Roger Angell: A Baseball Companion

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On Saturday in Cooperstown, Roger Angell was given the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, the baseball Hall of Fame's writing writing honor. His sports writing career is a happy accident that began in 1962 when Angell went to spring training to write about New York's new team, the Mets. He was a 41-year-old fiction editor at the New Yorker and a lifelong baseball fan. He had no intention of becoming a sports writer, but he continued writing about baseball, twice, sometimes more each season. Angell wrote about the game as a fan. His accounts are dense yet leisurely, always packed full of acute observation.

For those of us who grew up reading Angell in the magazine—or in his book compilations—a baseball season was not complete until Angell's post-World Series article was published. Baseball fans of my generation didn't have NFL Films to document the game in the '60s and '70s and beyond. We had Roger Angell.

Before Game 7 of the 1971 World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente told Angell: "I want everybody in the world to know that this is the way I play all the time. All season, every season. I gave everything I had to this game." The final game hadn't begun yet, when Angell, summing up the first six, wrote:

And then too, there was the shared experience, already permanently fixed in memory, of Roberto Clemente playing a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before–throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of perfection, playing to win but also playing the game as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.

Then in the middle of winter, when college basketball, the NBA and hockey made some of us miss baseball, Angell's words provided comfort:

There is a game of baseball that is not to be found in the schedules or the record books. It has no season, but it is best played in the winter, without the distraction of box scores and standings. This is the inner game, baseball in the mind, and there is no real fan who does not know it. It is a game of recollections, recapturings, and visions Yet this is only the beginning, for baseball in the mind in not a mere yearning and returning. In time, this easy envisioning of restored players, winning hits, and famous rallies gives way to reconsiderations and reflections about the sport itself. By thinking about baseball like this, by playing it over and yet keeping it to ourselves, keeping it warm in a cold season, we begin to make discoveries. With luck, we may even penetrate some of its mysteries and learn once again how richly and variously the game can reward us.

His baseball books are The Summer Game (1962-'71), Five Seasons (1972-76), Late Innings (1977-1981), and Season Ticket (1982-88). Also, Once More Around the Park and Game Time, greatest-hits collections that included new material, too. Angell also wrote A Pitcher's Story, a misbegotten project chronicling David Cone's 2000 season, about which the less said, the better (it's not an awful book, but when Cone had a nightmare campaign, Angell, a shy, tactful man, was miscast as the man to write about it).

I like how some of his anthologies are dubbed "A Baseball Companion" because that's exactly what Angell has been. So here are some highlights from his body of work. But first, a few words on the man from his peers.

From the essay, "Prose Ball" by Donald Hall (Fathers Playing Catch With Sons):

Angell's prose is graceful and pleasant, with never a misstep, never cliche or corn or overstatement or pomposity. What a pleasure it is to read him, like the pleasure of watching effortless fielding around second base: Angell canpick it. And his overall essay construction, as well as the dance of syntax and the proportion of analogies, makes for our pleasure. He paces his paragraphs with a perfection of tact–up and down, slow and fast, back and forth–leading readers lightly, giving them just enough of each subject to leave them wanting more. I watch his essayistic trickery with admiration and despair, much as a beer league softball pitcher might observe Luis Tiant.

...Late Innings makes Angell's third collection, and I suppose he receives the loving cup for Writer of the Best Baseball Sentences, the third time in a row—and we might as well retire the trophy. He doesn't invent the most dazzling image nor con cot the zaniest juxtapositions; he contracts a model of informal prose, a model with virtues wholly independent of its subject—accurate, humane, particular, thoughtful, observant, skillful, and appropriate. Never does he strain for a figure of speech or contort himself into a stance. His prose has the ease that comes from hard work and good editing.

And here is Richard Ford from the Introduction to Game Time:

Writing for The New Yorker has, of course, afforded Angell leniencies unavailable to his colleagues on the Daily Planet. He's had the luxury (and the talent) to write what he likes without hurrying, and to reconsider his words in relative peace—the gratitude good writing deserves.

