It’s about an hour before the gates open at Utica’s Murnane Field, a ramshackle ballpark seemingly held together by duct tape and Super Glue, and I’m sitting inside a sauna-like trailer in the dusty, cinder parking lot just behind the grandstands. The trailer serves many purposes — storage area, business office, confessional — and on this sweltering, late July afternoon, one of my writing heroes is lamenting the trials and tribulations of owning a minor-league baseball club.
“What in the hell have I gotten myself into?’’ Roger Kahn says, pausing to swig Scotch from a 16-ounce, plastic beer cup. “I’m going to be bankrupt and have two ulcers by season’s end.”
I don’t know if that 1983 New York-Penn League season completely drained his bank account and burned holes in his stomach lining. What I do know is that by season’s end, Kahn got what he and his publisher had come there for — one hell of a story. That tale of the ragamuffin Utica Blue Sox’s improbable championship season is chronicled with humor, elegance and literary license in Kahn’s highly entertaining book, “Good Enough to Dream.” Though some of his characterizations were way off base and there were instances when he didn’t allow the facts get in the way of good stories, the overall result was a home run of a read.
I revisited the book the other day in homage to Kahn, who taught creative writing at the University of Rochester in the late 1970s and passed away last week at age 92. Each turn of the page brought back memories from a dream-come-true season for which I had a press-box seat. That summer proved to be entertaining and surreal. Eleven years earlier, I had read “The Boys of Summer,” Kahn’s nostalgic New York Times No. 1 bestseller about the impact of time on him and the Brooklyn Dodgers team he covered as a young, impressionable sportswriter. I was gobsmacked with his elegant use of the language, his literary and historical allusions, and his ability to spin yarns that made me laugh and cry. I couldn’t put the book down.
“The Boys of Summer” is not only the best sports book I ever read, but it might just be the best book I ever read. From that moment on, I became a huge fan of Kahn’s work, devouring not only his other books, but also his features and columns in Esquire and Sport magazines, as well as in the Times. In my mind, he had written his way onto a literary lineup card that included sluggers such as John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Thornton Wilder.
I probably became somewhat of a pain to Kahn in a fanboy way that season. In addition to peppering him with questions pertinent to my coverage for the Utica Daily Press and Observer-Dispatch, my inquiring mind wanted to know more about what it was like to cover Jackie Robinson and share press boxes and drinks with famous scribes such as Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young and Jimmy Breslin. Kahn had been there for a golden era of baseball and newspapers in the Big Apple. I was in my glory.
Covering those Blue Sox with my good friend and mentor, John Pitarresi, was fun, but also hard work. Every day seemed to bring something bizarre from the only team in the minors without a major-league affiliation. We didn’t lack for things to write about. “This is the ‘Last Chance Saloon’ of baseball,’’ Kahn told me. “There are the guys who have been released by other organizations for one reason or another, or the guys who have been overlooked by the scouts. There are the players who have something extra to prove.”
This cast of castoffs was managed by Jim Gattis, an intense, thirtysomething skipper with a hair-trigger temper. After one profanity-laced protest and ejection over a close call, Gattis yanked a base from the ground, carried it all the way to the warning track and tossed the bag over the wall. The crowd went wild. Gattis went to the showers. His “us-against-the-world” theme was readily adopted by his players who were intent on sticking it to teams boasting guys who had received hefty signing bonuses from major league clubs. NYP President Vince McNamara, who had run this league for decades, occasionally digging into his wallet to keep it solvent, also was perceived as an enemy. McNamara clearly wasn’t enamored with an independent team in his league, particularly one stocked with players who, on average, were several years older than the players on the affiliated clubs.
Murnane also was a major player in this story, a perfectly imperfect setting for a perfectly imperfect team. Infielders took their lives into their hands each time they attempted to field ground balls on the diamond’s uneven terrain. Batters, though, tended to like the friendly confines, particularly left-handed swingers who took advantage of a right field fence generously listed at 281 feet from home plate. The showers in the cramped clubhouse that was erected during the Great Depression consistently ran out of hot water. While other teams rode to NY-P destinations in roomy Greyhounds, Utica’s club crammed into a school bus sans air conditioning. The Blue Sox operated on a draconian budget, and I felt badly for Joanne Gerace — one of only two female general managers in all of baseball — because she was constantly forced to make do with nothing.
Despite the hardships, there was something romantic, something noble in watching this motley crew chase the dream. Though none of them would make the majors, they would be immortalized in book. Indelible memories would be made.
Utica first baseman Ed Wolfe won’t ever forget that July night when he celebrated his 23rd birthday at the ballpark. The lights were turned off for the seventh-inning stretch, and fans lit matches and serenaded Wolfe with a rousing, off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Kahn had stolen the idea from the Dodgers, who did a similar thing for Pee Wee Reese on his 36th birthday at Ebbets Field.
Unfortunately, the well-intentioned vigil at Murnane wound up backfiring. When the Blue Sox maintenance man flicked the light switch to the on position following the celebration, the ballpark remained dark. Unbeknownst to the staff, Murnane used mercury vapor bulbs that take 15-20-minutes to reach full power. Heart pounding through chest, Kahn attempted to placate restless fans by offering half-price beers at the concession stands. He didn’t, however, know what to do to mollify angry Auburn manager Bob Hartsfield. The Blue Sox owner was fearful Hartsfield would file a protest and turn a 7-2 Utica lead into a forfeit loss. Fortunately, no protest was lodged. As the livid manager boarded the bus after the game, Kahn scurried over to apologize. Hartsfield responded with some words that can’t be reprinted in a family newspaper, then ordered the driver to shut the door in Kahn’s face, and off the bus went.
A few weeks later, the Blue Sox were forced to win a triple-header in Watertown — which they did. They wound up edging Little Falls for the divisional crown on a controversial home run call on the final day of the season, then won the championship series against Newark. Kahn couldn’t have asked for a more unbelievable story. His Bad News Blue Sox had provided him with enough material for two books.
During one of my early visits to Kahn’s trailer office that season, he offered me a drink. I thanked him, but told him I didn’t drink on the job. He looked at me a little strangely, then smiled.
“In my day, drinking on the job was a prerequisite,’’ he chuckled. “I guess they don’t make sportswriters like they used to.”
No they don’t. Especially wordsmiths like the late, great Roger Kahn. A boy of summer. A man of letters. He was one of a kind.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.