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The Boys of Summer

When my father disappeared, I was left with questions. Decades later, I found some answers—in a book about baseball.

by
Debby Waldman
July 24, 2020
Bettman/Getty Images
Jackie Robinson, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, slides home on a steal in the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader with the Phillies, July 2, 1954Bettman/Getty Images
Bettman/Getty Images
Jackie Robinson, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, slides home on a steal in the fourth inning of the first game of a doubleheader with the Phillies, July 2, 1954Bettman/Getty Images

The morning after my father disappeared, I made a bargain with God: I promise to be a better daughter if you bring Dad back. I will love all the things Dad wants me to love, starting with baseball. I will finish reading that book he bought me about the Brooklyn Dodgers and you will send him home.

It was March 8, 1974, I was 13, and the book was The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s history of the Jackie-Robinson-era Brooklyn Dodgers. There was no special occasion: Buying books was something we did in our family. The year before, Dad had bought me I’m OK, You’re OK after I mentioned that my teacher had talked about it in school. I hadn’t finished that, either, but my failure to get through The Boys of Summer felt like the greater offense.

I had no real affinity for baseball, didn’t understand the nuances and, quite frankly, wasn’t interested enough to learn. Still, I couldn’t blame Dad for thinking otherwise. Unlike my older sister, who shared his interest in sophisticated music and obscure philosophers, I had an impressive baseball card collection. It wasn’t Dad’s fault he didn’t know that the cards were intended primarily as a device to get boys to pay attention to me.

No doubt he also thought I liked baseball because I was the one person in the family who would play catch with him. He’d tap me on the shoulder and we’d head to the front yard, tossing the ball back and forth, him coaching, me reveling in the rare opportunity to engage in an athletic activity without fear of being mocked.

Gym class had been a source of anxiety for me since third grade, when the teacher singled me out and denounced me as uncoordinated. What did she know? I was my father’s throwing partner, and my father knew more about baseball than she did, more than anyone in Utica, New York. He’d grown up in Boston, shagging balls at Fenway Park, whatever that meant. The only shag I knew was carpet, like the carpet in the horrible apartment we moved into after God failed to keep his end of the bargain, and Dad’s body turned up in a lake in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains nearly seven weeks after he went missing.

His car had been found there the day after he disappeared, the keys in the ignition, his wallet on the passenger’s seat. Dad was a rabbi, a prominent member of the community. Rumors flew. Was it murder? The Mafia? Suicide? Mom and the coroner said it was an accident. We could have kept living in the house where Dad and I used to play catch. The temple owned it. The board offered to sell it to us. Mom said no.

“There are too many memories here,” was the excuse she gave to my sister and me. That made even less sense to me than shagging a ball. I did not have nearly enough memories. But I knew better than to ask for an explanation. Mom was generous with comforting hugs but stingy with information. Questions, even as innocent as “how many memories are too many?” or “what does that mean, shagging a ball?” risked triggering her temper, which had worsened considerably in the weeks when Dad was missing, and didn’t improve after his body was found.

In the new apartment with the green shag carpet, which made the place look as if it needed to be mowed, we did not explore the mystery of Dad’s death. When we talked about him, it was to remember how wonderful he had been, how he made us laugh, how lucky we had been to have him in our lives.

All true, but not terribly useful for a confused, grieving adolescent. I was in my early 20s before I began parsing out the truth, before I discovered that there was a history of mental illness in Dad’s family, that he had been sleep deprived and depressed for months before he died.

The following passage from The Suicide Index sums up the multiple losses that many of us survivors feel. In this particular section, my understanding is that the “you” serves two functions: It is generic and it is also directed at author Joan Wickersham’s father, who killed himself when she was in her early 30s:

When you kill yourself, you’re killing every memory everyone has of you. You’re taking yourself away permanently and removing all traces that you were ever here in the first place, wiping away every fingerprint you ever left on anything. You’re saying, “I’m gone, and you can’t even be sure who it is that’s gone, because you never knew me.”

Wickersham had known her father as an adult, but his death sent her on a mission to get to know him all over again, to uncover what she had missed. I never had the gift of knowing my father as an adult. After I learned the truth about how he died, I met him secondhand, by reading newspaper articles and the hundreds of condolence cards people had sent while he was missing and after his body was found. I met him by interviewing family and friends, and by scouring the notes he’d made in books he’d owned about depression and sleep deprivation. I looked at photographs, read his college papers.

Some of my findings reinforced what I already knew: He was funny, loyal, honest, generous, and gifted at impressions. Some made me wince with recognition: Neither of us had been very good spellers in college, and he was prone to the kind of debilitating self-doubt that often plagues me.

I didn’t give myself a deadline for my investigation, but after a few years I was ready to call it quits. I’d collected a lot of details and no matter how I combined them they didn’t add up to what I had been searching for. No amount of effort ever would, though I hadn’t realized that when I started my search. The most profound discovery I made was that I would never know my father the way I wanted to: I wanted to have grown up with him, to have had him die the way people are supposed to, of old age.

After abandoning my get-to-know-you project, I began the harder work, accepting that my father had killed himself, that there was nothing I could have done to prevent it, and that the way he died did not define the way he lived.

Every once in a while, I hear from someone who knew Dad and wants to share a memory. I’m always grateful for the stories, but I no longer seek them out.

Then, earlier this year, Roger Kahn died. When I saw the headlines, I decided to reread The Boys of Summer. Maybe I hadn’t learned everything; maybe there was more.

I was 12 the first time I tried. I gave up on page 29. The next time I picked it up, I was a few months past 13. That time I finished the whole book, but all I remembered were names: Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Leo Durocher, Carl Erskine, Walter O’Malley, Jackie Robinson, Ebbets Field.

Reading the book as an adult, and also as a former high school sports reporter who still doesn’t understand or appreciate baseball, was like having a one-sided conversation with Dad. I could understand why he loved the story—surely he identified with Kahn, another bookish, baseball-loving son of a Jewish immigrant obsessed with the neighborhood Major League team. Like Kahn, my father had been a newspaper copy boy. Dad got the job as part of the co-op program at Northeastern University, where he majored in journalism and contemplated becoming a sportscaster, a dream he eventually abandoned in favor of a career as a rabbi.

Early in The Boys of Summer, Kahn describes telling his parents that he wants to drop out of college and become a writer. Instead of ordering him back to the lecture hall, his father sends him to the New York Herald Tribune to ask the city editor, an acquaintance, for a job. That’s how Kahn gets his foot in the door, which eventually leads to the Dodger beat.

I wondered how Dad felt, reading Kahn’s account of paternal support for his career choice. According to Mom, my paternal grandfather was so upset about Dad’s decision to turn his back on his observant, Orthodox Jewish upbringing and become a Reform rabbi that he ripped up the tuition check to the seminary. Any hope Dad had harbored that his father’s feelings might have changed was obliterated a few years later, at my grandfather’s funeral. The officiating rabbi interrupted the service, looked down at Dad, and said, “When you’re preaching in your church, you should remember what kind of Jew your father was.”

None of that would have resonated with me the first two times I struggled through The Boys of Summer. I was not privy to information about Dad’s career angst until 10 years after he died. There were other details that went over my head, among them the sexual references. Had Dad been so caught up in Kahn’s nostalgia of baseball fields and newsrooms that he missed the multiple iterations of f—k and descriptions of scantily clad women in bars and strip clubs?

I’ll never know, just as I’ll never know whether it was strictly baseball that led him to give me the book, or whether he did so because he thought, or perhaps hoped, that I might follow his path to journalism school. I always thought I made that choice after he died when, inspired by an episode of The Waltons, I decided the best way to earn a living as a writer would be in a newsroom. Now I can’t help wonder, was it Dad who planted the idea in my head, not John-Boy Walton?

I would prefer to think it was Dad. Actor Richard Thomas, who played John-Boy, was one of the first celebrities I interviewed. He was so unpleasant that I abandoned my plans to tell him that his character had inspired my career.

When I set out to reread The Boys of Summer, I wasn’t expecting to rewrite history. But among the things I’ve learned in the 46 years since Dad died is that while facts don’t change, the way we look at them can. As long as we are alive, we can rewrite our stories.

In this case, I reread a book searching for insight into the father I lost far too young. I found that, and more: I found comfort and a connection I never could have imagined. God didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. I knew, even in 1974, that wasn’t going to happen. But, thanks to a paperback book that took me nearly half a century to truly understand, Dad has come back to me all the same.

Debby Waldman is a writer and editor in Edmonton, Alberta.

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