May 20, 2022

Roger Angell: 1920-2022

The 1982 baseball season wasn't too far along in its journey when I paid $17.50 (plus tax) at The Little Professor book store in Essex Junction, Vermont, for a hardcover copy of the just-published "Late Innings".

Aptly subtitled "A Baseball Companion", the book comprised sixteen essays by Roger Angell, an editor at The New Yorker, covering the previous five seasons. It wasn't the first hardcover book I ever purchased, but I know it wasn't too far behind.

There is no greater writer on the peerless game of baseball than Roger Angell, who died today, at the age of 101 at his home in Manhattan. Numerous supremely talented writers have contributed to, and added to, our enjoyment of the game, but none of them could hope to match Angell at his lengthy peak — the essays that make up "The Summer Game" (1972), "Five Seasons" (1977), "Late Innings" (1982), and "Season Ticket" (1988).

During those years, Angell generally wrote three lengthy, wide-ranging essays each season: one from spring training, one in the middle of the season, and one after the World Series. Even while nursing psychic wounds from the 1986 season (I'd be taught real pain seventeen years later), I eagerly awaited Angell's take. He revealed he was a fan of both the Mets and the Red Sox, and as a long-time fan of palindromes and he titled his essay "Not So, Boston". [One now-amusing snip: "One begins to see at last that the true function of the Red Sox may be not to win but to provide New England authors with a theme, now that guilt and whaling have gone out of style."]

Angell's career as a baseball reporter happened by accident. In 1962, William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker (the magazine at which Angell published a story in 1944 and worked as a fiction editor for decades), knowing Angell was a fan, suggested that he "go down to spring training and see what you find". Angell shared his findings in a warm and personal voice that took a leisurely and personal tone that was also somehow packed with information. It was the exact opposite of how the game was usually presented in newspapers and magazines.

Angell believed baseball was "a great game for writers because it's just the right pace. You can watch the game and keep score and look around and take notes. Now and then you even have time for an idea." He approached the game as a fan speaking to other fans rather than a journalist reporting to a group of readers.

Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated wrote in 1991: "The elegance of his prose aside, the man deals in information, lots of it. It is, in fact, his power of observation, his eye for the minutest detail, that sets him apart not only from most baseball writers but also from most writers, period."

The first essay in "The Summer Game" is an ode to box scores — and you can just about feel Angell's sentences slowly stretching in the afternoon sun, in absolutely no hurry, knowing they have exactly enough time to say what they have to say:

Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue. The view from my city window still yields only frozen tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information-packed weeks and months just ahead. I can remember a spring, not too many years ago, when a prolonged New York newspaper strike threatened to extend itself into the baseball season, and my obsessively fannish mind tried to contemplate the desert prospect of a summer without daily box scores. The thought was impossible; it was like trying to think about infinity. . . .

The box score, being modestly arcane, is a matter of intense indifference, if not irritation, to the non-fan. To the baseball-bitten, it is not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure. It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals — batters' credit vs. pitchers' debit — balance as exactly as those in an accountant's ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule archive. It is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoors sports. Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgment — ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay — and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that prickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of Don Giovanni and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins.

The small magic of the box score is cognominal as well as mathematical. Down the years, the rosters of the big-league teams have echoed and twangled with evocative, hilarious, ominous, impossible, and exactly appropriate names. The daily, breathing reality of the ballplayers' names in box scores accounts in part, it seems to me, for the rarity of convincing baseball fiction. No novelist has yet been able to concoct a baseball hero with as tonic a name as Willie Mays or Duke Snider or Vida Blue.

Emma Baccellier of Sports Illustrated describes Angell's 1975 profile of Pirates pitcher Steve Blass as "a master class in reporting that is sensitive while being direct. . . . [Angell] manages to get at an understanding both of how it felt to be Steve Blass and how it felt to watch him."

Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only man — only ourself. We are no longer at a game.

From "Agincourt and After", his coverage of the 1975 World Series (collected in "Five Seasons"):

What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for. It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how fail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazard flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.


johngoldfine said...

I used to astonish (and infuriate) my students (some of whom were having problems with their Maine driving licenses) with a Roger Angell story: when he turned 16, he wrote the appropriate office in Augusta, enclosed a SASE, a five dollar fee, and a letter saying that he knew how to drive. His license arrived in Brooklin a few days later....

laura k said...

Thanks for this lovely tribute.

k r c said...

Thank you for this wonderful tribute.

Many years ago a friend gave me an audio recording of a baseball literature event at the 92nd St Y, hosted by Angell and Bart Giamatti. I used to play Angell's reading of "Game Six" for my students after the last game of the World Series. Angell may not have been the best reader of his own stuff -- he stumbled through the rhapsodic passages toward the end of the piece, including the one on "the business of caring" quoted here -- but I always liked to think it was because he meant and felt what he said too much to be a polished performer (as Giamatti was). The metaphor of having winter snow down on you from your TV set as you watch your team lose an elimination game has come back to me many times over the years. RIP!

