Jackie’s Ghost: Roger Kahn and Jackie RobinsonAfro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
A famous athlete had an announcement to make about his career. A “decision,” you might call it. But the athlete didn’t trust writers — the guys who’d dogged him for years, who’d thrown his words back in his face. So the athlete went over the heads of the press, enlisted a ghostwriter, and wrote — well, “wrote” — his announcement for a magazine.
When LeBron James pulled that move this summer, the press mostly cheered. When Jackie Robinson did it in 1957 — writing an article for Look called “Why I’m Quitting Baseball” — the press was livid. “Didn’t you lie to your friends?” one reporter asked him. Kindly Red Smith huffed that Robinson had “deceived the working newspaper men whose friendship he had and who thought they had his confidence.”
The distance between those two acts of ghostwriting came to mind the other day in Roger Kahn’s living room. Kahn, who is 86, is America’s regius professor of midcentury baseball: a title conferred on him by books like The Boys of Summer or — this may be even cooler — the fact that Kahn currently employs a doctor recommended to him by Bob Feller. In a new book, Rickey & Robinson, Kahn writes about a fascinating episode from 1953. For a brief time, he put aside his byline and became Jackie Robinson’s ghostwriter. If ghostwriting is to be a part of sportswriting’s balanced breakfast, the Robinson-Kahn platoon showed how it ought to be done.
Kahn’s literary partnership with Robinson was forged, he said, in Manhattan’s Flatiron Building. Kahn was a 25-year-old Dodgers beat reporter at the New York Herald Tribune. He talked like he does now: in sentences that sounded like classic oratory in one instant and were razor-sharp the next.
Robinson was playing for the Dodgers and — having beaten Derek Jeter to the punch by six decades — editing a magazine called Our Sports. “Our Sports was patterned after Our World, which was a black Life magazine,” Kahn said. “Like all magazines, it depended on advertising. But Campbell’s Soup and General Motors felt that the black sports fan was not worth advertising to.”
At Our Sports, Robinson was expected to write a monthly column. He needed Kahn’s help. “I’m a lousy typist,” Robinson explained.
Kahn sat before him considering one of the most intriguing assignments he would ever be offered. To ghostwrite for a man who was not only a hero but a keen critic of the press — someone who knew just what to say to get a headline. A Robinson column could raise a small amount of hell and tweak Kahn’s pals in the press box. Robinson offered him $150 a month.
Kahn said, “That would be great, Jack.”
If ghostwriting seemed like a gas, it was because Kahn was having trouble cataloguing the slurs Robinson was hearing under his own byline. The Herald Tribune had given Kahn the Dodgers beat the previous year, in the spring of 1952. “I want you to know,” Kahn told Robinson in an early conversation, “this racist stuff is terrible.”
“You think it’s terrible?” Robinson said.
“Then fucking write it.”
It was easier said than done. The Brooklyn press box had its share of integrationist saints: Milton Gross of the Post, Dan Parker of the Daily Mirror, Jimmy Cannon when he wasn’t in one of his moods. But not everyone was so enlightened. The holdout reporters didn’t begrudge Robinson playing in the major leagues, exactly. They just thought he ought to act in a way they deemed appropriate. As Kahn writes in Rickey & Robinson, “They just felt that Negroes should know their place, and remain several paces back of the whites.”
Robinson heard same sportswriterly edict that commands Michael Sam to keep his head down, to “focus on football.” Red Smith wrote plenty of nice things about Robinson, but he mourned that Robinson had a “fiercely combative temperament.”
“You’ve got a big head!” Dick Young of the Daily News barked at Robinson one day.
“You’re a bigot,” Robinson said.
Even the writers at the liberal New York Times had their blind spots. “Roscoe McGowen and John Drebinger weren’t crude,” Kahn said. “But if Robinson made an error in the fourth inning, McGowen would always work it into his story whether it related to the game or not.”
The sports desk of the Herald Tribune, New York’s other great, liberal paper— its writer’s paper — was headed by Bob Cooke. He grumbled about blacks using their legs to run the whites out of baseball.
But Kahn took up Robinson’s charge to write his world as it was. In the spring of 1952, he downloaded Robinson’s thoughts at a black hotel in Miami. He wired a story to his editors called “Jackie Robinson on Integration.” The editors, who’d previously been begging for Sunday features, never printed it. No space.
The next season, in St. Louis, Kahn got a call from Robinson at his hotel. “Did you hear what they were shouting at me last night?” Robinson said. One of the Cardinals had held up shoes and said, “Hey, boy! Shine these!”
“You want me to write it?” asked Kahn.
“Why the fuck do you think I’m talking to you?” Robinson said.
The piece Kahn filed for the first edition, he later realized, was mortally even-handed — he’d printed manager Eddie Stanky’s denial. Stanky later admitted he’d yelled at Robinson. When Kahn filed a tougher story for the next edition, he got a wire from his editors. “WRITE BASEBALL — NOT RACE RELATIONS,” it read.
That spring, Kahn was covering a Dodgers exhibition game in Miami. Like all good morning newspapermen, Kahn reserved his post-filing hours to eat a late dinner or get smashed. On this night, Kahn opted for dinner. He ate with two Dodgers: Preacher Roe, a pitcher, and Billy Cox, a third baseman who’d just surrendered his job to Robinson.
“I sat down,” Kahn said, “and we talked about the game for a minute. Suddenly, Billy said, ‘How would you like a n----- to take your job?’
“Preacher said, ‘It’s OK to have ’em in the game but now they’re taking over.’ They went on like that.”
That was news. “I said, I gotta write this,” Kahn said. “Smoke them out. But I can’t use any names, because they didn’t realize they were doing it on the record. And I can’t write too lurid a story because the racist Bob Cooke will kill it.”
Kahn sent the Herald Tribune story an innocent-looking piece about clubhouse discord — the kind of scoop no sports editor has resisted before or since. But in the eighth paragraph, the part of the story a desk man would read with tired eyes, Kahn slipped in this line: “remarks passed by some Dodgers in the clubhouse and at their hotel indicate the problem of Negroes in baseball has still to be finally resolved.”
An AP editor noticed the sentence and blew it up into a special report. News of racial fissures on the Brooklyn Dodgers coursed through New York’s daily papers.
But the message still got garbled. Three days later, the front page of the Hearst paper, the New York Journal-American, carried a big headline that read, “All Now Quiet on the Dodger Front!” The byline on the story, incredibly, was Jackie Robinson’s. “By no means do we have a racial problem,” Robinson wrote. “If there were no more bigotry or racial prejudice in the rest of the world than there is on the Brooklyn ball club all of us would be a lot happier.”
Kahn later learned what had happened. A writer named Mike Gavin had slugged down a few drinks, knocked on Robinson’s door, and extracted some quotes. Gavin then arranged them to form a story in which “Robinson” exonerated his teammates. It was guerrilla ghostwriting! Robinson was furious. “I’m going to sue those bastards,” he told Kahn. From then on, his ghosted words would be his own.
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“Ah, it’s after noon,” Kahn said in his living room after a quick consultation of his watch. “I’m going to pour a little nip.”
He came back carrying a big bottle of gin and two glasses. “We’ll try this. It kept the British navy afloat.”
Kahn then began to recall the columns he ghostwrote for Robinson in Our Sports. They were like precursors to the journalist-athlete collaborations of Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap, of Jim Bouton and Lenny Shecter.
For one thing, the Kahn-Robinson ghostwriting presented a history different from the one appearing in the newspapers. An early column defended former Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, now canonized in baseball history but then a target of writers like Dick Young, who called him “El Cheapo.” Robinson — and Kahn — pointed out that the same writers who’d call Rickey a skinflint had availed themselves of the open bar Rickey kept for the press.
In fact, Gavin, the guy who wrote the Journal-American story on Robinson, liked to order a Napoleon brandy from the Dodgers bar and dip his cigar into it. Brandy brought out the flavor of the cigar, Gavin explained. Then, as Dodgers execs watched with mouths agape, Gavin would pour out his dipping brandy and order a fresh glass for drinking. The Dodgers president once remarked, “Do you think he does that at home?”
