled their obituaries with fragments of a molten life. The late Mr. Robinson, wounded in action in Vietnam, was the son of the first Negro to play in the Major Leagues. After his discharge the younger Robinson was twice arrested on charges growing from heroin addiction. Later he was said to have ceased using drugs. At the time of his death, he was employed as assistant regional director of Daytop, Inc. Police found neither drugs nor evidence of continuing drug use on the corpse.
"We both came in here September 1968," said Jimmy DeJohn, "which made us close. And we were dope fiends and we licked it together. He was interested in philosophy and helping street people and he was getting to be some speaker. That's what he did. Spoke. His dream was having his own community center in some bad ghetto."
The Daytop centers — there are only two — attack addiction through self-confrontation. The approach echoes Jung, who spoke of destruction and rebirth, and even shadows Socrates in the agora, speaking his willingness to die many times. Withdrawal from heroin, say Daytop people, is not physical torture. It produces sweating, restlessness, and the symptoms of intestinal flu for seventy-two hours. But the idea of convulsing spasms and shrieking agony is decried as the stuff of bad Sinatra pictures and of people who lean on bad Sinatra pictures to cop out. (Withdrawal from barbiturate addiction — heroin is a narcotic — is described as another problem, truly hideous.)
The addict entering Daytop quits cold. His system recovers quickly, but it takes a year or even two to make an emotional adjustment. A Daytop resident lives in a dormitory with others and plants corn, works lathes, writes poems. Part of the day is given to talk, in which one is encouraged, figuratively whipped, to face himself. Images shatter. People cry. Although the cure ratio is 80 percent, it is not a gentle place. Young Jackie Robinson ran no gentle road to find Daytop.
He was born in 1946, after the thrilling season when his father broke through baseball's cotton curtain on the way to becoming a Brooklyn Dodger. In succeeding years little Jack became a darling of the Dodgers' entourage. I have before me a Life magazine photograph taken by Nina Leen that shows Jackie sitting on a tricycle before a Brooklyn stoop-front. His father looks on with intent pride; Rachel, his mother, contains her smile, as is her way. The little boy is wearing a white playsuit. Perched surely, no hands, he drinks a glass of milk. It is a pretty picture suggesting contentment, but at the time it was taken people still chuckled as they remembered a remark by the politician Al Smith. The only trouble with kittens and pickaninnies is that they grow up.
As young Jackie Robinson moved past three-wheelers, black resistance formed, rising against bigotry. The point, an arrow of dark fire, was Jackie's father. The big man beat off mixed hatred and scorn: beanballs, obscenities, a too-small salary, a righteous, condescending press. But after he had broken through, Alan Paton made a pilgrimage to shake big Jack's gnarled hand. Earl Warren sprawled in a private box at Ebbets Field, sipping a drink and cheering my fellow Californian. Two years after that Earl Warren's court struck down school segregation.
When I was traveling with the Dodgers in 1953, Jackie Robinson remarked that he missed being home and the chance to watch his children change day by day. In 1955 he built an estate in a corner of North Stamford, Connecticut, where until then blacks had come only as servants. This must have been a paradoxical boyhood for young Jackie, pampered by strangers, attacked by bigotry once removed, with an adoring father who went away every other day (it seemed) to play in St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. Still, when the father retired from baseball in 1956, young Jackie cried.
With adolescence, disaffection entered. Young Jack performed poorly in junior high school and went off to prep. He dropped out and enlisted in the army. He wanted to achieve discipline, he said.
In Vietnam he became a good rifleman. Once as his platoon sat panting on a hummock near Pleiku, he heard a sound and turned and fired a burst from his M-14. Two Vietcong fell dead. A third crawled into undergrowth. The men of the platoon rushed up and slammed his back and yelled, "Nice shooting, Jackie." He nodded and walked slowly to the corpses. He was surprised that they were younger than himself.
