In the spring of 1962, William Shawn sent Roger Angell
to Florida to write about spring training. Forty-one years (and three New Yorker
editors) later, Angell still covers baseball for the magazine. "No other sport has been so well served by any other writer," Jonathan Yardley once noted in the Washington Post Book World
Now, Game Time gathers the best of Angell's writing, from that inaugural effort to last autumn's review of Anaheim's improbable championship run. In a special introduction written for the new collection, Pulitzer Prize winner (and former Inside Sports columnist) Richard Ford observes:
"Roger Angell has been writing about baseball for more than forty years—mostly for the New Yorker magazine—and for my money he's the best there is at it. There's no writer I know whose writing on sport, and particularly baseball, is as anticipated, as often reread and passed from hand to hand by knowledgeable baseball enthusiasts as Angell's is, or whose work is more routinely and delightedly read by those who really aren't enthusiasts. Among the thirty selections in this volume are several individual essays and profiles (the Bob Gibson profile, 'Distance,' for instance) which can be counted in that extremely small group of sports articles that people talk over and quote for decades, and which have managed to make a lasting contribution to the larger body of American writing."
Now a senior editor at the New Yorker, over the years the Harvard graduate has fostered into print the work of John Updike, Garrison Keillor, and William Trevor, among many others. Yet Angell, who turns 83 this year, remains as productive as ever. In 2001, he published his first full-length book, A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David Cone, and recently he contributed introductions to several classic works by his stepfather, E. B. White. "I'm writing a piece right now," he says, "a memoir about automobile trips, driving around when I was in my teens, and before that, in the 1930s." Welcome news for us all.
Dave: How did you choose the pieces that are included in Game Time?
Roger Angell: A lot of them hadn't been in book form before, including most of the stuff from the nineties. That was easy. The rest were just pieces I liked, pieces that seemed fresh to me when I went back to them, sometimes for the first time in a long time.
The opening piece, the first spring training piece, "The Old Folks Behind Home" [read it here], I hadn't read for years. That was the first baseball piece I wrote. Believe me, I had no idea what would follow. I never saw this as a career. I really didn't. And I think it's a good thing, too, because if you say, "Oh, this is my career," that's when you stiffen up and begin to aim the ball.
Dave: In that first piece, you write about watching Whitey Ford and Warren Spahn pitch:
|Suddenly I saw that from my seat behind first base the two pitchers—the two best left-handers in baseball, the two best left- or right-handers in baseball—were in a direct line with each other, Ford exactly superimposed on Spahn? throwing baseballs in the same fragment of space. Ford, with his short, businesslike windup, was shoulders and quickness, while, behind him, Spahn would slowly kick his right leg up high and to the left, peering over his shoulder as he leaned back, and then deliver the ball with an easy, explosive sweep. It excited me to a ridiculous extent.|
Did you have any idea what you'd be writing about when you started that spring? How you'd be approaching the subject?
Angell: I had no idea. I knew I wasn't a baseball writer. I was scared to death. I really was afraid to talk to players, and I didn't want to go into the press box because I thought I was faking it.
I was in my thirties. I wasn't a kid. I think that instinctively I thought I'd have to trust myself and to report about what I was seeing, what I was thinking as a fan, and not to try to fake it by being knowing about these players and their deliveries and all that stuff which I later learned about. This has run all through my work. I've never been told that I have to be objective. I can take sides and I can say how I feel.
Even then, I did sense that nobody was writing about the fans. Since I'm a fan (I'm a different kind of a fan now), I could say we and talk about people watching a Giants game or a Mets game or a Red Sox game. I could say we as a bunch of New England fans, whatever. That allows me to be a lot more open to feelings and maybe judgments, as well.
Dave: There's a piece in Game Time where Tom Seaver talks about the mechanics of pitching, standing in front of his locker breaking down the elements of his wind-up for you and a few other writers; then later in that same chapter Don Sutton, a pitcher with an entirely different motion, follows with his take. When I read that, I remembered a piece published in Season Ticket where you queried catchers in much the same way, specifically about the mechanics of their jobs.
Angell: That led to a very long piece. I liked that a lot.
The great thing about catchers is that they do a lot of different things, and they're basically overlooked. As I think I wrote in that piece, it's maybe because they're facing the other way; we don't think about them. But there's a lot to catching, and catchers tend to be smart.
Once I could persuade these guys that all I wanted to hear from them was what they did—Tell me what you do—once you can persuade someone that this is all you're after, you can't shut them up because we're all fascinated by what we do. If we're lucky, anyway. Some of these guys were great talkers. Ted Simmons, who was with Milwaukee then, was one of the great baseball talkers. I saw him in spring training again this year, and I thanked him for his paragraphs.
Dave: A catcher who makes several appearances in Game Time is Tim McCarver. He has interesting things to say about what goes on on the field, but also about the sport's place in our culture.
Angell: Tim is unusual because he is such an enthusiast for the game. A lot of people I know can't stand him. "I just can't stand him," they'll say. "He's always blathering on about baseball." This is not an effort for Tim. He's extremely excited about it and he knows it through and through.
He's in that piece on catching, briefly. He loves situations and he doesn't hesitate to hold back on what he sees out there. This has not always made him popular.
Actually, he's now done an amazing thing: he's announced the World Series the last couple years, and he's twice called the final play—he's said what to look out for because of the way the batter was being pitched—though it wasn't the very final play last year because it was in the sixth game. There was another after that, Spiezio's home run.
