Thursday, July 31, 2014

On Baseball and Writing: Roger Angell and the Summer Game

Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. Old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June . . . and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for – almost demand – a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. – Roger Angell, The Summer Game
No sport lends itself to the art of writing and the literary craft more than baseball. It is a game embedded in the ever changing landscape of America, from the crowded streets of 1950’s New York and Prohibition Chicago to the westernmost expanse of coastal California. Through the distractions of war and struggles for the rights of man, baseball’s appeal remains constant. It is a game that draws us to the memories of youth, of dirt stains and the scent of freshly cut grass on a spring day, of perfectly shaped infields and the lonely arc of a fly ball on a windy, sun-drenched afternoon. As I grow older and my athletic skills recede ever further into the distant past, I feel a small pain in my heart as I watch the ease and effortless joy with which today’s major leaguers perform the daily routines of batting practice and fielding drills. It is a young man’s game. I long for the rare moments of eternal grace, when the game allows me to stay forever young and live the romanticized dreams of childhood.

I accept that I am connected to baseball only as a fan, an observer, an informed witness to the drama and passions of the game. I can play catch, take swings at fast-pitched balls in coin-operated batting cages, and play in an occasional game of softball. But it is through reading and writing that I remain spiritually connected to the passionate pastime of my early youth. Many good writers have chronicled the game of baseball – sports writers and novelists, journalists and historians. But no writer has better captured what it means to be a true fan than Roger Angell.

I first discovered the beauty of Angell’s prose as a young prosecutor in Washington, DC, when I bought a small paperback copy of The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1972) in the late 1980’s. Angell helped reconnect me to the cadence and rhythm of baseball. His writing became an antidote to the pressure-filled world of courtrooms and career advancement. The Summer Game was Angell’s first collection of baseball essays originally published in The New Yorker, where for a half century he was literary editor and a frequent contributor to its pages. When I first opened the book and started reading a short reflection called “Box Scores,” I recognized instantly the personal moment he captured:
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 tiny 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.
Angell has written passages like this since 1962, when his first essays on baseball appeared in The New Yorker to a surprisingly enthusiastic reception. More than five decades later, at the age of 93, Angell received this past weekend the J.G. Taylor Spink Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the highest honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was honored for a lifetime of exquisite writing and reflection, much of it anthologized in such classics as The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Game Time (2003). I have read every one of these books and the essays and observations that span over 40 years, and I believe there is no better writer about the game of baseball than Roger Angell.

Angell writes with the same clarity of purpose and efficiency as his stepfather, the celebrated author E.B. White (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Elements of Style), a revered figure in American literature. Indeed, writing may come naturally to Angell, for he is also the son of Katherine Sargent Angell White, the first fiction editor of The New Yorker. The New York Review of Books once praised Angell’s ability to search “for the Higher Game, the cosmology behind each pitch, each swing, each ‘shared joy and ridiculous hope’ of summer’s long adventure.” Angell at his best captures the essence of what it means to be a fan.

In March 1962, William Shawn, Angell’s editor at The New Yorker, sent Angell to Florida to write about the annual rite of baseball’s spring training. It was a rather unusual assignment at the time, because Shawn knew absolutely nothing about baseball and The New Yorker was not a publication whose readership cared much about sports. With little guidance or instruction, Angell spent a week camped out in Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and Tampa, attending exhibition baseball games in the Florida sun as the major league teams prepared for the start of the upcoming season. When he returned to New York and handed in his draft, there was not a single quote from a player or manager, no news or big-league scoops. He titled his piece, “The Old Folks Behind Home Plate,” which he wrote not as a sportswriter in the press box, but as a fan in the grandstands.