Later the platoon was pinned, and as mortar fragments fell some men began to cry in panic. Fragments killed the soldier next to Jackie, who himself took shrapnel in the hip. Afterward he put down the incident as "the time I got shot in the ass." But it was in Vietnam that he first turned to heroin.
"When he came to Daytop he was very inward," Jimmy DeJohn said, "and he had hang-ups. He knocked his own family as cliché middle class. I'm middle class myself. I grew up next to a golf club outside Hartford. I started drinking cough syrup with codeine and getting stuff out of Darvon pills when my father died, but that's another story and you came to talk about Jackie."
DeJohn, Tocci, Brown, and I were sitting in a bare office at Daytop. Above DeJohn a sign hung, white paint on brown wood: J. Robinson.
"From when he was night mayor," Tocci said. "The staff man in charge late is the night mayor. He seemed to like that when he had kicked the dope and started working here. That was the sign we hung when he was night mayor. J. Robinson, Night Mayor of Daytop."
"A good ballplayer," DeJohn said. "Batted lefty. He hit a softball a helluva way. But he didn't like it. After him and me was making progress and going places, people who met him said, 'You're the ballplayer's son.' He'd say, 'Baseball's not my thing.' Then he'd say, 'Don't use the whole name. Just introduce me as Jackie.'"
"The street people got to be his thing," Tocci said. "He'd go to Hartford, Waterbury, New Haven, where there were bad slums, and tell them about staying away from heroin and about Daytop."
"No shirt and tie like at home," DeJohn said. "He wore dashikis. Still, he always had good communication with his mother."
"Did he talk to you about his time in Vietnam?"
"I was there," Eddie Brown said. "Long time back. '65. They had us fighting with World War II gear. ... You got to go on these missions, search and destroy, you get high. Booze, hash, whatever. Grass got me a dishonorable discharge. Now when Jackie told me about shooting this burst and finding out he'd killed people who were just kids, I asked him what he thought. He said he thought nothing. He made his mind go blank." ...
"Mr. Robinson was very nice to us," DeJohn said. "He had us over to his estate and football's my bag and he reached into his trophy case and took out a white football a lot of people had signed. This musta been some kind of an award."
"Before baseball he was a star running back," I said.
"I told him we couldn't use that one, but Mr. Robinson wanted us to go ahead. And before we were through kicking it around, every signature was rubbed off. Mr. Robinson laughed and said he was just happy to see young people playing ball around his house."
"Did Jackie come to appreciate what his father had done in baseball?"
"Not really," DeJohn said, "but he was coming to appreciate him as a man."
"He found out his dad didn't always have the good life," Tocci said, "that when Mr. Robinson was young his people were so poor dinner would sometimes be a sugar sandwich."
"That started things opening," DeJohn said. "It got better and better between him and his dad, and last year Mr. Robinson had a party for Daytop and he and Jackie hugged each other."
"Wonderful people," Tocci said.
"Jackie won this great victory over heroin," DeJohn said, "and we used to talk — like I say we're both twenty-four — about the greater victories ahead."
On his funeral day, June 21, the coffin had stood open. The family had abandoned the suburbs for the services and chosen Antioch Baptist Church on Greene Avenue in Brooklyn. ... "In Memoriam," said the program, "Jack Roosevelt Robinson Jr., 1946–1971." ...
I looked at the leonine head of the young man newly dead. His beard was trimmed. For an instant I allowed myself to consider what was locked within the skull: Gibran and Herbie Mann and racism and the faces of teenaged Asians killed in battle and the narcosis of heroin and the shock of withdrawal and a father's hug. And then I would not let myself think that way anymore.
The family was escorted to their pews at 1:15. Rachel Robinson, who had mixed martinis with exquisite care when last we saw her, was clinging to another of her children. Two men had to support Jackie Robinson, most powerful of base runners. He was crying very softly for his son, his head down so that the tears coursed only a little way before falling to the floor.
