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The Real Story Behind the Beloved Book, "Boys of Summer".




Photo by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

Besides being at the start of the long hot summer season, July is also right in the middle of the major league baseball season so perhaps it might be a good time to reflect upon just where the sport of baseball fits into our lives. The title, “The Boys of Summer” comes from a book by Roger Kahn that reflects in part on the author’s childhood years living in Brooklyn, NY, just blocks from Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers team. Growing up, Kahn shared his love for the Dodgers with his father and uncle but soon realized he would never be able to play first base for the team, so he turned his talents to writing about them for the New York Herald Tribune. He was assigned to provide coverage of the team during 1952 and 1953, years when they suffered routing defeats by the New York Yankees during the World Series.

Baseball mania was common among most Brooklynites, including me, and most would try to attend the games but if not able to would be glued to the radio to learn the fate of the Dodgers during what was referred to as “The Subway Series” since both stadiums were only a subway ride away. Back during the war years, in the early 1940s, bringing a rubber tire would grant you admission to the games and many a kid’s rubber tire swing would go missing from backyard trees (yes, there was more than one tree growing in Brooklyn!).

During the early 1970s, Kahn, using the information gained during his two years spent with the Brooklyn team, set about interviewing each of the Dodger team members about their lives before, during and after their service on the team. In his book, Kahn then focused on growing from boyhood to manhood, including his own growth and that of each team member. And, by the way, the Dodgers finally won their first World Series in 1955, but in 1957, amidst the tears of many, the team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and were no longer referred to affectionately as “Dem Bums.”

Sporting goods Magnate A.J. Spalding falsely claimed, during the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1939, that Civil War hero, Abner Doubleday, invented the game of baseball back in 1839, but it was Doubleday himself that refuted that, noting that he knew nothing about baseball and was still at West Point in 1839. It turns out that the beginnings of baseball are actually a bit more complicated than who invented what. There are references to games that resemble baseball being played in the United States that date as far back as the 18th century, and the current sport is thought to be similar to the English games of rounders and cricket, both of which most likely crossed the ocean with the early colonists. Variations of these games were found in schoolyards and on college campuses during the American Revolution and grew in popularity, especially in the newly industrialized cities.

Formalization of the sport had its beginnings in 1845 when the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club was founded and one of their members wrote the first set of rules for the games of baseball which were later codified by another member who set about establishing changes to the original rules. It depends on which version of the history of the game one reads as to who actually did participate in the rule writing. The new set of rules took the game from what was considered at the time to be a slow field pastime to a much faster paced competition and permanently established the diamond infield design, set up the foul lines and, along with adding the three strike rule, abolished the practice of throwing balls at the runners to tag them out as was the rule in rounders.

Playing or watching games of baseball was an opportunity essentially confined to the Eastern portion of the country until the advent of the Civil War when the number of competing teams dropped off for lack of players, but the then reassigned soldiers went on to introduce the game into other parts of the country. By 1865 there were 100 teams in the league and in the following year, the Cincinnati Red Sox became the first professional team by having paid players. In 1895 the National League, run by businessmen, was formed from the National Association which had been established in 1871 and was run by the players themselves. It took until 1901 for the American League to be formed, which gave birth to the first World Series in 1903. By 1960 the National and American leagues were well established at 16 teams and, to prevent the formation of any future league, they expanded to 24 teams.

For more than 100 years baseball has been referred to as the “National Pastime” and for some it still is as youngsters continue to join Little League teams where they learn to participate in an endeavor that will essentially teach them teamwork, an asset as necessary to function in today’s society as it was in one of the early 1900s. Today though, baseball is just another sport in an array of many in which football is now Number One, and in many cases, recent scandals have led to some skepticism about the worthiness of sports in general.

There is, however, little doubt that baseball has found its way into our lives, if not from being an ardent fan, or from having at least some interest in the game, then from how it has wormed its way into our daily language usage. As an example:  Bill was looking to find the right girl but was now o-fer three. He already had two strikes against him because he was so shy and so far had never been able to get to first base with any of his dates. After striking out so many times he finally found the right girl and felt like he had hit a home run when she agreed to marry him. The happy couple needed a place to live so they went to get a ball park figure for a house from a builder. The numbers were in the ball park and met their incomes, so they agreed to buy, but when they saw the written price on the contract realized the builder had thrown them a curveball by not including in the price the upgrades they had chosen. They told the builder they would touch base with him later. They said to themselves, to quote NY Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over!" and decided to play hardball! They negotiated the extra costs down and then got their parents to go to bat for them by helping with the downpayment. Now, settled into their new home, it is a whole new ball game.

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