In 1972 when journalist Roger Angell published his memoir of covering the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers – “The Boys of Summer” – he selected the title from a poem by Dylan Thomas published in 1934 – “I see the boys of summer.” Angell’s excerpt certainly fit the ideal that baseball fans have of their beloved game – a leisurely vacation pasttime performed by youthful males before appreciative masses, both male and female. As we approached the halfway point of the major league season, marked the official beginning of summer and now celebrate the 239th birthday our Nation during a period of great change in our society, I have been watching many baseball games and thinking a lot about the boys of summer.
It is a complex time in America, but perhaps no more so than in Brooklyn in 1955 or in England in 1934. The “boys of summer” concept as described by both Angell and Thomas (as well as Don Henley) has multiple layers. Certainly Thomas’ poem is a complex work which I doubt he could have envisioned as the touchstone for an American sport. And for all his veneration of the players, Angell did not completely romanticize the state of our country in the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s. The intersection of Dylan Thomas, baseball and cultural upheaval in America was an obvious one to me, but realizing that it might not be so clear to others I will save those thoughts for the end in the hope that if you are just interested in baseball you will keep reading for at least a few more paragraphs.
Taking Angell at face value, the 2015 season appears perfectly suited for a reissued volume of his work. My overwhelming impression of MLB this season is one of youth. Seemingly every day another top prospect makes his MLB debut – Bryant, Russell, Buxton, Gallo, Lindor, Syndergaard, Correa, McCullors, Matz – and these are just the most publicized (eighteen of Keith Law’s top 100 prospects have debuted in just the first 80 games). There have actually been over 150 players who have made their first appearance in a MLB game this season.
Perhaps the complete media exposure in this Information Age skews my perception, but there can’t have been many years when such a high number of prospects appeared in such a short time, and even fewer instances – if any – where several of them immediately became recognized as among the best at their position. Is Kris Bryant the best third baseman in the NL? Is Carlos Correa the best shortstop in the AL? Is Steven Matz the best hitting pitcher of all time? (He had the greatest hitting debut of any pitcher ever – 3 hits and 4 RBI.) These young rookies can play, but the rookies are not the only youngsters.
Even the established stars of the league today still qualify in some sense as “boys” or at least “boyish.” Bryce Harper (22); Mike Trout (23) Giancarlo Stanton (25); Jose Altuve (25, and at 5’5″ Altuve shows that even a boy’s stature does not prevent one from excelling at the game). The pitchers perhaps require a little more seasoning, but not much. Scherzer is 30, but Kershaw (27), Sale (26) and Bumgarner (25) have already been stars for several years.
Most teams have at least one or two everyday players that are barely legal, but my Astros must be considered at the vanguard of the youth movement. In addition to Springer, Altuve and Correa, the Astros starting line-up often includes Tucker (24), Santana (22) and Singleton (24), and the pitching rotation includes McCullors (21) and Velasquez (23). Each of them has contributed to the Astros compiling the most wins in the AL to date (48), and they have done so with traditional natural talent utilized in an untraditional combination (leading the league in HR’s and SB’s) and new-era strategic analysis (they also lead the league in strike outs and defensive shifts). Baseball purists may be hard-pressed to say that these Astros “play the game the right way” but many organizations are taking note and beginning to copy them (some perhaps even illegally).
As an interested baseball observer as well as just a fan of my regional team, I enjoy watching the Astros, particularly Altuve and Springer. Indeed, anyone watching them play the game must observe their youthful enthusiasm. Home run or strike out, diving catch or errant throw, stolen base or caught stealing – George and Jose never seem to lose their smiles. They act like boys at summer play and, dare I say, remind me “of what was once good, and could be again.”
However, these players’ attitudes belie the reality that they have embarked on a profession so difficult that a successful career is measured by limiting one’s failure rate to 70% (a lifetime batting average of .300 could earn one membership in the sport’s hall of fame – an honor bestowed on only 215 of the over 15,000 players who have appeared in a big league game – MLB’s 1%ers!). Moreover, individual success does not guarantee a player the ultimate goal – a team world championship. Some of the greatest players in the history of MLB never won a World Series (Cobb, Bonds, Gwynn) and some never even played in one (Banks, Griffey, Carew). Thus, baseball can be a cruel profession that reflects life in many ways, which brings me back to Angell’s title and Thomas’s poem.
Thomas was a literary “phenom” himself when he published his first work of poetry at the age of 20 (which means, of course, that the verses were likely written in his teenage years). Even at that early age, Thomas’ work focused on life’s struggle and the inevitability of death. The complete first line from which Thomas and Angell each drew the title to these works is “I see the boys of summer in their ruin.”
Thomas’ following 53 lines are enigmatic but my interpretation is that he was both praising and mocking the youthful tendency to live blissfully in the moment, exhibiting no care and making no provision for the future. He both admires this trait and considers it foolishness. Angell’s reporting about the endings of the careers and even lives of the Brooklyn players makes his use of Thomas’s poem even more appropriate, but it was a choice informed by hindsight. We don’t yet know whether the new players of today will proceed on to sporting immortality or fall quickly into a slump from which they will never recover – and neither do they. Of course, the signing bonuses and salaries of today should make failure on the field less damaging, but we all know that there is no amount of money that can’t be lost and no amount of retained fortune that can guaranty happiness. That calls to mind two additional lines from Thomas’ poems that you may be familiar with – “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and my personal favorite, “And death shall have no dominion.”
On this 4th of July, 2015, many people in America are celebrating new freedoms, ones that would have been very difficult for our founding fathers to have envisioned (and, in my opinion, to accept). I am still considering what the Supreme Court has said that our Constitution provides, recognizing as a lawyer that the scope of the law and my personal religious beliefs may have differing arcs. Time will tell about those matters, but today it is summer, it is our Nation’s birthday, and the Astros are playing at Fenway Park in Boston (after beating the Sox 12-8 last night). God Bless America.