Roger Angell, and Succeeding Utterly
Teams in Arizona and Florida play with identical rules and before the same sort of audiences, but the two spring flavors are quite different. I don’t understand it. Florida ball seems more citified, hurried and temporary; no matter how rustic the setting, I always have the sense that the regular season impends, and that these humid, sunny afternoons are just postcards, to be landed at later on and then thrown away. Arizona baseball is slower, sweeter and somehow better fixed in memory.
— Roger Angell, La Vida
Some years ago, I covertly followed around Roger Angell before a World Series game. Well, I’m not sure how covert it was; I imagine by that point in his life, Angell simply understood that some green sportswriting kid was probably following him around, trying to pick up his rhythms, trying to get at his secret.
“You know you’re being shadowed?” Ferrari asked Victor Laszlo in Casablanca.
“Of course,” he replied. “It becomes an instinct.”
What struck me was how Angell moved inside baseball’s cadence. You know how certain songs will begin with a simple drumbeat and then an instrument will join in, maybe a synthesizer, and then a guitar will enter, and then a different drumbeat, and then a saxophone, on and on, one sound piling joyously on top of another until it somehow melts into a beautifully ordered tune.
That, to me, is the harmonious cacophony of a World Series pregame, with batting practice crackling, while coaches hit grounders to infielders while outfielders talk and sprint, while VIPs wearing dark suits and colorful credentials shake hands, while television reporters face bright lights and report back home that the game will begin soon, while reporters sit in the dugout and wait for something or someone to show up. I’m always surprised that no one gets conked on the head with a fly ball or is interviewed by mistake.
Angell danced effortlessly through the din. He walked around the field, moving from one dugout to another and then back again, pausing now and then to turn toward the field and take in … something. A catch? A throw? A long hit? Every now and again, someone said, “Hiya, Roger,” and he stopped to talk for a moment. Those conversations, in my memory, were never particularly interesting. “When did you get in?” one might have asked the other. Or, “Have you talked with John, yet?” I didn’t know who this mysterious John was. John Schuerholz? John Smoltz? Tommy John?
In some ways, I was disappointed by how uneventful his pregame routine was. It’s hard to say what I expected, but at that age, I felt sure that he had to be doing something different from everyone else to write the way he did. But, no, he blended into the scenery, with his gray mustache and blue blazer and little notepad and crumpled baseball cap. He looked at the same stuff the rest of us looked at. He talked the same way the rest of us talked. Most people did not notice him at all.
But a few others did. I could see them. I could see the awe in their eyes, the same awe I felt, and I could read their lips: “Oh my gosh: That’s Roger Angell!”
A box score 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 outdoor 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.
— Roger Angell, Box Scores
The miracle of Roger Angell to me is that he never ran out of words. Take this section above — it has been quoted many times by many people. It’s a perfect little encapsulation of baseball’s box score and why it means so much to so many of us.
But this was not where the paragraph ended. And I would argue that the next sentence is, if anything, even more wonderful.
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.
My gosh. That’s the part that, for the most part, DOES NOT get quoted.
Angell was literary royalty. His mother was a fiction editor at The New Yorker. His stepfather was E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and co-author of the indispensable, “The Elements of Style.” Looking back, his literary future seems preordained … but it did not have to be baseball. He began writing fiction after graduating from Harvard and being discharged from the army. Angell became a fiction editor with The New Yorker (where, for a time, he was stationed in his mother’s old office). In 1960, he first read his friend John Updike’s essay on Ted Williams’ final game: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”
That, I believe, is still the best baseball essay ever written — it’s the one where Updike writes of Williams’ refusal to acknowledge the fans after his last home run: “Gods do not answer letters.” It changed Roger Angell’s life.
“When he and I talked about the article, as we did a few times,” Angell would write of Updike, “we each admitted — I with gratitude, he with customary modesty and class — that ‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’ might have set the tone for my own baseball stuff.”
Angell began writing baseball two years later, 1962, with an essay about taking his 14-year-old daughter to see a Mets game. He was already 41, but as a baseball writer he was still a rookie — it would take time for him to find what would become the literary voice of the game. Already there were signs, though, like his description of watching Willie Mays play ball:
He hit a homer each day at the Polo Grounds, made a simple, hilarious error on a ground single to center, and caught flies in front of his belt buckle like a grocer catching a box of breakfast food pulled from a shelf. All in all, I most enjoy watching him run bases. He runs low to the ground, his shoulder swinging in huge strides, his spikes digging up great chunks of infield dirt; the cap flies off at second, he cuts the base like a racing car, looking back over his shoulder at the ball, and slopes grandly into third, and everyone who has watched him finds himself laughing with excitement and shared delight.
