Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cooperstown Has a Date with an Angell

By Jeff Kallman

Roger Angell at 93 still reports to The New Yorker every day to read fiction for the magazine and, here and there, write yet another one of his symphonic essays from the diamonds and the stands. Next summer, he's going to make a trip to Cooperstown as an honored guest.

At long enough last the Hall of Fame has a date with an Angell. He's going to be honored as have the like of Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Red Smith, Jim Murray, Damon Runyon, and Shirley Povich. Every one of those men in God's Elysian Fields is now lifting a tall one to the stepson of E.B. White. (White married Angell's mother after her divorce; she was a founding New Yorker editor.) And God is calling them to order to remind them of something I've said before: "Roger Angell isn't baseball's Homer; Homer was ancient Greece's Roger Angell. Homer, siddown and shaddap."

Angell is baseball's prose poet laureate, but don't say it to his face. Perhaps he prefers to be known as the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker, whose charges included Garrison Keillor ([He] was terribly generous with his praise and apologetic for his criticism and who, if a month passed without submissions from me, would write the most wonderful encouraging letters) and John Updike, and who bumped into a chance to write about the game he's loved.

"I've been accused once in a while of being a poet laureate, which has always sort of pissed me off," he once told Salon writer Steve Kettman, coincidentally the author of the splendid One Day at Fenway and editor of Angell's own anthology Game Time. "That's not what I was trying to do. I think people who said that really haven't read me, because what I've been doing a lot of times is reporting. It's not exactly like everybody else's reporting. I'm reporting about myself, as a fan as well as a baseball writer."

Just like any average everyday American literary editor who goes to spring training, assorted ballparks, or the World Series thinking he's spot reporting but turning out such lyricism as what he turned out in "The Web of the Game" (1981), after watching Ron Darling (then pitching for Yale University) and Frank Viola (then pitching for St. John's University) tangled in Darling's 11 no-hit innings, in a game during the 1981 players' strike, with Smokey Joe Wood (a 34-5/1.91 ERA pitcher for the 1912 Red Sox, then 91 himself) in the audience and, coincidentally, Angell's seat companion:

The two pitchers held us — each as intent and calm and purposeful as the other. Ron Darling, never deviating from the purity of his stylish body-lean and leg-crook and his riding, down-thrusting delivery, poured fastballs through the diminishing daylight ... Viola was dominant in his own fashion, also setting down the Yale hitters one, two, three in the ninth and 10th, with a handful of pitches. His rhythm — the constant variety of speeds and location on his pitches—had the enemy batters leaning and swaying with his motion, and, as antistrophic, was almost as exciting to watch as Darling's flair and flame.

With two out in the top of the 11th, a St. John's batter nudged a soft little roller up the first base line—such an easy, waiting, schoolboy sort of chance that the Yale first baseman, O'Connor, allowed the ball to carom off his mitt: a miserable little butchery, except that the second baseman, seeing his pitcher sprinting for the bag, now snatched up the ball and flipped it toward him almost despairingly. Darling took the toss while diving full-length at the bag and, rolling in the dirt, beat the runner by a hair.

"Oh, my!" said Joe Wood. "Oh, my, oh, my!"

Perhaps one reason it took so long for Angell to have his appointment in Cooperstown is that he is not sound-bite quotable and never has been, or so it seems. Would you rather have the customary sound-bite-angling writing (yes, I've been guilty of such writing myself, and no, I take no pride in that) or something like this, concluding a remarkable study of the late and delightful relief pitcher Dan Quisenberry:

We want our favorites to be great out there, and when that stops we feel betrayed a little. They have not only failed but failed us. 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 their 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.

Some say Angell's writing has the kind of pastoral quality people like to attribute to baseball itself. The kind of thing, those people sometimes go on to say, that made baseball in the Good Old Days just so much different than the (it is alleged) mercenary high-tech exercise of the Bad New Days. Beware. Angell has loved the game for itself and written of that for its own sake, and his own sake, and he has learned to respect and even adore the game with which he grew up (he was a New York Giants fan in his youth) without wishing to flog it with nostalgia's buggy whip:

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. You look back into the meaning of old-time baseball, and really in the early days it was full of roughnecks and drunks. They beat up the umpires and played near saloons. In Field of Dreams there's a line at the end that says the game of baseball was good when America was good, and they're talking about the time of the biggest race riots in the country and Prohibition. What is that? That dreaminess, I really hated that.