…Angell has written felicitously (always), and he has written acutely (always). He hasn't always written short, but he's written with a sense of providing a reader what the reader will need properly to appreciate the game. To read Roger Angell is never to feel condescended or shown off to, or to feel that reading is a privileged overhearing of some superior sports savant. One never senses that Angell imagines himself essential to the game, but rather the opposite—that his is "amateur expertise," and "insatiable vicariousness," and that baseball (uncynically) is good enough to be interested in.

Angell's words seem to come and be chosen for their places one at a time, not like bricks to a bricklayer or diamonds to a jeweler but like words to a writer who's found a means and subject to engage his full freedom and best self—what every writers longs for—and that allow him to write about sports from within a groove where he's limber, graceful, witty, intelligent, restrained, smoothly allusive, proportionate, and thoroughly satisfied to be doing just this work.

Angell elaborated on his baseball and writing in a wonderful 1992 interview with Jared Haynes:

Good writing is based on clear thinking, which is the hardest thing we have to do. Itís as plain as that. It's hard to start to write because what you have to do is start to think. And not just think with the easy, up front part of your brain but with the deeper, back parts of the unconscious. The unconscious comes into writing in a powerful way.

A great model for me was Red Smith, who was a model for almost every sportswriter. The great thing about Red Smith was that he sounded like himself. His attitude about sports was always clear. He felt himself enormously lucky to be there in the pressbox. He was not in favor of glorifying the players too much–Godding up the players, in Stanley Woodward's phrase. But was Red Smith in every line. You knew what he had read and what his influences were.

I don't try to be a literate sportswriter; I try to be myself. It's as simple as that. Everybody's got to find what their voice is. You've got to end up sounding like yourself if you're going to write in a way that's going to reward you when you're done. If you end up sounding like somebody else, you're not going to be any good. You won't get anywhere. Readers are smart. They will pick up whether the tone is genuine or not. Tone is the ultimate thing writers have to think about. You could write on a given subject–a ball game or a national crisis or a family crisis–in twenty or thirty different ways. You only have to pick what you want people to make of this.

This last paragraph is why Angell has been such an influence on me. Not because his style made me want to write like him, but because it made me work hard to discover my own voice and write like myself.

Onward. From a 1982 interview with the Lewiston Daily Sun (via It's a Long Season):

Lewiston Daily Sun: Sportswriters are often criticized for taking sports too seriously. Do you agree with that?

Roger Angell: No, I think our trouble is that we don't take sports seriously enough. I mean, we're always trying to turn sports into something else—into entertainment, or into another television show.

In sports at its best, there's something really stirring and moving and different about it. It isn't entertainment, it has an entirely different meaning. It's not something you can buy, because you can't guarantee the result. That's why there's boring games—there's diversity; we don't know how it's going to come out.

Digging deeper into the archives, let's touch on some of Angell's favorite teams—the Giants, the Mets, and the Red Sox.:

I gestured urgently to my wife, just then passing from kitchen toward bedroom with a jar of Gerber's in her hand. "You might not want to miss this," I said, unable to lift my gaze from the screen. "It could just be—"

"Be right back," she said, disappearing from the room.

Too late. Several other things now disappeared as well—in rough succession: the ball into the lower grandstand seats at the Polo Grounds, above the left-field wall; self-control ("They did it! They did it! My God, they did it!" I yelled, rushing distractedly from room to room, bumping into walls and dogs and relatives); Bobby Thomson, the batter (who had just written the meaty portion of the first sentence of his obituary, whenever that would be), into embraces of his teammates around home plate; the Dodgers (severally, slowly, slumpingly, across the littered outfield and up the steep stairway to their clubhouse); and—soon thereafter, it seems—all further memory of the day and the game and my own succeeding emotions and remarks and celebratory gestures and exclamations on this the greatest moment of my life as a deep-eyed, native-born Giants fan, fan of baseball, fan of fable, fan….

