Thursday, March 10, 2005

Boy, I'm just going to dine out on this guy for a week.

Few more stories Roger Kahn told Saturday night when he was reading from his new book, Beyond the Boys of Summer These are about life as a sportswriter.

Kahn started his career as a sportswriter at the New York Herald Tribune when he was 22 years old. One day shortly after he started he was covering a horse race at Belmont Park. The race was not exactly Seabiscuit against Man of War. No history, no drama. Kahn was in his box, desperately trying to come up with a lede to make his routine story interestering. In the box next to his was a veteran sportswriter for the New York Times, Joe Nichols. Nichols saw Kahn struggling. He leaned over and said, "Relax, kid. It ain't the Iliad."

Herald Tribune had a staff of sportwriters of uneven talent. Some were very good, like the young Red Smith and (though Kahn left his name out of it) the young Roger Kahn. Some were good at some kinds of stories, not so good at others. A few were good reporters but lousy writers. The Herald Tribune's Sports section's fine reputation was due to the editor, Stanley Woodward. Woodward was a kindly sort, a little too easy going, maybe, but he was insistent that his reporters write well.

One day the guy covering the Yankees turned in a story describing a game as "spine-tingling." Woodward blew his stack.

"Next time you want to call a game spine-tingling," he told the writer, making sure the rest of the sports desk heard, "You are first going out in the bleachers and ask every one of those fans if his spine actually tingled!"

Kahn's fairly certain the word "spine-tingling" never appeared in anybody's copy ever again.

Later in his career, Kahn was covering a story, which if it wasn't the Iliad, was at least a couple passages of it, a fight between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson in Miami, Patterson defending his heavyweight title against the Swede who'd taken it away from him once before. One of the celebrities down to see the fight was Max Schmeling, the German boxer who'd faced Joe Louis twice in the thirties in fights that were seen as symbolic of the coming war. Kahn happened to be on the spot to watch Schmelling causing a bit of a stir as he strolled down Collins Avenue, people applauding and coming up to Schmeling for his autograph, and he wrote about it. Remembering that Schmeling had been a paratrooper in the Wermacht during the war, Kahn wrote, "Shemeling, of course, was never a Nazi. As I get the picture, there were never more than six or seven Nazis in Germany. But they worked very hard."

Beautiful, but Kahn got nervous that it might upset some advertisters, thinking particularly of Volkswagen, so he put it deep inside his column.

Next time he saw his editor, Woodward asked him, "Why did you bury your lede?"

Still later in his career, like close to now, when Kahn was famous and could enjoy the perks of being one of the deans of sportswriting, he was down in Florida for Spring Training, looking in on the Yankees, and he got into a conversation with a young woman reporter for a second-tier newspaper. Kahn remembered what it had been like when he was a young nobody trying to get famous athletes to give him the time of day and he asked her if the Yankee players were treating her all right. She said they were ok to her, probably meaning she was just grateful they didn't treat a lot worse.

"Who's the nicest Yankee?" Kahn asked.

"Bernie Wiliams," she said, "He's the only one who seems to care if I live or die."

"What about Jeter?"

"He's polite," she said. "But his mind's always somewhere else when he talks to me."

"Who's the meanest Yankee?" Kahn said.

"Scott Brosius."

Kahn was agahst.

"Brosius? Brosius! He's not good enough to be mean!"

Sunday, March 06, 2005

How the weather was

Roger Kahn's new book is an anthology of his writing, some of it excerpts from his books, some of it magazine articles, all of it good. It could be called The Roger Kahn Reader or The Almost Portable Roger Kahn. Instead it's called Beyond the Boys of Summer, a title chosen to remind potential buyers of his most famous book and to suggest that there's been more to Kahn's career than nostalgia for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But I already knew that. I'd read just about everything that's in this book before there was this book, except for the introductions and the excerpts from his novels. Probably everybody else who was in Ariel Books in New Paltz last night to hear him read and reminisce had read as much, or nearly as much, of Kahn's work as I have. You read some, you're going to read more. And I wish we all could have gone out for a beer together afterwards so that I could've started an argument over which is his best book.

