Sports writers traffic in idolatry, or at least they did when Roger Kahn broke into the business some 60 years ago. The great ones, though, see beyond mere statistics and discern the shape of character within these tumbled numbers. Kahn writes here of people who enriched his life through the examples they set as competitors, most notably Jackie Robinson, the first black ballplayer in the major leagues, and his double-play partner, Pee Wee Reese, the first white ballplayer to dare to become Robinson's friend and defender.

But to write about these heroes, Kahn first had to learn what it meant to write well and with conviction. In learning these lessons he met other heroes, men like Stanley Woodward, his editor and mentor at the New York Tribune, who defied de facto censorship to expose the hatred directed toward Robinson by his peers. Also on the list are Robert Frost, Eugene McCarthy and others.

How can we find meaning from this, we who aren't privileged to associate with demigods? The answer lies in the last chapter, which Kahn dedicates to his son, Roger Lawrence Kahn, whose turbulent life ended in suicide 19 years ago. Young Roger never left his mark beyond immediate family a family that, in Kahn's graceful, pared-down prose, feels uncomfortably familiar. Yet everyone that preceded him, and all who have followed, seem to circle him and, in his absence, become important not because of their notoriety but in spite of it.

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