The four-run ninth-inning rally, capped by Bobby Thomson's killing homer against the Dodgers' Ralph Branca, not only won the 1951 National League pennant for the Giants (the two teams had finished the regular season in a tie, and split the first two games of their best-of-three playoff) but stands as the most vivid single moment, the grand exclamation point, in the history of the pastime. So we believed then—knew it, on the instant—and so I believe to this day, and it's funny that I can remember nothing else about that afternoon.

And this goodbye to the Polo Grounds:

What does depress me about the decease of the bony, misshapen old playground is the attendant irrevocable deprivation of habit–the amputation of so many private, and easily renewable small familiarities. The things I liked best about the Polo Grounds were wights and emotions so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of my recollection. A flight of pigeons flashing out of the barn-shadow of the upper stands, wheeling past the right-field foul pole, and disappearing above the inert, heat-heavy flags on the roof. The steepness of the ramp descending from the Speedway toward the upper-stand gates, which pushed your toes into your shoe tips as you approached the park, tasting sweet anticipation and getting out your change to buy a program. The unmistakable, final "Plock!" of a line drive hitting the green wooden barrier above the stands in deep left field. The gentle, rockerlike swing of the tloop of rusty chain you rested your arm upon in a box seat, and the heat of the sun-warmed iron coming through your shirtsleeve under your elbow. At a night game, the moon rising out of the scoreboard like a spongy, day-old orange balllon and when the whitening over the waves of noise and the slow, shifting clouds of floodlit cigarette smoke. All these I mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighbhorhood–a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that we may not possess the scorecards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.

October 1986:

There was a surprise for me, there at the end. I am a Mets fan. I had no idea how this private Series would come out, but when the Mets almost lost the next-to-last game of the Series I suddenly realized that my pain and foreboding were even deeper than what I had felt when the Red Sox came to the very brink out in Anahiem. I suppose most of the my old Red Sox friends will attack me for perfidy, and perhaps accuse me of front-running and other failures of character, but there is no help for it. I don't think much as been lost, to tell the truth. I will root and suffer for the Sox and the Mets next summer and the summers after that, and if they ever come up against each other again in the World Series—well, who knows? Ask me again in a hundred and sixty-seven years.

October 1975:

Tarry, delight, so seldom past…The games have ended, the heroes are dispersed, and another summer has died late in Boston, but still one yearns for them and wishes them back, so great was their pleasure. The adventures and discoveries and reversals of last month's World Series, which was ultimately won by the Cincinnati Reds in the final inning of the seventh and final game, were of such brilliance and unlikelihood that, den as they happened, those of us who were there in the stand and those who were there on the field was driven again and again not just to cries of excitement but to exclamations of wonder about what we were watching and sharing.

In Ken Burns's Baseball documentary, Angell weight in on the Bronx Zoo Yankees. He said that George Steinbrenner "didn't really want to let his ballplayers play the games. He didn't want to put them out on the field and wait and see what happens, which is what you have to do in the end. He wanted to impose his will and in doing that he got between us and the players. I always had the feeling at Yankee Stadium when he was there that he was standing up in front of me and I was looking at George Steinbrenner and I wanted to see the Yankees, instead."

In 1994, he paid tribute to Reggie Jackson in the short piece, "Swingtime":

Coming up out of the dugout before his next at-bat in a big game, Reggie Jackson was always accompanied by an invisible entourage: he was the heavyweight champion headed down the aisle for another title defense. The batter's box was his prize ring, and once he'd dug in there—with those gauntleted arms, the squashed-down helmet, the shades and the shoulders—all hearts beat faster. It really didn't matter what came next—a pop-up or a ground ball, a single or a dinger, or one of those tunneling-to-Peru strikeouts that ended with his helmet askew, his massive legs twisted into taffy ropes, and the man lurching and staggering as he fought for balance down there in the center of our shouting—because what he gave us, game after game, throughout a twenty-one-year career, was full value.

...From first to last, he was excessive; he excelled at excess...His ego, like his swing, took your breath away, but the dazzled, infuriated beat writers and columnists had to concede that it probably arose from the same deeply hidden, unforgiving self-doubt that whipped him to such baseball hieghts, mostly in the hard late going.