Not that he's quite prepared to acquit the contemporary game, its accoutrements in particular. "The modern game is all bangs and effects: it's summer-movie fare, awesome and forgettable—and extremely popular with the ticket-buyers," he wrote in The New Yorker at the turn of the century. He has been a kind of kindred to the late commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, who lamented likewise the game's embrace of theatrical ballpark gimmicks. But he is an empath obeying particular boundaries of reason with assorted fans of assorted teams, even if his eye burrows a little deeper than theirs, even among Red Sox fans in St. Louis watching generations of extraterrestrial deflation come to a surprising 2004 end:

The Redbird collapse can probably be laid to weak pitching, unless you decide that the baseball gods, a little surfeited by the cruel jokes and disappointments they have inflicted on the Boston team and its followers down the years, and perhaps as sick of the Curse of the Bambino as the rest of us, decided to try a little tenderness.

This notion came to me in the sixth game of the scarifying American League Championship, when Gary Sheffield, swinging violently against Schilling with a teammate at first, topped a little nubber that rolled gently toward Sox third baseman Bill Mueller, then unexpectedly bumped into the bag and hopped up over his glove: base hit. Nothing ensued, as [Curt] Schilling quickly dismissed the next three Yankee hitters, but the tiny bank shot, which is not all that rare in the sport, was the sort of wrinkle that once could have invited a larger, grossly unfair complication and perhaps even a new vitrine next to [Bill] Buckner's muff or [Aaron] Boone's shot in the ghastly Sox gallery. You could almost envision the grin upstairs.

Instead, looking back at the action up till now — the Yankees' daunting three-game lead after the first three meetings of this championship elimination; their nineteen runs in the Game Three blowout; and then the Sox' two comeback wins achieved across the next two games or twenty-six innings or 10 hours and 51 minutes of consuming, astounding baseball—the old god feels an unfamiliar coal of pity within. "Ah, well," he murmurs, turning away. "Let it go."

Because he was never a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose membership is restricted pretty much to beat writers, and because he worked for a literary magazine instead of a sporting journal, Angell has enjoyed a kind of freedom of the soul that most baseball writers don't dare imagine. (It also may be why it took this long to think of him as Hall of Fame material in consecrated fact as opposed to article of faith.) Legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn sent Angell to spring training in 1962 with one instruction: "See what you find." Little did Shawn know what he'd wreaked.

Angell subsequently found the Original Mets and their equally surrealistic fans. "[T]hat was very lucky for me when I thought it out. It occurred to me fairly early on that nobody was writing about the fans," he told Kettman. "I was a fan, and I felt more like a fan than a sportswriter. I spent a lot of time in the stands, and I was sort of nervous in the clubhouse or the press box. And that was a great fan story, the first year of the Mets. They were these terrific losers that New York took to its heart."

He would go forth to write with comparable eloquence on such as the dominance of Sandy Koufax; the miscomprehended "Distance" (his title) of Bob Gibson; the unfathomable collapse of Steve Blass (a Pirates pitching stalwart and World Series hero one moment, unable to reach the strike zone without disaster the next, so it seemed); the trans-dimensional 1975 World Series; the labor disputes in the free agency era; the pride of such men as Tom Seaver and Reggie Jackson; the foolishness of such men as Pete Rose; and the staggering, jagged contrast between two Bay Area owners, Charles Finley (Athletics) and Horace Stoneham (Giants):

Baseball as occasion — the enjoyment and company of the game — apparently means nothing to him. Finley is generally reputed to be without friends, and his treatment of his players has been characterized by habitual suspicion, truculence, inconsistency, public abasement, impatience, flattery, parsimony, and ingratitude. He also wins.

Horace Stoneham is — well, most of all he is not Charlie Finley ... He is shy, self-effacing, and apparently incapable of public attitudinizing. He attends every home game but is seldom recognizable even by the hoariest Giants fans ... In 1972, when his dwindling financial resources forced him at last to trade away Willie Mays, perhaps the greatest Giant of them all, he arranged a deal that permitted Mays to move along to the Mets with a salary and a subsequent retirement plan that would guarantee his comfort for the rest of his life...

...[W]hen I read that the San Francisco Giants were up for sale, it suddenly came to me that the baseball magnate I really wanted to spend an afternoon with was Horace Stoneham. I got on the telephone to some friends of mine and his (I had never met him), and explained that I did not want to discuss attendance figures or sales prices with him but just wanted to talk baseball. Stoneham called me back in less than an hour. "Come on out," he said in a cheerful, gravelly Polo Grounds sort of voice. "Come out, and we'll go to the game together."

That was part of "The Companions of the Game," published in The New Yorker in 1975 and republished in two subsequent Angell anthologies, Five Seasons and Game Time. Angell's anthologies have been subtitled, invariably, A Baseball Companion. He has been that through his reporting and writing, which has been in turn that and more to those who've had the pleasure and the good taste to read it.

It's a very safe bet that when he accepts the honor long overdue next July, Angell will do so with such graciousness that he'll provoke just the reaction his writings provoke. That you'd love nothing better than to have him as a game companion even once.

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