I don't think it's The Boys of Summer.

His best book, I think, is A Flame of Pure Fire, his biography of Jack Dempsey.

My favorite book by him though is called How the Weather Was, a previous collection of his writing, mostly essays and articles, that I read when I was 14. I still think of that as the best titled book in the world, even though I know that's the part of me that's still 14 and just finishing up his first grown up book of non-fiction talking.

But my 14 year old self must have known a few things, because other books he read at that age still don't excite him when I ask for his literary opinion.

I remember though being disappointed when I started reading it, because I was expecting a book about baseball. I had decided to read it as a warm up to The Boys of Summer, which I knew my father had loved and which therefore I must have thought of as a book that required my father's wisdom, experience, maturity, and love of the Brooklyn Dodgers to understand and appreciate. So I was trying to educate myself to get ready to read the book I really wanted to read when I picked up How the Weather Was.

If I'd known anything at the time I might have been warned by the title that something more than baseball was the subject. I might have recognized that Kahn had taken his title from Hemingway.

All good books [Hemingway said] are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstacy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

At any rate, when I was done I didn't think of Roger Kahn as a sportswriter, at least not only a sportswriter, and nothing I've read by him since has convinced me I was wrong. So although it's probable that I wasn't the most well-read Kahn fan in the room last night, I'll bet I was one of only a few who wasn't suprirsed when Kahn began his reading last night not with talking about the Dodgers or his friend Jackie Robinson or even about Jack Dempsey. He started off talking about Robert Frost.

Which is to say that he started off talking about writing.

Long time ago, Kahn met and got to be friendly with Robert Frost. He wrote about some of their conversations and Frost never minded what he wrote. He had only one request, that Kahn not write about things Frost said about other poets.

Kahn wanted to know why not.

"Beause I'm a poet not a critic," Frost said.

Everything else was on the record.

Last night Kahn went back and forth easily from reading to talking off the cuff and it was hard to tell when he was doing one or other. I never caught him looking down at the page for more than a few seconds at a time. He acted stories out too, stepping away from the lectern to give himself stage room, and did the different voices. So I was surprised to find in the intro to his book that this story about Frost speaking to some students appears word for word as Kahn told it in the bookstore last night. I thought he was improvising.

I once watched Robert Frost, by nature a friendly sort, virtually dismember an overly aggressive student who wanted to know what a particular poem meant.

"It means what it says." [Kahn did Frost as a growling dog.]

"Well," the student said, "I know what it means to me but I don't know what it means to you."

"Maybe I don't want you to."

"Could you explain the poem please?"

"Do you want me to state it in worse English?"

Frost, Kahn concluded, "Left his ardent idolater distraught but also perhaps with a first clue as to how writers function and think. Most writers look on their work as Frost did. It means what it says. As the wise comedian Fred Allen once put it, 'If you have to explain a joke, don't.'"

Kahn recently taught a class at SUNY New Paltz and he told us about how on the first day of class he had brought up Ernest Hemingway and been startled that the name met with a lot of blank stares. When he tried to tell them about who Hemingway was and in mentioning For Whom the Bell Tolls he explained that the title came from a sermon by John Donne he was faced with a whole lot more blank stares.

Kahn didn't tell this story to tell us how much dumber than all us grown ups 18 and 19 year olds are. He told it to brag. He was proud. He said he told the class, "Someday, many years from now, you're going to remember with joy that you first heard the names Ernest Hemingway and John Donne in a class at SUNY New Paltz."

Since the class ended he's been receiving emails and letters from former students asking him what else they should read. "Should I read this guy? How about this book? What other books should I be reading now?"

Kahn is a little dapper elf, and the whole half of his face under his long nose is an elfin grin. The grin got bigger as he said that and you could see that he was pleased with himself. And why not? He was proud of the fact that he had put John Donne and Ernest Hemingway into the heads of a couple dozen young people. He might have been a little bit sneakily vain that in years to come that the name Roger Kahn would be in their heads alongside the other two, but he didn't care. He cared that he'd given them some things to read for the rest of their lives.