Although I am almost embarrassed to admit it, I just finished reading the book ‘The Boys of Summer’ for the very first time – a book that was written by former journalist and noted bestselling author Roger Kahn in 1972, and a book that was selected by a Sports Illustrated panel as the greatest baseball book ever written. And while the book specifically chronicles the great Brooklyn Dodger teams of the late 40s and 50s, the book’s basic theme could apply to any baseball team at any given time in the 137-year history of the game. Granted, things today most certainly are not like they were in the late 40s and 50s, but for the most part, professional baseball has remained unchanged.
In the event that you have never read this wonderful book, one which I can now say is a must-read book for every baseball fan (and not just Dodger fans), I don’t want to spoil it by revealing too much about it, but the basic gist of The Boys of Summer is a detailed look at specific players in their prime and then a look at those same players roughly 25 years later after they had long since left the game.
As someone entering the the golden years of life, I can honestly say that the book has a much different meaning to me now than it would have had I read it when it was first released in 1972. I can say this with absolute certainty because 1972 also happens to be the year that I graduated from Burbank High School in Southern California (Go Bulldogs!); and for those of us so-called “baby boomers”, being 18 years old in the 60s and 70s, we were invincible and knew everything that we ever needed to know… or so we thought. Being in our late teens and early twenties, the last thing, and I mean the very last thing on our minds was getting old and most certainly dying. We pretty much felt as though we were going to live forever.
The point to this and how it relates to The Boys of Summer and its incredibly talented cast of characters is this: No matter how good a baseball player is, and no matter how much money they make during their baseball career, it will… absolutely will one day come to an end, and there is nothing that they or anybody else can do about it – period.
I mention this not to make former baseball players (or anybody else, for that matter) feel old, but merely to point out that every baseball player will eventually be replaced, and in all but very few cases before their 40th birthday. The fact of the matter is that the only mere mortal baseball players who achieve immortality are those who God (and the Baseball Writers Association of America) have chosen to be enshrined in the sacred halls of Cooperstown, and even their mortal souls have already or will eventually pass.
Having gone through that period of invincibility in my late teens and early twenties (and actually survived), and having gained wisdom and experience over the subsequent decades, I am amazed (although not surprised) at the cavalier attitude and cockiness of the kids playing the game today – and trust me, they are kids playing a kids’ game. And while there is probably not much difference between the kids playing the game today than those who played the game in the 40s and 50s (except for the number of zeros in their contracts, of course), there are some huge differences. If I had to put my finger on just two, I would say arrogance and ego. Sure, these things were probably present in the 40s and 50s, but during my 50+ years as a fan, they seem far more prevalent today than in years past. It seems that very few of today’s players realize that their playing days are finite and numbered or that their careers could come to a screeching halt in a heartbeat.
This past Saturday, I attended the dedication ceremony for the latest Dodgers Dreamfield at Reseda Park in the heart of the San Fernando Valley; the 25th such Little League field of a scheduled 50 (one of the very few things that Frank McCourt did right). Obviously, there were plenty of local politicians and other civic dignitaries in attendance, but there were also several former Dodger players on hand to greet the hundred or so kids and their parents (and the gathered media). The former players were Al Ferrara, Lee Lacy, Ramon Martinez, Fernando Valenzuela and Steve Yeager and I noticed something about them that I have noticed with nearly every former professional baseball player I have ever met and/or came to know – they were all incredibly humble and grateful for the attention, respect and recognition given to them by fans of all ages.
Even though these former baseball players may be financially secure for the rest of their lives (some more so than others), they all seem to have one thing in common – they have come to realize that regardless of how great they may have been during their heyday or how many World Series rings they may have earned, they put their britches on exactly the same way that everybody else does.
In the emotional second half of The Boys of Summer, the former Brooklyn Dodger players were exactly the same. In addition to being incredibly humble and grateful for the attention, respect and recognition they were given, they had come to grips with their own mortality, both as former baseball players and as human beings – just as the boys of Reseda had.