Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer

The "Boys of Summer" revisited 26 years later

Here is a special adaptation for The Los Angeles Times from Roger Kahn, he tells of the circumstances of the book's creation and touches base with all the survivors from that memorable Dodger team.(Feb. 22, 1998)

The line-up went like this....Catcher: Roy Campanella; first base: Gil Hodges; second base: Jackie Robinson; third base, Billy Cox; shortstop, Pee Wee Reese; outfield, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Andy Pafko, George Shuba; pitchers, Clem Labine, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe.

In the 10 years from 1947 through 1956, the Dodgers won the pennant six times. Campanella, Robinson, Reese and Snider--half that starting line-up of position players--are in the Hall of Fame.

Epilogue for the 1990's and the Millennium

The first printing--12,000 copies--sold out in days. Harper bought 30,000 copies from the Book of the Month to keep stores stocked while more printings were prepared. Johnny Carson asked me to talk about "The Boys of Summer" on " The Tonight Show." Dick Cavett devoted an entire 90 minute program on ABC to the book and to some of its principals. But sorrow was not far away after the 1972 release.

On April 2, a heart attack killed Gil Hodges in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was managing the New York Mets. He was 47. In an affectionate tribute, Reese remembered a fight he had gotten into with Dee Fondy, a 200-pound first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. Hodges moved quickly and lifted him off the ground. "I don't know where you're going when I put you down. Dee, but you're not going anywhere near Pee Wee." At Hodges funeral, Jackie Robinson said. " I always thought I'd be the first to go." He called me a few months later, after " The Boys of Summer" moved to the top of best-seller lists. He began in the ballpark language we used to use. "You son of a bitch." "Why am I a son of a bitch, Robinson?" Your damn book has my telephone ringing all the time. I get no peace. Some of them called me an Uncle Tom for working for white bosses. Now they're finding out I wasn't an Uncle Tom after all because of your damn book." "You're welcome, Jackie."

He was suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes, and he was all but blind when a heart attack killed Jackie Robinson on the morning of October 24. He was 53. Way down in Georgia, Dixie Walker said, " I'm sad as I could possibly be. Oh, I said and did some stupid things when Jack came up. But before the end, Jack and I were shaking hands." In Connecticut, I shared grief with Robinson's doctor, Arthur Logan . " It's for the best, " Arthur said. " His whole circulation system was breaking down. In months, or a year, we would have had to amputate his legs. Can you imagine Jackie Robinson blind, without legs, in a wheelchair? Death isn't always the worst thing." Then Dr. Arthur Logan began to cry.

In 1978, Billy Cox died of esophageal cancer at a Harrisburg hospital. He was 58. In a splendid obituary, John Radosta of the New York Times quoted Walter O'Malley as saying, " He was the best glove Brooklyn ever had."

Carl Furillo spent his last years working as a night watchman, despite the ravages of leukemia. He was 66 when he died on Jan. 21, 1989. Carl Erskine spoke the eulogy in Reading, Pa. " I remember how tough he was, how strong he was, how consistant he was. When he hit a single, it was a bullet. When he hit a home run, it was a rocket. And his arm portrayed his strength. But he also had a great sensitivity and tenderness. When Charlie Dressen wanted to compare things, he said they were like dirt and ice cream." Carl Furillo was like steel and velvet.

Roy Campanella's brave life ended on June 26, 1993, in Woodland Hills. The cause was a heart attack. Campanella was 71. One reporter remembered a comment about Campy from Ty Cobb, perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever. Cobb, not noted for gushing, said, " Campanella will be remembered longer than any catcher in baseball history."

The other Dodgers are bearing up as one would expect, with courage and dignity. Let me mention them in order in which they have appeared. The clothing company for which Clem Labine worked and designed no longer exists. Labine moved on to work for a bank and then retired. He maintains homes in Rhode Island and Florida. Clem's son, Jay, who lost a leg in Vietnam, is doing well, working for a Rhode Island state agency. After the death of Clem's first wife, he married a notably charming woman from an Italian-American family in Providence. " We're very happy," Barbara Labine said, " That may be surprising, since I didn't know any baseball when we got married. You couldn't listen to ballgames on the radio on the weekend in our house. Grandma preferred grand opera."

George Shuba still resides in Youngstown, Ohio, where he is comfortably retired from his post-baseball job in the post office.

Carl and Betty Erskine celebrated their 50th anniversary on October 5, 1997. Carl rose to the presidency of the First National Bank of Anderson, Ind., before easing back to the role of vice chairman of the board. Jimmy Erskine their son who suffered from Down syndrome, lives at home and holds a job nearby at the Hopewell Center for people with developmental difficulties.

Andy Pafko lives in Mt. Prospect in the Chicago area. Once a year he returns to his hometown of Hoyceville, Wis., to talk to students at the local high school. He has donated his baseball memorabilia to the school.

Joe Black has moved to Phoenix. He does consulting work for VIAD, formerly Greyhound, and helps out in a program for old ballplayers who have fallen on hard times. He was prominent and eloquent in organized baseball's 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson and integration of the sport.

Pee Wee Reese is a remarkably youthful 80. "What should you write about me?" he asked. "Just the usual stuff. That I'm a hell of a guy." Indeed he is. Reese has survived two cancer operations. He even hired a personal trainer to keep him in shape for his 90th birthday. Pee Wee's son, Mark, has become a filmmaker. Three years ago, Mark hired me to narrate a television series on the Dodgers that he wrote, produced and directed for ESPN. When I refer to Mark as the Shakespear of the New South, I'm not entirely kidding.

Duke Snider has weathered problems with the IRS and cholesterol. He has undergone five coronary bypass procedures. He remains cheerful. When I last visited him in Fallbrook, he had moved into a condominium overlooking a golf course. I remarked that the green expanse beyond a picture window was pleasing. "The most pleasing thing, " Duke said, " is that I don't have to mow it."

I have moved my closing words for Preacher Roe, who will soon be 83. Roe is retired but vigorous in West Plains, Mo., and proud that every one of his grandchildren has gone to college. " I know one of these days the good Lord is going to come calling," Preacher says, " and when that happens I certainly hope he sees fit to send me up to heaven. But heaven will really have to be something to better than what we all had long ago in Brooklyn."

Writing about the old Brooklyn and the Dodgers has become heady stuff. Everybody these days wants to try. The cliche that old Brooklyn was the borough of "dese" and "dem" and "dose" has perished and a curious phenomenon sweeps the land from Cambridge to San Diego. I call it Brooklyn Chic. No it wasn't " dese," "dem" and "dose," and it wasn't Paris in the 1920s, either. But Brooklyn was one wonderful place to be a baseball fan. Unique in my adventure is that an ordinary sandlotter, myself, forged such glorious friendships with people called Reese, Labine, Erskine, Snider, Black. " A family," Carl Erskine says, " is more than blood." I cannot think of a finer family than mine.