The Boys of Summer: The Human Side of Baseball

The Boys of Summer reminds us baseball players are also still humans. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Just last month, iconic baseball write Roger Kahn passed away. That event prompted me to take a look back at his famed book, The Boys of Summer, and his anecdotes about some of those midcentury Brooklyn Dodgers.

Sandy Amorós seems to me like the epitome of that team. Amorós is a perfect example of the role player, someone who can perform in the major leagues even with some deficiencies and who can play almost every day. And the whole team acknowledged and valued his work. They knew what he was able to do with his glove and his bat. Amorós was often a substitute, like many part-time players, yet most of his teammates treated him respectfully. He had his place on the bench and was allowed to speak and participate in the team’s discussions.

Manager Walter Alston knew about Amorós’ talent for baseball; he had watched him fielding long fly balls or chasing dangerous line drives, saving would-be extra-base hits. So Amorós was always very careful about what was going on around the practices and the regular games. Once in a while, he would make suggestions to outfielders George Shuba, Carl Furillo, and even the great Duke Snider: how they were playing every batter, where they should be according to the moment, the kind of deliveries the pitcher was throwing. At first, the outfielders looked at him strangely. But as time went on, Amorós convinced Shuba to look for a second at the dugout, just a moment before each pitch. He made signs about the best place to cover that hitter, and most of the time the ball went to that place. Soon Snider and Furillo also started to follow Amorós’ signs, and the team dubbed him the wizard, the magician of the dugout.

Clem Labine had a 13-5 record and 11 saves in the 1955 season. You don’t see players pitch complete games much anymore, but Labine carefully controlled his deliveries, which perhaps allowed him to throw so much without hurting his arm. When the outfielders threw a shot to the infield, he was always behind third base or home plate to back up the infielder. If the batter hit a high pop-up to the middle of the diamond, Labine was almost always the first one to open his arms and shout, “I got it!” Many years after his days as a ballplayer, Labine confessed to Kahn that he blamed himself for being away all the time playing ball when he should have spent more time with his son Jay, nurturing him, being sensitive. Maybe then Jay wouldn’t have joined the Marines and lost his leg.

Carl Erskine kept very close communication with Roy Campanella since the first time they formed a battery. One night in April of 1958, the Dodgers were on a road trip to Philadelphia. When the umpires suspended the game due to rain, Erskine dressed in street clothes and went to the hospital where Campanella, badly injured months before in an auto accident, was helpless.

It was a disheartening, demolishing experience to see his pal, his teammate of so many battles, standing there in that vertical structure, arms and legs tied, breathing loudly, swallowing his pain. Campanella almost shouted with joy when he saw Erskine walk in. He celebrated his friend’s visit. They talked about the team, how the Dodgers were doing in their new LA home. Erskine promised to win his next game for Campy. He threw a two-hitter.

Roy Campanella managed the plate with passion and intelligence. He was always moving or improving his signs. He not only placed himself in the best possible position before each batter, he also told the third baseman to come closer or go behind the base or nearby the line, moved Pee Wee Reese to the infield grass or the boundaries of the dirt, showed Jackie Robinson if he had to be nearer second base. When a runner turned at third base and came in a rush to home plate, Campy became the fiercest armored knight to block the plate. No matter the clash, no matter the bruises, he had to show the commitment to defending his team. So he stayed there like a rock and endured the runner’s impact.

Billy Cox was that skinny and wiry guy who didn’t seem to have the stamina of a ballplayer. In his neighborhood, the guys picked their teams, and he would be the one left out. But once he jumped on the first bullet shot over third base to take the ball on the line and threw to first base to get the out, things began to change. He arrived in major league baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates as a shortstop and performed so-so, but everything got better once he was sent to the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he started to play third base, the position he had been mastering since boyhood. Maybe that’s why Pee Wee Reese looked very relaxed any time a ball went between third base and shortstop.

As for Pee Wee Reese: Every hard grounder slashed to that piece of infield between second and third base was a stage for his ability to field the ball frontally, looking at it fearlessly, ready to take it in the center or the webbing of his glove and immediately throw it to the first baseman’s mitt. Reese represented the voice of the team, the regulator of harmony, the catalyst of the tiniest chemical reaction among them. He was the first one in the team who recognized he had to accept Jackie Robinson as a Brooklyn Dodger because of his baseball skills instead of judging him for his skin color.

Reese, from Kentucky, surprised his most racist teammates when, in the middle of the 1947 spring training, they wrote a letter threatening the front office with quitting the Dodgers if the team took Robinson to Ebbets Field. Reese didn’t sign that letter. He said he was there to play baseball, not to complain about the race of a teammate. During the toughest verbal attacks from fans, he walked over to Robinson around second base and talked to him, even though they still weren’t close friends.

One time after the first game of a doubleheader, Cox said he wasn’t going to play the second game because he needed to save some energy. Campanella, Snider, and Erskine said nothing, but Reese raised his voice to ask Cox why he needed to save energy with no game the next day. Sure enough, Cox was at third base for the second game.

