Today I finished reading “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Khan. It is part memoir, part history book. Its subjects are, besides Khan himself, the players for the Brooklyn Dodgers, back when baseball was as much a community activity — played and watched — as it was a professional endeavor. Khan was a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune during the heyday of the Brooklyn Dodger team, right before it was moved to the West Coast by Walter O’Malley. In his book, Khan chronicles his life as an up and coming reporter who would eventually earn a coveted opportunity and then position covering the Dodgers. The latter half of the book is devoted to the players themselves but in their post-baseball days, in a form similar to that of Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of Their Times.”
There are many things to say about “The Boys of Summer.” But I will limit myself to the following observations:
(1) By and large, the players whom Khan profiled led productive lives after baseball. These lives were by no means glamorous. One player tended bars (Billy Cox), another installed elevators in what used to be the World Trade Center (Carl Furillo). But they were nevertheless purposeful lives that transcended professional baseball and its trappings of fame and glory.
(2) Money was just as important for baseball front office officials back in the 1950′s as it is in today’s game where players are given multi-million dollar contracts and blustery high-priced agents put on smoke-and-mirrors shows. The amount of money involved in today’s game is of course multitudes greater than the paltry sums that were, for instance, paid to Duke Snider, then considered the league’s premier slugger. And this rings true even when one accounts for every possible economic variable out there (inflation, cost-of-living, etc).
This raises an interesting question of whether players today envision leading productive lives after their playing careers are over. I would venture to guess that they do not judging from the astronomical salaries that are demanded and ultimately paid. But can one blame them? Playing baseball day in and day out prepares one for little else besides, well, playing baseball. And in today’s increasingly technical and skill-driven world, this does not bode well for the job-search prospects of the modern professional athlete. Factor in the advent of free agency and the near certainty of permanent physical debilitation and one almost expects that today’s slugger or ace pitcher be paid up the wazoo.
Why then do we still hear people complain about overpriced ball players? (A-Rod comes promptly to mind.) Surely, this is a some reflection that there exists a disconnect between current salaries and what the average person thinks a professional ball player should be making. This disconnect has in fact driven a number of folks from the game entirely. Does this mean that a return to the “glory days” of baseball is in order? A time when players were treated less like celebrities and more like Joe from around the corner or when the off-season was just as often spent working part-time as a grocery store clerk as it was spent conditioning one’s body for next season. Is it reasonable to expect that players today not bank on their major league careers as the only time in their lives during which they will be productively employed in some shape or form? And taking that one step further, would it be reasonable to expect that today’s player accept some kind of non-baseball related employment once their playing careers end?
These are questions that I pose to you, the reader, in hope of generating a discussion about this topic with baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike.