Tuesday May 24, 2022

Roger Angell (1920-2022)

His books were always subtitled “A Baseball Companion,” which is what he was.

In the fall of 1994, after Major League baseball players and owners did what world wars couldn’t do and canceled the rest of the season, the postseason, and the World Series, I made up for the lack by reading all of Roger Angell’s New Yorker baseball essays in order. I think I’d read him piecemeal before. Now I began with “Box Scores” and “The Old Folks Behind Home,” the 1962 essays from “The Summer Game,” and continued through the joys of Bob Gibson (“Distance”), the sorrows of Steve Blass (“Gone for Good”), until I got to “Up at the Hall,” from the summer of 1987, the last essay in “Season Ticket,” and oh so tantalizingly close to reading Angell on my own team, the Minnesota Twins, finally winning the World Series. It was four books, about 1500 pages, and a quarter-century of the most elegant baseball writing.

The early books were better, but then they were among the best baseball books I’d ever read. I’ve always loved his account of the 1968 World Series, punctuated throughout with descriptions of Lou Brock—“Brock was stranded at third after stealing second...” “Lou Brock twice stole second...”—before the grand paragraph that reads like a punch line:

Sunday's game, played in a light-to-heavy Grand Banks rainstorm and won by the Cardinals, 10-1, offered several lessons, all of them unappreciated by the Tigertowners. (1) Lou Brock does not always steal second. He led off the game with a homer, tripled and scored in the fourth, grounded out in the sixth, and then doubled and stole third in the eighth. It was his seventh stolen base of the Series, tying the record he set last year against Boston.

There was wisdom in his writing. On the Amazin’ Mets in ’69: “Disbelief persists, then, and one can see now that disbelief itself was one of the Mets’ most powerful assets all through the season.” On getting used to the outlandishness of the Astrodome: “I don't know if this revisionism is the result of trying to be nice to Astros fans, or, perhaps worse, if it's part of that human trait that has kept our species thriving for so long but which may lead to our ultimate downfall—the fact that human beings can get used to anything.”

“The Summer Game,” with its great cover drawing by James Stevenson, covered 10 seasons, and the subsequent books would cover only five—the next, “Five Seasons,” announcing itself as exactly that—but they were all about the same length. So was Angell given more space? Was he less concise? Sometimes it felt like it. He also might have been writing more essays. Along with his spring and autumn pieces, he’d do features on fans (“Three for the Tigers”), owners (“The Companions of the Game,” about the Giants’ Horace Stoneham), old players (“The Web of the Game,” Smoky Joe Wood), and new aspects of the old game, (“Sharing the Beat,” about women sportswriters). In “Stories for a Rainy Afternoon,” he told, via Tommy Lasorda, the Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told.

Occasionally, intentionally or not, he wound up encompassing the rhythms of the season: the hope of spring, the harsh reality of fall. Early in 1971, he wrote that “the best entertainment in baseball this year is watching Willie Mays,” who started out hot, and his closing sentence for that article was: “The leader is still leading.” Four months later, after Mays performed poorly in the postseason, Angell urged him to retire: “Hang them up, Willie. Please.” In the spring of 1979, he wrote of Carl Yastrzemski, “Sometime next August, he will knock out his three-thousandth base hit; along about the same week, if statistical projections hold up, he will hit his four-hundredth homer. The two blows might be the same blow; it might even happen in Minnesota on August 22nd, on Carl Yastrzemski's fortieth birthday. I wouldn't bet against it.” He should have. In the autumn piece, he admits how No. 3,000 didn’t come until September, an infield dribbler, after Yaz suffered through “an excruciating dry spell at the plate.”

The subhed of his Steve Blass piece was about how “baseball suddenly stopped being fun for him,” and I felt a bit of that happened to Angell in the late 1970s. He admitted as much late in “Late Innings,” the third collection: “… I badly wanted to shake my miseries over the money side of the game.” He did. He always found the joy. And we found the joy in him. Here he is, a sentence before a game-tying home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series:

Bernie Carbo, pinch-hitting, looked wholly overmatched by Eastwick, flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet.

Angell was a real writer. I say this not only because he wrote so well but because when he appeared as a talking head in the Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, which first aired that bereft fall of ’94, I was kind of disappointed. That’s him? And that’s all we get from him? He wrote so beautifully and spoke only OK. He popped on the page, not on the camera.

He was also the magazine’s fiction editor, of course, a position that had once been his mother’s, and he wrote his own fiction. And as he aged, he wrote about aging. He’d been a political child, raised in a democracy during Fascist times, and in his last articles for The New Yorker he did not fail to recognize the moment he was in:

I am ninety-eight now, legally blind, and a pain in the ass to all my friends and much of my family with my constant rantings about the Trump debacle—his floods of lies, his racism, his abandonment of vital connections to ancient allies and critically urgent world concerns, his relentless attacks on the media, and, just lately, his arrant fearmongering about the agonizingly slow approach of a fading column of frightened Central American refugees. 

Then he urged us all to vote. That was in 2018. Two years later, in his last article, just four paragraphs long, he wrote about the deep pride in democracy and debates, and how Donald Trump was making a mockery of both. I’m glad he lived long enough to see Trump lose.

His baseball writing will live on. He knew what made the national pastime unique:

Baseball's clock ticks inwardly and silently, and a man absorbed in a ball game is caught in a slow, green place of removal and concentration and in a tension that is screwed up slowly and ever more tightly with each pitcher's windup and with the almost imperceptible forward lean and little half-step with which the fielders accompany each pitch. … Any persistent effort to destroy this unique phenomenon, to “use up” baseball's time with planned distractions, will in fact transform the sport into another mere entertainment and thus hasten its descent to the status of a boring and stylized curiosity.

In theory, Roger Angell knew, a baseball game could go on forever. He nearly did.

Posted at 09:22 AM on Tuesday May 24, 2022 in category Baseball  
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