BrooklynFans Of Books: The Roger Kahn Reader

The Roger Kahn Reader

By Roger Kahn, Edited and with an introduction by Bill Dwyre

University of Nebraska Press; 408 pages; $32.95; available June 1

Roger Kahn, most famous for his classic work The Boys of Summer about the Brooklyn Dodgers, is widely regarded as one of the greatest sportswriters of our time.

An acclaimed sportwriter for more than 60 years, The Roger Kahn Reader is a rich collection of his stories and articles that originally appeared in publications such as Sports Illustrated, theNew 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.

There is also 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.

Here is a sampling of Kahn’s writing featured in the Reader:

“The Twilight of the Gods” from Sports Illustrated, September 20, 1954.

“Casey Stengel’s proud Yankees, playing at a clip that had won them five world championships, went into Cleveland and met a better team – the 1954 Cleveland Indians, who did not ‘choke up,'” writes Kahn now of the piece.

The work as it appeared in SI: “‘Attention, please!’ boomed the impersonal voice of the loudspeaker at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, breaking in on the second game of the Indians’ Sunday double-header with the New York Yankees. ‘Today’s paid attendance is 84,587, the most that ever saw a regular season Major League game.’ The crowd applauded but quieted down when the speaker boomed again. ‘Attention, please. Today’s attendance, including passes, is 86,563, the most that ever saw a Major League game.’ This time the crowd was permitted to cheer its own magnificence without interruption.

“This impressive compliment fully digested, the largest crowd that ever gathered to watch a baseball game went back to the fascinated contemplation of what had brought most of them to Municipal Stadium in the first place – the Cleveland Indians’ effective demonstration that they are a better team than the five-time world champion New York Yankees. As drama, it might very well have been titled ‘The Twilight of the Gods.’ While a band played brassily in left field, the Yankees followed Thor and Wotan into eclipse.

“The inevitable end of the champions did not dull the spectacle. The Yankees died hard, and Cleveland watched with deep-grained satisfaction. Yankees manager Casey Stengel chose one of his best, twenty-five-year-old left-hander Whitey Ford, to pitch the first game. Cleveland’s Al Lopez reached into his deep bin of pitchers – richest in baseball – and picked right-hander Bob Lemon, winner of twenty-one games this year. For a while, until Ford wrenched his shoulder with a side-arm throw, it was a pitchers’ game: 1-1 in the sixth. Then Casey Stengel called on Allie Reynolds, thirty-seven, once the possessor of the most effective fastball in the league.

THEY NEVER HAD A CHANCE

“Al Rosen, third baseman for the Indians, stepped to the plate. He was a college boy when Allie Reynolds was a Major Leaguer. With two men on base, he hit a slider into right-center field. The ball skipped past Mickey Mantle for a two-base hit and two runs scored. After that, Bob Lemon never gave the Yankees a chance. At the end of the first game the score was 3-1 for the Indians, and the Yankees were seven and a half games out of first place. Stengel had lost with his best. For the second game he turned to an old Yankees castoff – Tommy Byrne, the thirty-four-year-old left-hander who had been hurriedly called in from Seattle only ten days before. Against him Al Lopez sent Gus Wynn (20-11 for the season). Wynn throws every pitch, including a wildly breaking knuckleball, and in the first inning Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ catcher, hit one of them into the upper right-field stands for a two-run homer.

“The Yankees held on until the fifth. Then the Indians caught up with Tommy Byrne. Wynn singled, rookie Al Smith singled, and hard-hitting Bobby Avila, the league’s likely batting champion, singled again. Home came Wynn, barely safe under a high throw from the outfield. ‘Just missed him,’ said a Yankee on the bench.

“‘He threw it bad,’ muttered Casey Stengel, sensing catastrophe. ‘Too high to be cut off.’

“Stengel was right, as usual. Another hit, a double by Wally Westlake, sent two more Indians home. After that, the Indians left it to Gus Wynn, and in the fading light he almost seemed to toy with the world champions. After the first inning, the Yankees got only one hit, and that was a bunt.

“Casey Stengel was not through. He called on Enos Slaughter, the old Cardinal, to pinch-hit in the ninth. Slaughter let a knuckleball sweep by for the third strike. Now came Mickey Mantle, the twenty-two-year-old picked to replace the great Joe DiMaggio. Mantle struck out, for the one hundredth time this season.

STRIKE-OUT NO. 12

“Finally it was the turn of Yogi Berra, the twenty-nine-year-old gnome around whom the Yankees of 1955 can hope to rebuild. A home run would have tied the score, and Yogi had hit twenty this season. But Gus Wynn had given up his homer for the day. The Yankees’ catcher swung mightily and became his twelfth strike-out victim.

“Some of Wynn’s fellow Indians hugged him as he walked from the pitcher’s mound. Others turned and shouted, ‘Choke-ups!’ in the direction of the Yankees’ bench.

“No one had taunted the Yankees in this manner for years, but the Indians had full right to their moment. For three years in a row they have finished second to the Yankees. They have heard, for the three years, the intolerable chant that they were the ones who choked up in the pennant stretch. This spring, the Indians’ captain, Al Rosen, took up the ”choke-up’ charge in an exasperated declaration: ‘We don’t lose to the Yankees because we choke up. We lose to the Yankees because they’re a better team.’

“But the fans of Cleveland, some of whom had come from hundreds of miles, were gentle. There was little booing of the dying gods. Most of them knew that the 1954 Yankees were finishing one of their best seasons. At week’s end, and with eleven more games to play, the world champions had won ninety-five games. In most seasons, that many victories would have won the American League pennant. But this time even the Yankees seemed to sense that time had run out on them.”

 

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