Excerpt: The Roger Kahn Reader

The following is an excerpt from The Roger Kahn Reader: Six Decades of Sportswriting (June 2018) by Roger Kahn, edited and with an introduction by Bill Dwyre. Read more about the book in Edward Kosner’s review for the Wall Street Journal.

 

From the Preface

by Roger Kahn

Even before the advent of the internet, the number of newspapers and general magazines published in America had been declining steadily and, for those who care about reading and writing, alarmingly. There are by far more dead newspapers than living ones.

The first factor certainly was radio, with television hard on its heels. If you were listening to Jack Benny or the Lone Ranger, you probably were not simultaneously leafing through the pages of Collier’s or even Hearst’s tawdry New York Journal-American. Along with other intellectuals of the 1920s and ’30s, my parents expressed concern that Americans were losing the reading habit. (One hears similar complaints today.) By “reading habit” the intellectuals presumed an intelligent, some would say elitist, pursuit. Dime-store novels, with their Indian fighters, torn bodices, and successful little orphans named Annie, did not qualify as the stuff of real reading. That term was reserved for such as Joyce, Hemingway, Dante, and Aeschylus. Hack stuff can be entertaining and occasionally has some cultural impact, but it is not art.

Television continued the electronic attack on reading, winning ever more advertising dollars away from publications and criminally assaulting English. Fortunately, a hard core of Americans—some estimate it at 5 percent of the populace—still reads the classics crafted by Homer and Shakespeare and Whitman and such gifted contemporary writers as Don DeLillo, Donald Hall, and Harold Pinter. So the good news, among all the disheartening reports, is that patient, real reading refuses to die.

Dr. James Gates, the librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame, tells me he has never read a well-written sports story on the internet. Jim’s point is unassailable. While the internet obviously uses words, it is not really about writing. Flash, cash, dash, and gash summarize the internet, which has popularized such terms as “upskirt” and “nip-slip.” That is not necessarily bad per se. Shakespeare and Chaucer had rollicking bawdy moments, and I still smile at Joyce’s comment on libido in his native land: “Ireland sober is Ireland stiff.” What the internet lacks is a sense of style. But it is young and may discover the wonders of good writing in a few centuries.

In researching A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties, I immersed myself in the sports pages published before and during the 1920s. There lay a general level of newspaper writing that has not since been matched. Besides Lardner, some of the practicing sportswriters were Grantland Rice, Heywood Broun, and Sheriff Bill McGeehan. Each was a journalistic Olympian. (Bat Masterson also wrote sports back then. As a journalist Bat was an excellent pistol shot.)

On old vanished newspapers the Chicago Inter-Ocean and the New York World, people were encouraged to write as well as they could, without much hindrance from copy editors, and their gifts carried them variously into poetry (Rice) and short stories (Lardner and Broun). Other short-story masters of the period (who also worked in journalism) were Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The so-called golden age of sport, now mostly famous for Dempsey, Rockne, and Babe Ruth, was also a golden age of writing, with short fiction and journalism overlapping.

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My comments here are something more than simplistic longing for good old days that glitter more in retrospect than in reality. As Red Smith remarks in my 1979 interview with him for Esquire, old newspaper staffs consisted in part of numbers of illiterate bums. Well into the 1940s, newspapers demanded that Major League teams pay the travel expenses of their baseball writers, from spring training through the World Series. Every ballclub served the writers free food and drink before, during, and after games. In that climate the reporters were compromised, and a lot of their stuff read like press releases. You got no sense from the old sporting press of Christy Mathewson’s cold arrogance, or Babe Ruth’s alcoholism, or (except for Stanley Woodward’s great scoop on the failed 1947 players strike) the ordeal of Jackie Robinson.

In the stories that follow, written across five decades, my first effort was always to set events and characters down as they truly were in a manner that was neither compromised nor cruel. I was fortunate in having such colleagues as Smith at the Herald Tribune and John Lardner at Newsweek, and fortunate too in working for such protean editors as Woodward and Otto Friedrich.

One of the side benefits of a writer’s life—fringies, Billy Jean King calls them—is that you get to meet prominent people who have read your stuff. I have been charmed across the years by Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and Bushes I and II. No one possessed greater charm than Ronald Reagan. One day in the 1980s, President Reagan arranged a meeting at the Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue. He wanted to talk a little baseball. I wanted my daughter, Alissa, to have a chance to meet a sitting president.

After a pleasant forty minutes, Reagan’s chief of staff approached and said quietly, “You have another appointment, Mr. President.” He did indeed. He was to mediate a session on a nuclear-coexistence treaty between seething representatives of India and Pakistan.

“Don’t you have one more baseball story for me?” the president asked.

I told him about the time Sam Snead took batting practice against a Yankees right-hander named Bob Grim. The pitcher threw nasty low sliders, and Snead didn’t come close. Then, relenting, Grim threw a chest-high, medium-speed fastball. Snead hit that pitch a long way to left-center.

Casey Stengel poked me in the ribs and said, “Imagine that. A golfer who’s a high-ball hitter.”

Reagan laughed, straightened his shoulders, and headed for huge oak doors behind which the Asian emissaries were waiting. But he looked back just before the doors opened, and if I read his eyes correctly, the president would have preferred talking more baseball. I called one word to him: “Peace.”

Ronald Reagan called one word back to me: “Tryin’.”

I cherish the memory, but that is not my only point here.

As I wrote all the stories that follow, I was tryin’.

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