In that paragraph, you can see so much of what would make Roger Angell, well, Roger Angell. He wrote with a deep love for baseball, but he was always determined to stay close to what he could see, what he could hear, what he could touch, he never wanted to collapse into the dreamy sentimentality that, in his mind, wrecked baseball. He wrote attentively but loathed being called baseball’s poet laureate. He loved baseball’s romance but hated “Field of Dreams.”
“It’s mostly fake,” he said with disgust.
Instead, he cared about what was real about baseball.
Hold a baseball in your hand. As it happens, this one is not brand new. Here, just to one side of the curved surgical welt of stitches, there is a pale-green grass smudge, darkening one edge almost to black—the mark of an old infield play, a tough grounder now lost in memory. Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way, with the seam just to the side of your middle finger. Speculation stirs. You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it. The game has begun.
He circled the bases in triumph, in sudden company with several hundred fans, and jumped on home plate with both feet, and John Kiley, the Fenway Park organist, played Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus,” fortissimo, and then followed with other appropriately exuberant classical selections, and for the second time that evening I suddenly remembered all my old absent and distant Sox-afflicted friends (and all the other Red Sox fans, all over New England), and I thought of them—in Brookline, Mass., and Brooklin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damariscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont; in Wayland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all five Manchesters; and in Raymond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives) and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born), and I saw all of them dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway—jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, and in bars and trailers, and even in some boats here and there, I suppose, and on back-country roads (a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night), and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing that joy—alight with it.
— Roger Angell on the Carlton Fisk homer, Agincourt and After
I never spoke with Roger Angell. He’s the only one of my sportswriting heroes — Jim Murray, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Peter Gammons, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Bill James, on and on — who intimidated me to the point of silence. Over the years, I came to at least understand how those other writers did what they did … as a hack tennis player, I can at least fathom the genius of Novak and Rafa and Roger.
But what Angell did seemed different from the rest of us. It was alchemy in the purest sense. He took the same lead the rest of us had — the same plays, the same quotes, the same angles — and turned it into gold. I didn’t know what to say to him.
Instead, I followed him around that one World Series game … and learned little about how I could follow him — how I could become him. Instead, I would read and reread his essays, and rather than simply highlighting those passages that grabbed my heart and turned my mind, I would write them out longhand in a notebook or I would type them two or three times into a word processor, in the vague hope that just writing the words would trigger something in my own writing.
Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.
— Roger Angell, The Interior Stadium
All sporting memories are suspect—the colors too bright, the players and their feats magnified in our wishful recapturing. The surprising rally or splendid catch becomes incomparable by the time we fight free of the parking lot, epochal before bedtime, transcendental by breakfast.
— Roger Angell, Mets Redux
Maybe this is the real dividing line between pros and bystanders, between the players and the fans. All the players know that at any moment things can go horribly wrong for them in their line of work—they’ll stop hitting or, if they’re pitchers, suddenly find that for some reason they can no longer fling the ball through that invisible sliver of air where it will do its best work for them—and they will have to live with that diminishment, that failure, for a time or even for good. It’s part of the game. They are prepared to lose out there in plain sight, while the rest of us do it in private and then pretend it hasn’t happened.
— Roger Angell, Quis
He was 101 years old when he died at his Manhattan home on Friday. The eulogies and appreciations have come from every corner of America, from eloquent writers to exacting editors to incurable baseball fans. All of them, it seems, have a favorite line, a particular description of, say, Luis Tiant’s pitching motion (In midpitch, the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head,) or Howard Cosell’s baseball broadcasting style (Mr. Cosell has been a long-term disparager of baseball, which he considers to be old-fashioned and draggy, but it became clear within the first inning or two of the first game that his handicap was not prejudice but lack of knowledge).
But what seems more true than any one quote or description is that Angell has helped us appreciate baseball by reaching deep into our chests and saying what we feel but cannot quite convey why we care so much about this odd and wonderful game.
“More and more,” he wrote, “each sport resembles all sports; the flavor, the special joys of place and season, the unique displays of courage and strength and style that once isolated each game and fixed it in our attentions have disappeared somewhere in the notice and crush.
“Of all sports, none has been so buffeted by this unselective proliferation, so maligned by contemporary cant, or so indifferently defended as baseball. Yet the game somehow remains the same, obdurately unaltered and comparable only with itself.”
Looking back, maybe I wish I had summoned the courage to tell Roger Angell how much he meant to me and to my life. Then again, maybe it’s better this way, a one-way conversation, where I just write down his words, marvel at them, and hope that just a bit of his brilliance might rub off.