A few years later, he profiled one of his favorites, Joe Torre:

The burden of [the] relentless and irrelevant P.R. during the Yankees' long struggles to regain their October form can at last be thrown aside–what a load it was!–and we are free to celebrate the new champions not for what they represented but for what they were: a competent though far from overpowering amalgam of engaging young stars and gritty hired guns who absolutely enjoyed themselves and each other during a succession of hairbreadth escapes in the late going, and were almost as entranced as the rest of us when they won. The Yankees–who'd have thought it–had become lovable.

Angell continued:

I mean, sophisticated old baseball cognoscenti with a fully developed, long-standing coolness toward the club in question…were absolutely turned around by six weeks' worth of terrific hometown ball. Not every New Yorker came over to these Yanks in the end, but the holdouts were rare and flinty of heart. Encountered in the elevator on the morning after Bernie Williams's eleventh-inning homer had beaten the Orioles in the first A.L. Championship playoff game, an upstairs neighbor of mine held up a warning hand when he saw my face and announced, "I hate the Yankees."

"But this Yankee team is different," I insisted. "Last night–"

"Fuck 'em," he said, and we finished the journey in silence.

One of my favorite Angell pieces is "No, But I Saw the Game," an essay he wrote about baseball movies in the summer of 1989 (it can be found in Once More Around the Park):

Baseball movies make baseball fans feel good for the wrong reasons. Watching actors taking their Aunt Hattie cuts at the plate, turning the twelve-second double play (was that slo-mo, or what?), or striking out the side with high-parabola fastballs, we smile unpleasantly in the dark, smug in the knowledge that our sport and its practitioners are beyond imitation. This tingle of superiority isn't particularly satisfying, since we fans of the game are there in another capacity, as moviegoers; more than anyone else in the audience, we want the baseball on the screen to work, to sweep us up and care about the story, so we can forget how badly these guys on the screen play ball.

…Bull Durham is as fresh and funny and surprising about sex as it is about baseball, which is saying a lot. It's certainly the first movie that ever suggested (and enjoyed) the fact that ballplayers are sexual animals, objects of vivid interest to women. They do beautiful things with their bodies, it says, and we watch them not just to see who's going to win. This is the ongoing joke about the movie, and of course it holds up.

…Bull Durham moves along and takes its time, too, just like baseball. There are nicely extended midgame scenes—Crash muttering to himself in voice-over as he works out an at-bat against an enemy pitcher, or worrying about Nuke's head when the busher seems to be closing in on a shutout. Most plans and hopes fail, just as they do in the real game, and when Crash does hit a homer (he's called it in advance) he makes a mock bow and a "woo woo" gesture to his laughing teammates in the dugout as he heads on down to first. He knows how lucky he's been, and so do we.

The hits keep coming. Do yourself a favor, pick up his compilations. You'll find happiness there. Meanwhile, here's a brief online Angell reading list:

"Down the Drain," Angell's 1975 profile of Steve Blass, was part of the Neiman Storyboard's terrific "Annotation Tuesday!" series this spring. Don't miss it.

"So Long, Joe" (November 2007).

Bob Sheppard (July 2010)

2010 World Series (November 2010)

Players have little awareness of fan angst, but I've not forgotten an amazing late-summer conversation I had with the iconic, forty-year-old Willie McCovey at Candlestick Park, in 1978, at a time when his contending Giants had just dropped five out of six games and were beginning a customary September slide toward oblivion.

"The fans sitting up there are helpless," he said. "They can't pick up a bat and come down and do something. Their only involvement is in how well you do. If you strike out or mess up out there, they feel they've done something wrong. You're all they've got. The professional athlete knows there's always another game or another year coming up. If he loses he swallows that bitter pill and comes back. It's much harder for the fans."

On pitching (October 2010)

Bill Shannon (October 2010)

Duke Snider (February 2011)

"Life and Letters: The End of Mail" (January 2012)

R.A. Dickey (June 2012)

Finally, some non-baseball stories:

"Andy" (February 2005)

"Over the Wall," November, 2012.

"This Old Man" (February 2014)

[Photo Credit: John Weiss, from the cover of Once More Around the Park]