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A Sporting Life
The author of America’s best-loved baseball book speaks of his days as a reporter, of his time (unique among sportswriters) owning a team, and of his latest subject, Jack Dempsey, whose violent career he uses to illuminate an era
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Roger Kahn learned early the difference between the bright grass at nearby Ebbets Field and the poetic grass that was, as his anti-baseball mother read to him from Whitman, “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Kahn’s literate sport-mindedness, so admired over the years by reviewers of his lyrical yet savvy memoirs and baseball histories, can probably be traced to the dining-table arguments of his Brooklyn teacher parents (the classicist, sports-phobic mother, Olga, and the Dodger-friendly historian father, Gordon) debating baseball’s possible ill effects on their boy. “Baseball was the final mythology of my youth,” Kahn has written. “As I grew older, a passion for baseball came to intrude on—and sometimes to replace—my inherited Brooklyn Hellenism.”
Baseball formally claimed him in 1952, when the New York Herald Tribune made the twenty-four-year-old its reporter covering the Dodgers. Kahn was younger than most of the team, and traveling with the pennant-winning social experiment that was Jackie Robinson’s great club, he saw much of the country beyond the Hudson River for the first time. (During Dodger home stands, however, Kahn was still due home for his mother’s weekly family readings from Ulysses.)
Kahn’s 1972 account of his Dodger and Tribune days, The Boys of Summer, is as beautiful a sports or newspapering memoir as there is, reflecting the hectic pleasures of being young, when “the days are crowded with deadlines, with other people’s petty scoops and your own, bickering and fantasies and train rides and amiable beers.” The book became a national bestseller and an instant classic. Kahn followed it up with collections of journalism, including How the Weather Was; two novels; a portrait, Joe and Marilyn ; a controversial book with Pete Rose, My Story; an account of his exotic experiences as a minor-league baseball owner, Good Enough to Dream; and a book on the lost art of sportswriting, Memories of Summer.
His new book, A Flame of Pure Fire, follows the American epic of Jack Dempsey, one of those spectacular and mythic American lives that, as the fighter’s new biographer has found, turns out to be largely true. But the book is equally a portrait of the 1920s, and it should hold the interest of many readers who are at first drawn more to the culture of Dempsey’s time than to the violent, epoch-defining spectacles through which the champion earned his living: the first million-dollar gate, against Carpentier; the classic, brutal 1923 Dempsey-Firpo match, when Dempsey landed in the reporters’ laps ; and the controversial “Long Count” 1927 fight with Tunney. Throughout the nearly six hundred entertaining pages filled with the words of some of the greatest sportswriters who ever lived—Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Heywood Broun among them—Kahn reacquaints the reader with an America that focused itself so passionately on Dempsey that millions of citizens bought their first radios iust to hear how he would do.
“Whether the Dodgers played him at second base, third, first, or left field, your eye always gravitated to Robinson.”
On one wall of Kahn’s Hudson Valley home, autographed photos of two of his favorite artists and writing subjects hang side by side: Willie Mays and Robert Frost. Similarly, he makes his social history of Dempsey’s 1920s more complete by honoring the related arts of both his hero and his immortalizers.
In your memoir of covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, and in your new book, A Flame of Pure Fire, you seem to have been equally inspired by the careers of two fierce American athletes: Jackie Robinson, who integrated the major leagues in 1947, and Jack Dempsey, the star attraction of the sports-crazy 1920s. What did these men have in common, besides high voices and your admiration?
There’s a center-stage quality to both. Wherever they were, that was center stage. I have a picture of Dempsey visiting the Brooklyn Dodger dugout in 1940. He’s sitting next to Pee Wee Reese, but Dempsey is center stage. And so with Robinson. Whether the Dodgers played him at second base, which was his best oosition. third, first, or left field, which was his worst position, your eye always gravitated to Robinson. There was an extraordinary vitality to both men.
It was there when they talked. When I was first going through the South with Jackie, we were in a little roomette about the length of a bed, sitting pretty much with our knees bumping, and I’d been exposed to the racist South—the white taxi, the colored taxi, the white drinking fountain, the colored drinking fountain—and I said, “Jack, I just want you to know I think this is disgraceful and I’m on your side.” He didn’t give me any points for being on his side. He said, “You think this shit is bad? Then write it.”