Angell described watching from the stands an early morning workout of the Chicago White Sox in Sarasota: “Batters in the cage bunted one, hit five or six, and made room for the next man. Pitchers hit fungoes to the outfielders, coaches on the first and third baselines knocked out grounders to the infield, pepper games went on behind the cage, and the bright air was full of baseballs, shouts, whistles, and easy laughter.” This is good writing, allowing us to visualize and sense the sights and sounds of that cool March morning. But it is Angell’s ability to capture the soul and true essence of the fan that makes him such a compelling writer:
There were perhaps two dozen of us in the stands, and what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of the bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious – the knowledge that we never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.
Angell understands the fan deeply, more profoundly, than other chroniclers of the game, perhaps because he is, first and foremost, a fan himself. Over the years, Angell has given voice to the passionate, caring fan and has profiled the key people and players of the game, always with an eye on the humanity of the players and the reality of the human condition. In October 1975, following the Red Sox fall from grace in one of the greatest post-season classics of all time, Angell wrote of the fans’ emotional connection to the game. In “Agincourt and After” he writes of the night Carlton Fisk homered in the bottom of the twelfth inning at Fenway Park to win game six of the World Series, the night before the Reds would cruelly crush the dreams of Red Sox nation in the seventh and final game:
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 frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveté – 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 haphazardous flight of a distant ball – seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
Angell grew up a pure fan of the game, and it comes through in his writing. He was sixteen years old and living in New York when Joe DiMaggio became a Yankee. Like other young boys of his day, he dreamed of someday playing before large crowds in such venues as the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and Yankees Stadium. He fell in love with DiMaggio’s smooth swing and style of play in the outfield and would, a few years later, be swept away by the swift elegance of Willie Mays. His ability to identify with a team, or a player, and to care abundantly about something for which he had no control, has stayed with him. His writing helps explain why I continue to root passionately for the Cardinals and why each year I live and breathe with the ups and downs of the long, grinding season, exalting when the team wins and suffering miserably when they lose. To have a sense of belonging, to identify with some mystical, magical force larger than me. It is what the game is all about.

But Angell understands not just the loyal and romantic fans. He understands as well the less appreciated fans, those who root for a hopeless cause. In June 1962, he devoted time to the first season of the New York Mets, when they were barely good enough to win forty games and his school-age daughter compared watching the Mets to watching “the fifth grade play the sixth grade at school.” After watching the Mets struggle day in and day out, he wrote, “Suddenly, the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. . . . This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom the foghorn blew; it blew for me.”

I was initially reluctant to write this piece for it is difficult to do justice to the artistry, grace and precision of Angell’s writing. I was tempted to simply compile an anthology of his observations and notations that capture the game with such descriptive clarity. Good writing sets forth a fresh awareness of even those things with which we are intimately familiar. What Angell can do with a pen and notepad after soaking in an afternoon, or a season, of baseball from the bleachers, where most of us are seated on the playing fields of life, is inspiring. He combines a genuine love of baseball with a love of language; and, most especially, the gift of insight.

Among my favorite of Angell’s writings is an essay about Bob Gibson, my favorite player of all-time, the fiercely competitive, prideful pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s and early 1970s. Five years after Gibson had retired, in the summer of 1980, Angell spent a weekend with Gibson at his home in Nebraska. In a long, moving essay titled “Distance,” Angell paid tribute to Gibson the pitcher, but more importantly, to Gibson the man. He recognized Gibson for his sensitivity, his intelligence and grace. Towards the end of the essay, Angell contemplated what life was like for Gibson now that his playing days were through. “For the first time in our long talks, he seemed a bit uncertain,” Angell wrote.
Baseball is the most individual and the most difficult of all team sports, and the handful of young men who can play it superbly must sense, however glimmeringly, that there will be some long-lasting future payment exacted for the privileges and satisfactions they have won for themselves. . . .Even those of us who have not been spoiled by any athletic triumphs of our own and the fulfillment of the wild expectations of our early youth are aware of a humdrum, twilight quality to all of our doings of middle life, however successful they may prove to be. There is a loss of light and ease and early joy, and we look to other exemplars – mentors and philosophers: grown men – to sustain us in that loss. A few athletes, a rare handful, have gone on, once their day out on the field was done, to join that number, and it is possible – the expectation will not quite go away – that Bob Gibson may be among them someday. Nothing he ever does will surprise me.
I could not master the art of pitching like Bob Gibson, and I did not have the requisite talent to play baseball much beyond high school ball. I love to write, but I will never have the purposeful clarity and eloquence of Roger Angell. But I am grateful to both of these men for allowing me a glimpse into their artistry. When I read the works of Angell, I feel that I am experiencing a true artist, a writer of poise and stature. Like Gibson and Brock, Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Musial, Angell belongs in Cooperstown, where the masterful accomplishments of men in their younger years are immortalized in the Hall of Fame. With the aid of good writing, not least the clear and insightful prose of Roger Angell, I can, in some small way, remain connected to the game and the men who played it well; and, in the imaginary station of my soul, live out the dreams and unfulfilled expectations of youth.

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