When I was 12 years old, I received as a gift a mass-market paperback of Roger Angell’s classic work of baseball reportage, The Summer Game (1972). Baseball for me then meant Fenway Park: the enormous light stanchions, the nitrogen-rich grass, the thick chalk defining the playing surface—in short, the romance of a world larger and more brightly colored than my own. I was years away from the more complex pleasures the game offers the seasoned observer, that sense of being so attuned to the play on the field as to be almost an agent of its unfolding. “If he throws him that flat slider again,” you think, “Winfield is going to hit a home run.” When it happens, it’s as though you caused it to occur.
As a youth, I thought of Angell, The New Yorker’s longtime baseball essayist, not as a literary artist but simply a sportswriter—a man who spoke to ballplayers on familiar terms. Before he was E. B. White’s stepson or John Updike’s colleague, he was a guy who got to go to the games for free. It would be some time before I understood that he possessed a distinction akin to that of the players themselves and a good deal more durable.
It was never lost on Angell how difficult baseball is to play well, perhaps because, unlike his more cynical colleagues in the press box, he plied his own trade at the highest level. So his sympathies were always with the players. Here he is on Carl Yastrzemski in spring training, the year after he won the American League Triple Crown, an extremely rare feat:
He knew, of course, that every pitcher in the league would have special plans for him this summer . . . and that even another great year at the plate could not bring him the same emotions and rewards. Yet as I watched him . . . it came to me that all this was not just preparation for what was to come but that here, strangely, was a place where he could find privacy. Inside the cage, inside the game, he was alone, approachable only by his fellows and subject only to the demands of his hard profession.
Angell admired the surpassing talents of his era, but his baseball writing did not celebrate the game’s virtuosities so much as its symmetries, not the outstanding individual effort so much as the perfection of the whole. It spoke to him as an almost Platonic ideal: “Scientists speak of the profoundly moving aesthetic beauty of mathematics, and perhaps the baseball field is one of the few places where the rest of us can glimpse this mystery.”
For a few sentences at a time, Angell could appear to lapse into mere sports writing: “Maury Wills, leading off, singled, and was instantly trapped off first by Al Downing, the Yankees’ young left-hander.” Before long, though, he would introduce a reference to the “Ozymandian figure” of the Yankees franchise, fallen from its greatness to the bottom of the league by the mid-1960s, or a description of the hapless 1962 Mets as providing the “stimulating, if awful, impression of a dotty inventor preparing to jump off the Eiffel Tower with a parachute made of pillowcases.” He evaded the well-worn phrase, and the well-worn thought, like a pedestrian dodging taxicabs on Broadway.
Baseball for Angell was bound up with time. “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.” The game gives ample room for our projections, but perhaps its ultimate lesson is that life is difficult and often unfair. Talent and luck are parceled out unevenly. Even so, ballplayers are generally not smarter or wiser than the rest of us, and they know that they are borrowing against an uncertain future. As Angell wrote, “baseball cannot be played in middle age; there is no cheerful, companionable afternoon to the game.” The end always comes, even for the best.
Since baseball is bound up with time, it is also bound up with loss. The first loss is that of one’s own youthful dreams: “There were perhaps two dozen of us in the stands, and what kept us there . . . [was] the knowledge that we had never made it . . . 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’s decades of baseball brought occasional estrangement as well as pleasure. Vanished stadiums crowded his mental landscape:
The things I liked best about the Polo Grounds were sights and sounds so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of my recollection . . . their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood—a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity . . . as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that we may not possess the scorecards and record books to remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.
Fandom’s residue is indeed love—not just the things loved, but the habit itself. The game experienced at its peaks (“so complex, so rich, and various in structure and aesthetics and emotion”) ideally builds in us the capacity for the more earthbound attachments that ultimately will define us.
Angell most admired the lonely artistry of baseball’s pitchers. Here he describes the furious windup of Cardinals ace Bob Gibson:
Everything about [Gibson] looked mean and loose . . . When there was no one on base, he had an old-fashioned full crank-up, with the right foot turning in mid-motion to slip into its slot in front of the mound and his long arms coming together over his head before his backward lean . . . All in all, the pitch and its extended amplifications made it look as if Gibson were leaping at the batter, with hostile intent.
Angell’s profile of Gibson (“Distance”), written in 1980, a few years after the player’s retirement, may prove to be his most durable piece of baseball writing. The adjectives accrue—“stubborn,” “intimidating,” “arrogant”—but Angell does not pretend to understand everything about a man who remained a mystery even to longtime teammates and who, in retirement, worried that he would find nothing so worthy of his cultivated antipathy as opposing batters. Gibson was that rare person who would not make small talk, who would not fill an awkward silence, and who felt no imperative to make other people comfortable. That this disposition formed amid the racism Gibson experienced growing up in Omaha in the 1950s is not in doubt; the central mystery of “Distance” is whether Gibson’s enduring “obduracy” is that of an entitled athlete or of a man of rare integrity. Angell himself favors the latter interpretation, but he leaves the question slightly open.
Even setting his baseball writing aside, Angell had a long and varied career at The New Yorker. He built a substantial reputation as the editor of fiction contributors such as Donald Barthelme, William Maxwell, John Updike, and Ann Beattie. One might imagine that an editor of such accomplished prose style himself would be terrifying, and perhaps at times he was. But what he seems to have invoked most often in others was a simple desire to please him—that is, the nourishing sense in the writer of having an audience. He was especially gratified when he made a new discovery. At the same time, he was conscious of protecting a standard. A piece was good enough for the magazine or it wasn’t, just as an outfielder makes the catch or he doesn’t; neither is an occasion for prolonged sentiment.
Even those who admired Angell found something occasionally frosty or clipped in his demeanor. Somewhat euphemistically, he was said to be “complicated.” He seems, to judge by his own letters and the things written since his death, to have had a talent for friendship, a quality superior to the universal niceness we are taught to aim for as children. Every sentence was different for him, just as was every writer and every person.
Angell explored many topics for The New Yorker. In few writers, however, is the harmony of style and subject as perfect as it was with Roger Angell and professional baseball. He will stand in the path of every baseball writer who comes after him, and it will be in the process of emulating and internalizing him—and struggling to overcome him—that others might achieve something durable of their own.
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker