1. Roger can really write. He’s got an eye for the small detail that makes the picture come alive and makes it real. Did you know that he was, for a long time, the New Yorker’s fiction editor? Or that he was the son of the New Yorker’s first fiction editor? Or that he was the step-son of E.B. White? Not that any of that means anything. But it’s probably not a coincidence either. In any case, the guy knows how to write, and even if you have minimal interest in baseball, the stories that he tells are a pleasure to read.
I like the comparisons (sometimes using like or as) that he draws, such as this example:
During his team’s spring games, Billy Martin always sits on a folding chair set up on the grass beyond the Oakland dugout, with his coaching staff – Clete Boyer, Art Fowler, George Mitterwald, Jackie Moore, Lee Walls, Camilo Pascual, Harmon Killebrew, and Eddie Mathews — ranged along side. The tableau suggests Napoleon on a knoll at Austerlitz or Jena, with Ney and Bernadotte and the other marshalls in close attendance. Mathews and Killebrew always seemed to sit together — one thousand and eighty-five lifetime homers leaning back in two little chairs, catching the sun.
2. Roger is thoughtful about things. Would that I were so thoughtful about life, though I suspect that being thoughtful about life is not necessarily the road to happiness.
In one chapter he thinks about hitting, and talks in depth to a wide variety of hitters about how they approach it. He spends another chapter following the career of a pitcher playing semi-pro ball, and looks at the motivations and arrangements made for the love of the game. In one of the later chapters of the book he writes about his experience going to see a ball game with Smokey Joe Wood, and naturally he asks him a few questions, to which Wood responds with limited enthusiasm.
“People come by and see me all the time,” he had said, “People I don’t even know, from as far away as Colorado. Why, I had a fellow come in all the way from Canada the other day, who just wanted to talk about the old days. They all want that, somehow. It’s gone on too long.”
It had gone on for him, I realized, for as long as most lifetimes. He had played ball for fourteen years, all told, and people had been asking him to talk about it for nearly sixty years. For him, the last juice and sweetness must have been squeezed out of those ancient games years ago, but he was still expected to respond to our amateur expertise, our insatiable vicariousness. Old men are patronized in much the same fashion as athletes; because we take pride in them, we expect their intimacy in return. I had intruded after all.
3. The time period covered in the book was the dawn of free agency. No one knew how that would turn out, and many — even Mr. Angell, to some degree — had serious concerns that it might mean the End of The Game. Well, it wasn’t, but I remember this time period, and I remember how amazing the players’ salaries suddenly were to everyone. Roger did not side with either the owners nor the players – though he did tilt towards the players a bit; he does not seem to have a high opinion of the baseball ownership of that time, who he portrays as not-so-bright, paternalistic, greedy, and ill-informed. He also felt that the players were being paid too much money, but he saw too that if it wasn’t them, it would be the owners getting the money. As the owners would never “open the books” to show their business data, why would anyone believe that they were barely making ends meet? Not to mention the capital gains, the steady appreciation of the value of the teams, as they were bought and sold over the years.
Now, of course, the dollar amounts from the 1980s seem like chump change. (Well, to today’s major-leaguers, anyway.) But back then, a million dollars was real money. It was a great day for organized labor. Here’s to the arbitrator that made it possible.
4. There were a lot of names in these pages that were so familiar at one time, but that I hadn’t heard in a long long time. It was like stepping into a time machine. Tom Seaver. Pete Rose. Billy Martin. Reggie Jackson. Yaz. Thurmon Munson. There’s a long profile piece on Bob Gibson that was a very good portrait of a guy who was pretty quiet during his amazing career and who never really talked much to the press. Gibson was intimidating, both on and off the mound, and when Angell spends a few days with him, talking about his career and about Bob Gibson, we learn a lot.
5. The book is so evocative of the seasons of the year. There are lengthy sections set in spring training, when the air is fresh and everything is new again. A time of rejuvenation, for Angell, after the long winters of dismal news coverage on baseball labor strife. And then there’s coverage set in the heart of the summer, the hot nights, good games and bad, the season slowly pivoting, failure for most, success for those fortunate few. And then the stories about the World Series, so often played in the cold and the dark now, the days shortening, the season distilled into a few memorable games, innings, and pitches. Again, time machine. Angell’s language and careful observation takes you into a particular time of year, though it may be December in Minnesota.
6. He is so knowledgeable about baseball history and about how that history figures in the enjoyment of the game. In covering some game of the Kansas City Royals, he says of their park,
Like any Holiday Inn, the stadium appears forever new (it was opened in 1973), and thus without history — the wrong overtones for a sport so devoutly attached to its ancestors and its family records.
Baseball lends itself to a certain amount of atavistic enjoyment. It brings to mind eternal verities and tropes, springtime, growth and fresh new grass, autumn, the harvest, the gathering of the fruits of a summer of labor. There is a religious sort of comfort in baseball.
7. Years. How long has Roger Angell been writing about baseball? How long has he been a fan? Well, he’s been writing about the game since 1962. Fifty-one years. That’s a goodly stretch of time. He brings that to his writing, the sense of history and evolution of the game, that knowledge of the players, present compared to the past.
8. Well, he’s 93 now. I think he’s been a fan since day one.
9. Angell is a Boston fan, and there’s a lot in there about Boston fans, and Philadelphia fans, and Angell perceives a common approach amongst many of their fans to the game. They stand off a bit, and protect themselves. Don’t get wrapped up, and then don’t get hurt. Don’t let them hurt you. Keep them at arm’s length. Don’t believe.
10. Bill James makes an appearance in the book. Angell talks about the Royals with some true blue Royals fans, and Bill James is one of them. Angell tips his hat to James’s statistical work on baseball, but the conversation is not about that at all. It’s fans, talking about baseball, and the trials of baseball, Royal’s style.
To wrap up – I feel that there’s a lot more I could say — I’ll just point out the most recent Roger Angell, in the New Yorker on October 31, 2013 – “Papi and After” — a few thoughts from Angell on the Red Sox most recent championship…
Winning almost all the time has a lot to be said for it, but not quite winning, barely missing again and again, keeps you whining and breathing, and might even be more fun in the end.
Again, thanks Roger Angell, for all the stories and all the baseball over the years.