A solo flute played "We Shall Overcome." A chorus from Daytop sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." ... David Robinson, who is nineteen, walked to the pulpit with a wide stride and read a eulogy for his brother. David had written it in a single afternoon and pleaded with his father to be allowed to speak it.
"He climbed high on the cliffs above the sea," David called in a resonant tenor, "and stripped bare his shoulders and raised his arms to the water, crying, 'I am a man. Give me my freedom so that I might dance naked in the moonlight and laugh with the stars and roll in the grass and drink the warmth of the sun. Give me my freedom so I might fly.' But the armies of the sea continued to war with the wind and raced through the stones and mocked his cries, and the man fell to his knees and wept. ... He rose," David's voice called from the pulpit, "and journeyed down the mountain to the valley and came upon a village. When the people saw him, they scorned him for his naked shoulders and wild eyes, and again he cried, 'I am a man. I seek the means of freedom.'
"The people laughed, saying, 'We see no chains on your arms. Go. You are free.' And they called him mad and drove him from their village. The man walked on, eyes red as a gladiator's sword, until he came to a stream where he saw an image, face sunken in hunger, skin drawn tight around the body.
"He stood fixed on the water's edge and began to weep, not from sorrow but from joy, for he saw beauty in the water, and he removed his clothing and stood naked before the world and rose to his full height and smiled and moved to meet the figure in the water, and the stream made love to his body, and his soul cried with the ecstasy of being one." ...
David's strong voice rose and choired, "He laughed, for he felt the strength of the stream flowing through his veins, and he cried, 'I am a man,' and the majesty of his voice was heard above the roar of the sea and the howl of the wind, and he was free." ...
I saw Jackie Robinson after the services, white-haired, dry-eyed, and sure as when he doubled home two runs, walk among street people outside church, talking perhaps of the hell of heroin, touching and being touched, and I thought how proud his firstborn son would have been, not of the ballplayer but of the man, had he lived, if only the insanity of the present had given him a chance.CHAPTER 2
Joe Black's Odyssey
New York Herald Tribune, June 8, 1952
This was my first baseball column in the Trib. A column, as opposed to a news story, meant at least two things: the paper published your picture, and Red Smith was getting a day off.
From Plainfield, New Jersey, to Brooklyn runs some twenty-five miles, barely far enough to give a seasoned commuter time to list half the shortcomings of railroads, buses, and highways. But Joe Black, a better pitcher than a commuter, turned the journey into an odyssey by making stops in Cuba, Venezuela, Baltimore, Montreal, and St. Paul before he reached the rosy-tinted land across the river.
In place of the one-eyed gods and murderous vixens who kept the plot moving in Homer's epic, baseball players peopled Joe's journey. It will never be required reading for high-school freshmen, because, among other reasons, there was no blood or thunder anywhere along the way.
Instead, to hear Black tell it, making the Dodgers' pitching staff was a task as pleasant as it was circuitous. From the Plainfield High School counselor who advised Joe to go to a Negro college because "I didn't know enough about my race," to men like Preacher Roe and Chuck Dressen, who gave him tips that made his curveball big league, Joe has found people willing to go out of their way to help him.
When you meet him it isn't hard to understand why. As soon as he talks or smiles he makes a friend, and more often than not, when Joe Black talks, smiles follow.
"When I first started playing in the Negro leagues ... I figured I was a shortstop. I started hitting, and the pitchers started curving me. After a little while the manager came to me and said, 'Son, maybe you can pitch.'"
"Are you a hitter, Joe?" someone wanted to know.
"I'm a swinger," Black announced.
"How'd the pitching go?"
"The first seven men I faced struck out," Joe said, "but those next eight guys, well, they didn't all hit the ball over the fence; some of them hit it against it. I didn't finish the start."
He finished others, though. He has the big-league hatred of losing, and his on-field manner is as tough as his off-field manner is gentle.