Duke Snider was always thinking in advance, reflecting, planning on how the outfielders would perform if a shot was hit to right-center field or left-center field. Strategy was Snider’s favorite excuse to chat with his friends, with Furillo and Andy Pafko or  Shuba. During those talks, one could feel the sensitivity, the closeness, the caring for each other those Dodgers teams had. Snider missed it a lot after his baseball career ended. He always remembered how after the games, almost three-quarters of the team wound up in the same place to eat and drink. He always thanked Branch Rickey for all the work he did to bring the team together. That closeness was the soul of those Dodgers.

Carl Furillo: “One more time…one more time!” The guy playing at a more or less middle right field, closer to the last pieces of grass near the wall, five or four feet from the line, every 20 seconds moved a little bit to right-center field or came closer to shallow right field — but in the end, he always ran deep to the corner. Almost half an hour before most games, Furillo asked Billy Cox and Carl Erskine to hit him the hardest line drives or fly balls to deep right field, specifically to the corner.

The more tortuous, caroming, and slippery the ball was to the wall and the corner, the more implacably, intensely, and precisely Furillo chased it. He knew the specific place to wait for the ball after all that bouncing between the wall and the base of it. He took it with the tips of his fingers and immediately sent a cannonball to first, second, or third base. But the most impressive moment was when he threw to home plate, extending his whole arm like a furious wind in a storm, and the ball often crossed the plate just at chest height.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Though he didn’t get along well with Jackie Robinson, Furillo enjoyed fun times in the dugout with pitcher Joe Black and catcher Roy Campanella. “I know if I surrender a hard shot to right field, my buddy Furillo is going to stop the runners at third and first bases. Everybody is afraid of his arm,” said Black. “Yeah, even I…last time I received a throw from him, no matter it was from deep right field, it almost burns my hand, it even hurt more than the runner’s clashing against my hip,” said Campanella.

Gil Hodges, that silent guy who understood his future with the Dodgers wasn’t behind home plate and enthusiastically took the first base mitt, the one who had learned from his father to give his best in the darkness of the mines and also to analyze and improve day after day practicing baseball, represented a kind of stabilizer in the infield and the dugout of the Brooklyn Dodgers. When there was a runner on first base who threatened to break for second, Hodges went to the mound and patted the pitcher on his shoulder. Next time the pitcher turned and threw the ball to first base, the runner had to dive on his face just to graze the base. After that, the runner stayed closer to the base, and the pitcher could breathe and focus on his catcher’s signs.

Hodges learned to listen to the manager’s and his teammates’ suggestions and assimilated them so well he improved quickly.  Maybe that schooling prepared Hodges well for his experiences as skipper with the Washington Senators and later with the New York Mets — including the World Series-winning Miracle Mets of 1969. He didn’t need to shout or threaten; he just looked straight at his players’ eyes and talked softly about whatever problems they needed to solve.

Jackie Robinson was always ready to take the ball from Reese and confront the runner straight on without hesitating a bit, pivoting over second base to perform the double play. Any time there were runners at first and second, with the runs the opponent needed to remain competing, it was Jackie’s time.

He offered his batting and running and defensive skills, but also that intense, challenging gaze to his rivals. Like the time Sal Maglie was humiliating the Dodgers by pitching so close he almost hit every batter and, in the dugout, Reese told Robinson: “You have to do something about it.” The next time Robinson went to bat, he bunted, hoping Maglie would cover first base. But since the pitcher stayed at the mound, the second baseman went to first base, and Robinson collided so hard against him he left the field.

In another game, with the score tied in the final inning, Robinson started to break from third base. The pitcher got him about 15 feet off the base, so a long rundown ensued. It was one of Jackie’s best skills. He ran, jumped, stopped, anticipated the movements of his rivals, until someone missed the ball and he finally ran to home plate. The pitcher attempted to stop Robinson by throwing himself over his legs, but Jackie avoided it and ended up running home backward.

He didn’t only beat his rivals but infuriated them. Jackie’s best batting average in a season was behind Ted Williams’ lifetime average; his lifetime stolen bases were less than those Maury Wills got in just two seasons. He never hit 20 homers in a season nor drove in 120 runs. But he was the player any team and any fan would like to have by their side in the clutch. Leo Durocher said: “This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya. He come to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass.”

Maybe, after the Dodgers left, some people in Brooklyn turned their baseball interests to the Mets or even the Yankees. But still, even today, there are those rare specimens of human with such a nostalgic approach to life, such melancholy impulses, that they go from time to time to Bedford Avenue, Cedar Street (renamed McKeever Place in 1932), Sullivan Place,  and Montgomery Street, just to recall the way baseball was played back in the 1950s, the whistles and shouts of The Boys of Summer, the excitement of guessing what kind of play would be designed in the dugout and what kind of performance would be painted in the field.

References & Resources

  • Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer. HarperPerennial ModernClassis, 2006.
  • John Thorn, Pete Palmer, Michael Gershman, David Pietrusza. Total Baseball, 1999.
  • Mike Shatzkin, The Idea. Logical Press, 1999.

Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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3 years ago

Outstanding article! I had the pleasure and honor to meet Roger, and to have him sign a copy of one of his books. He also shared a story or two with me (a lifelong Bums fan). He was a great writer, and a good person. Thanks!