Jere said...

The ass-burger detective (me) strikes again.

laura k said...

Many years ago a friend gave me an audio recording of a baseball literature event at the 92nd St Y, hosted by Angell and Bart Giamatti.

Do you know what year that was from? I used to attend author readings at the 92nd St Y frequently. I'm hoping to hear it's from a year I couldn't have known or gone.

allan said...

Giamatti died in September 1989.

I found online a New Yorker listing at Symphony Space on March 1, 1989.

johngoldfine said...

I keep coming back to that picture of Roger Angell & dog. Where is the picture taken, do you know, Allan, Laura? New York City? That granite wows me, and I live within sight of one of the world's past-glory granite quarries, Mt Waldo.

And, naturally, what about the dog? Jack Russell? Fox terrier? Bouncy dogs with an attitude work for me!

allan said...

Jere quickly found the location. Upper East Side, Fifth Avenue, along the park, near the Guggenheim (East 89th).

Fox terrier, I believe. He's also holding one on the back cover of Season Ticket.

Also, I realized last night that another hardcover I bought in 1982 was The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. I saw him read on February 7, 1982 and he signed my book, so I bought that one in January, before Late Innings. (I brought two books with me that Sunday night (and a tape recorder to tape his talk (early bootlegging, though it was only for me)): Hotel and a Garp paperback. He made me choose one book to have signed. WTF? My annoyance over that is the reason why I didn't become a fiction writer. . . . Or maybe it was because I cannot write fiction. At all.)

In August 1982, Irving published "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed" in the New York Times Book Review, which that Essex Jct. book store I mentioned offered free copies of at the front counter. I realized it was a version of what he had read back in February, so I got the cassette and compared the two, marking up the printed essay like an editor, because I wanted to see what changes he had made. However, I learned nothing from that exercise.

allan said...

The Times reviewed The Hotel New Hampshire on August 31, 1981, so I bought the book in 1981. . . . Carry on.

allan said...

Angell, on baseball movies:
"The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the 'Field of Dreams' thing, gives me a pain. I hated that movie. It's mostly fake."

"Field of Dreams had just come out and everyone was weeping and exclaiming over it, and I could hardly stand it, it was so sentimental. Maybe Field of Dreams was the worst. There's a moment in Field of Dreams where James Earl Jones is talking about the good old days of baseball, the early 1920s. He says, "Baseball was good then, and we were good." Now, just wait one minute, there. Baseball at this time didn't allow any African Americans or minorities to play. The World Series had just been fixed in 1919. A player had been killed by a pitch. And the Ku Klux Klan was marching in Washington. Those were the good old days in baseball? And the world was good? Give me a break! . . .
[W]hen writing that piece, I forgot about a wonderful baseball movie made in the midseventies, which is about a barnstorming black baseball team. It was called The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, with Richard Pryor and James Earl Jones. I wish I'd included it."

When Bingo Long was on Home Box Office (or "Home Box" as we called it then), I watched it probably 10 times one month. . . . It was released in July 1976. Not sure when it would have been on HBO, though. . . . I wonder how I'd like it now.

allan said...

Tyler Kepner, New York Times, May 23, 2022:

Angell was not a gauzy romantic — he hated "Field of Dreams" — but he saw enough baseball to know when something seemed off. The last time I spoke with him, on the phone last spring, he mentioned that his eyesight was failing but that he still tuned in daily to the games. One new wrinkle appalled him: the runner placed on second base to begin each extra inning.

"It violates everything in baseball," Angell said. "You put a runner on second who hasn't earned it, you're trying to shorten the game. Every effort now is to shorten the game instead of letting it go on. The man on second is the first in baseball history to never earn what he got."

In baseball, I agreed, there should always be a how and a why.

"Absolutely," he replied. "There's an accounting for every space. It balances, as we know. That's one of the fascinating, great things about the game. It balances so evenly and has so many astounding events in the middle of it."

* * *

johngoldfine said...

Thank you, Jere! Come visit the old Mt Waldo quarry next time you're in Maine--it's the place where your every wish is 'granite'!

laura k said...

Definitely a smooth-coated fox terrier.

I feel like a bit of truth-telling -- or confession -- is due here. Allan and I both loved W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, the book Field of Dreams is based on. No shame there, it's a really good book.

But we both enjoyed Field of Dreams when it first came out. I'm sure now we would find it sacchrine and offensive, for the same reasons Angell disliked it. But in 1989 -- when we saw it IN A MOVIE THEATRE -- we did like it.

(ALL CAPS because we don't do that. I believe we've seen two movies in a theatre in the past 30+ years: once for some Rolling Stones movie in iMax, and once to see something at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Both in the earliest possible showing, during the day, to be in the least crowded theatre.)

(And if Allan can correct me by digging up some distant memory of a third movie theatre, my point still stands. :) )