When Black played football for Morgan State College, he was a back on offense but an end on defense by his own request. "I'd get tackled when I ran," he explained, "but I never had much chance to do any tackling of my own. I wanted to hit the other fellows as hard as they were hitting me, so I moved up to end."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Roger Kahn Reader"
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Table of Contents
Preface by Roger Kahn Introduction by Bill Dwyre Part 1. An American Tragedy 1. A Death Without Sunlight: Jackie Robinson Jr.Esquire, November 1971 Part 2. When Eisenhower Reigned 2. Joe Black’s OdysseyNew York Herald Tribune, June 8, 1952 3. What White Big Leaguers Really Think of Negro PlayersOur Sports, June 1953 4. The Twilight of the GodsSports Illustrated, September 20, 1954 5. Baseball 1954Sports Illustrated, October 4, 1954 6. Here’s Tap DaySports Illustrated, November 22, 1954 7. Forget Something, Boys?Sports Illustrated, December 20, 1954 8. New York Proudly PresentsSports Illustrated, September 27, 1954 9. 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . & BingoSports Illustrated, October 11, 1954 10. Glory Day in ColumbusSports Illustrated, November 29, 1954 11. Alonzo, AlonzoSports Illustrated, January 10, 1955 12. Big Newk and His PsycheSport, August 1955 13. Early Wynn: The Story of a Hard LoserSport, March 1956 14. The Boswells of BaseballThe Nation, September 7, 1957 15. Stan Musial Is Baseball’s No. 1 CitizenSport, February 1958 16. Little Nellie’s a Man NowSport, April 1958 17. Rookie of the Year [Fiction]Cosmopolitan, June 1958 18. How the Other Half LivesSport, October 1958 19. The Crucial Part Fear Plays in SportSport, August 1959 Part 3. Changing Times 20. The Benching of a LegendSports Illustrated, September 12, 1960 21. Success and Ned IrishSports Illustrated, March 27, 1961 22. Baseball’s Secret Weapon: TerrorSports Illustrated, July 10, 1961 23. Pursuit of No. 60: The Ordeal of Roger MarisSports Illustrated, October 2, 1961 24. Robert Frost: A ReminiscenceThe Nation, February 9, 1963 25. The Time of the HustlerShow Magazine, October 1963 Part 4. Getting Closer 26. Writing SportsEsquire, August 1970 27. The Life and Hard Times of Jim BoutonEsquire, December 1970 28. The MickEsquire, May 1971 29. Roy EmersonEsquire, June 1971 30. Bob GibsonEsquire, July 1971 31. Scuba DivingEsquire, January 1974 32. A Shrine in BrooklynSports Illustrated, August 5, 1974 33. Cheer, Cheer for Old Ezra PoundEsquire, November 1974 34. The Good and Bad Times of Don KingEsquire, November 1975 35. George Foreman Is Down but Not OutEsquire, May 1976 36. Aspects of the GameSports Illustrated, August 16, 1976 37. A Baseball SketchbookSports Illustrated, August 23, 1976 38. Golden Triumphs, Tarnished DreamsSports Illustrated, August 30, 1976 39. Walter O’Malley in the SunshineNew York Times, January 9, 1978 40. Some Modest ProposalsNew York Times, February 13, 1978 41. The Joy of Bill VeeckNew York Times, April 3, 1978 42. Public RelationsNew York Times, July 31, 1978 43. Jim Lonborg at Thirty-SevenNew York Times, April 2, 1979 44. A Visit with Red SmithNotre Dame Magazine, December 1979 45. My Movie Option: Eight Years of StrikeoutsNew York Times, May 4, 1980 46. Lafleur (the Flower of Canada)Sport, December 1981 47. Dodger Verities Span the Seasons New York Times, October 6, 1985 Part 5. A New Millennium 48. Joe Black, 1924–2002: Hard Thrower, Soft HeartLos Angeles Times, May 18, 2002 49. Scorecard: Mind Over BatterSports Illustrated, December 8, 2003 50. A Few Moments with TSWBoston Red Sox Magazine, June 2007 51. Clem An Original Story