Robinson and Kahn also used the ghostwritten column to start brushfires. In the same Rickey piece, Robinson noted that the men who’d replaced Rickey “aren’t paying me a cent more than Mr. Rickey did in his last year at Brooklyn.”
“Are you sure you want to say that?” Kahn said.
The Dodgers actually had given Robinson small raises. Robinson insisted they hardly kept up with cost-of-living increases. The claim was more provocative than it was true.
“Just write what I’m saying,” Robinson said.
After the issue of Our Sports came out, there was a whole crowd of reporters at Forbes Field waiting to litigate the charges of the Dodgers penuriousness.
They worked like this: Robinson would talk — in hotels, in train cars — and Kahn would take notes. Kahn would take them back to his typewriter and produce a draft. He would then send it to Robinson, who would make edits to his own voice.
When they weren’t ghostwriting, they were assigning Robinson’s curiosities to like-minded writers. Our Sports stumped for Satchel Paige to be put in the Hall of Fame. (It would take a further 18 years.) The Post’s Milton Gross wrote a story titled “Will There Ever Be a Big League Negro Manager?” (It would take a further 22 years.) Under his own byline, Kahn wrote a story called “What White Big Leaguers Really Think of Negroes.”
Our Sports folded before the end of 1953, due to widespread advertiser uninterest. As Kahn recalled, “Robinson said, ‘Did you get paid?’”
Kahn said he was still short $150. The two men went to the publisher’s office.
“Why haven’t you paid Roger Kahn?” Robinson asked the publisher.
“Jackie raised his voice,” Kahn said, “and the guy fiddled and gave me $120. He still owed me $30. We walked out and Jackie said, ‘I have a piece of a clothing store by Ebbets Field. Meet me there tomorrow at noon.’” Kahn picked out a sports coat and, with that, the debt was considered settled.
In writing, Robinson had discovered a megaphone. After his retirement, he kept at it. In 1963, Kahn was working for the Saturday Evening Post, and he suggested that Robinson, who’d dabbled in Republican politics, write a story warning of the coming nomination of Barry Goldwater. “The GOP: For White Men Only?” was printed that August. In Robinson’s autobiography — written with Alfred Duckett — he recalled of the ’64 GOP convention: “As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of what it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
By the time LeBron James’s Sports Illustrated article appeared this July, the world had changed. James didn’t need the $50,000 fee Robinson collected for his Look retirement story, which, even with inflation adjustments, would have amounted to 2.5 percent of James’s annual salary. And no writer asked James, “Didn’t you lie to your friends?” because no one believed James was his friend.
The James who appeared in SI was a stripped-down version of the James from The Decision: no smoke machines, no “take my talents,” no “not two, not three, not four … ” And the press that had once held him up as the epitome of an athlete violating their strictures (“You’ve got a big head!”) now called him eloquent, even lovable. That Sports Illustrated cooperated with the story wasn’t really notable: every reporter was battling for the scoop. No, the notable reaction was ours. Given the living, breathing, imperfect LeBron of The Decision, we preferred the ghost.
Kahn realized that if a sportswriter was going to surrender his byline, he ought to challenge the press rather than flatter it. Good ghostwriting is, by definition, what’s otherwise unprintable — it’s clubhouse grumbling with Track Changes on.
In his living room, Kahn recalled a final collaboration with Robinson. It detailed Robinson’s seesaw relationship with his old Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher. The headline — highly clickable, we’d say today — was “My Feud With Leo.” But Robinson’s column was a cessation of hostilities, a peace offering. Kahn recalled, “I ended the column, ‘[Leo] says, I’m his kind of ballplayer. Well, he’s my kind of man.’”
Jackie Robinson looked at his words in draft form. Something was off. That last sentence seemed to sand down his hard edges. It was as if the ghost had stolen his soul. He crossed out the word “man” and wrote in “manager.”