Friday, January 26, 2007

Book Review: The Era, by Roger Kahn

The Era 1947-1957: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World, by Roger Kahn

Roger Kahn is a fantastic writer. The 1950's were an awesome time to be around New York baseball. And if you agree with the previous sentences, you will thoroughly enjoy the book "The Era". If you don't, you probably won't. But that doesn't make the book itself any better or worse.

In the prologue, Kahn explains with conviction why he believes that this time and place were an "era" in baseball, and concludes by saying, "You should have been there. I mean to take you." In the rest of the book, he pretty much does exactly that.

It's hard to evaluate this book independently of his better-known book "The Boys of Summer"; and granted, almost any time you read anything by Kahn, there'll be shades of Boys of Summer in it. However, in context, it makes sense, as the 1952 Dodgers was his first real writing gig, and thus he lived and breathed Dodger Blue for two years. It'll sort of be like myself with the 2004-2006 Mariners -- these are the guys I started writing about on a daily basis, so these are the days and the players I'll really remember for the rest of my life. Long after the current generation of baseball players have retired, gone gray, managed, general managed, had kids of their own in the major leagues, and so on, I'll still probably still want to wax historic about the time when we had a young King Felix, a crazy Aussie named Doyle, the twilight of the great Gar, and exaggerate how fast Ichiro could beat out a bunt.

And thus you can't blame Roger Kahn for spending more page space talking about Carl Furillo than most other authors ever have, or for the chapters upon chapters about Jackie Robinson and Leo Durocher, or the way Pee Wee, Campy, Jackie, Oisk, Pistol Pete, Preacher, Skoonj and Newk are always sitting around chattering on the edge of all his pages. You'll feel like you were actually in Ebbets Field, or in the Yankee clubhouse, or at the Polo Grounds.

It really is pretty crazy if you think about it. In the "era" that Kahn writes about, an 11-year period, there was only one year where no New York team was in the World Series, 1948. The Yankees won 9 pennants in that time, the Dodgers 6, and the Giants 2. I was trying to come up with some sort of comparable time period and comparable locale, but there simply isn't one. No other metropolitan area with multiple baseball teams ever had such a long period of dominance with so many legendary and memorable characters playing a part in the saga. In one chapter Kahn is chatting with Dr. Bobby Brown, former Yankee player and AL president; Brown shows off a photograph of him getting a base hit in a World Series. The notable thing about the picture is not his line drive, though that is pretty cool in itself, but the fact that you can spot seven Hall of Famers standing on the field (as baserunners, fielders, and a coach).

I feel like it's really hard to capture exactly what it was that I loved about this book so much. It's not really a brilliantly architected work or anything. There's a timeline to it, of course, but the storylines of the various players and teams wander in and out as they become important to the particular time. It's engaging, it's wonderfully amusing, but it's also a little discombobulated. If anything, a lot of it reads the way you'd expect a bar conversation to go, if you sat down and asked Kahn to tell you about DiMaggio, Mantle, or Mays. About Jackie. About the time Larry MacPhail and Tom Yawkey almost traded The Dago for The Skinny Kid, straight up. The stories aren't white-washed, and the players are painted as they were, with Kahn several times using quotes that he had promised not to print at the time as a journalist, but has been released of that vow by outliving the sources.

To be honest, the Casey Stengel quotes alone are worth reading this book. Even if you've read Robert Creamer's Stengel book, which is fantastic in its own right, the way the Stengel quotes are worked into "The Era" with the absurdity of various situations is just hilarious. And at the same time, the serious discussion of how Stengel used various platoon matrices and other innovative managerial techniques -- such as warming up several relievers at a time, and bringing out appropriate players per leverage situations -- is fascinating to read when viewed through a modern-day telescope.

Basically, it's no Boys of Summer. But it's damn entertaining all along. I'd say that if you had to choose only one Kahn book to read, this isn't the one, but if you are looking for a good bus book, and a laugh, and perhaps, like me, to feel nostalgic for a time period that you never actually experienced, this book is well worth your time. If you see it in a used bookstore, by all means pick it up and give it a read.

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