I've been lucky. I've met a lot of baseball people, and I've learned to value people who talk—people who talk well and in long sentences and even long paragraphs. One of them is the Giants' pitching coach and later manager, Roger Craig. A previous book of mine had just come out when I saw him at spring training that year. He was sitting in the outfield, so I went out and shook hands with him. Another writer was already sitting out there. He pointed at me and he said to Craig, "Roger has a new book out. Have you read it?" Craig said, "Read it? Hell, I wrote half of it!"
Dave: You tell a story in the book similar to one Doris Kearns Goodwin tells in Wait Till Next Year, maybe one that's common for lots of people who grew up in those years: listening to a ballgame in the afternoon on the radio, keeping score on a pad of paper, then replaying the action from your notes for your father when he returned from work.
Angell: That was the first time I did a box score on my own outside a ballpark. It was in 1933. I think the Giants were playing the Senators. There was no television back then, but they did radio now and then. My father was a lawyer, so I got one of his yellow legal pads and quickly ruled out the line-ups and took it all down. It was fascinating. I was twelve years old, or just turned thirteen.
Dave: These days, do you listen to games on the radio? Do you prefer to watch on TV or to be at the ballpark?
Angell: I listen to the radio if I'm driving or sometimes if I'm in the country. I watch quite a lot of televised baseball, but the trouble with televised baseball for all of us is that we've become so impatient by television in general that if nothing is happening we flick over to see what's on HBO or what's happening in that other game. If I'm watching the Yankees, I'll see what the Mets are doing. It doesn't really satisfy you in the end.
Baseball is meant to be watched all the way through. Sure, it's boring. There are boring innings and sometimes there turn out to be bad games, but you're not going to have a feeling for the good games unless you're willing to watch.
I think I wrote once that baseball in many ways is very much like reading. I said there are more bad books than bad ballgames, or maybe it was the other way around. I can't remember. But each have formal chapters. There are wonderful beginnings that don't stand up and boring beginnings that are great in the end. You just don't know. They're both, baseball and reading, for people who aren't afraid of being bored.
Dave: In the essay called "Early Innings," you describe a play you've never seen duplicated, a relay from Goose Goslin to Joe Cronin to Luke Sewell, who tagged out two runners (Lou Gehrig and Dixie Walker) with one swipe. Probably everyone who has sat through a number of baseball games has these kinds of singular moments in their memory. For me, it was a Red Sox?Twins game in 1990. This was maybe June or July, so it wasn't a particularly important game. I was sitting in the bleachers with some friends at Fenway when the Twins turned two identical triple plays: 5-4-3, Gaetti to Newman to Hrbek.
Angell: In the same game?
Dave: The same game, and the same play, basically: a sharp ground ball to third, a step on the bag, throw to second, throw to first.
Angell: Wow. I've only seen about two triple plays in my whole life.
That's one of the great things about the game: you absolutely never know. I saw an unassisted triple play a couple years ago. I just couldn't get over it. They're so rare. I looked around when this happened and—again, like that incident with Ford and Spahn in spring training—I couldn't find anybody to be so excited about it. I was sitting with some radio people, and they thought, It's kind of boring.
Dave: I've never been able to explain it exactly—and not for lack of trying—but the more baseball you've seen, the more you're able to enjoy it. There's so much going on that doesn't call attention to itself, with the right pace to take it all in.
Angell: That's right. That's absolutely true. And also, I think it does evoke memory because it's played exactly the same now as before. The players are bigger and stronger than they used to be; artificial turf is on its way out again, which is good; but you watch and you'll suddenly remember back twenty or thirty years ago seeing someone make the same play. If you watch long enough, you can compare great shortstops or great second basemen and almost see them.
It's funny though, the thing about seeing players in your mind's eye: my best friend, Bill Rigney, died a couple years ago. He was great baseball talker, one of my favorites; everybody's favorite. I told him I could remember seeing him play for the Giants in the 1950s. He went west with them to California and later became a Giants manager. (I have a new baseball card of him with Willie Mays on that '51 team; a friend gave it to me.) A couple years ago, I was saying to Rig, "I can remember what you looked like playing, in your glasses, strong and tall and quick, but I can't quite remember what you looked like batting." He said, "Don't try too hard."
Dave: It reminds me of being on a playground as a kid: coming to bat, imitating your favorite hitter. You've got all your favorite stances memorized.
Angell: Sure. And there was a spell when Willie Mays was young that every young centerfielder in the land was making basket catches and really messing up out there because only Mays could do it.
Dave: You were seventy-nine years old when you wrote A Pitcher's Story, your first full-length book. I'm amazed by that.
Angell: It's true. These have all been compilations.
I knew David Cone pretty well, and he asked me to do a book about him. I said, "I don't write books." He said, "C'mon, we can do this." I thought about it, but I was still full of doubts. I went to him one day—he was thirty-eight years old and no longer had his fastball, really—and I said, "I just figured this out, David: My brain and your arm are the same age, so let's do it."
The great thing that happened was he had a terrible year. It was just awful. The slider deserted him. He couldn't pitch. He began tinkering with his delivery, and it got worse and worse. Torre kept going with him as a starter. We had no written agreement. I thought he would quit, but he never quit. He stayed with me and he stayed with the book. He kept saying, "I'm letting you down." I said, "You're not letting me down. This is much more interesting, this way." "Well, I can see that," he said, in sort of a strained way. I'll never get over that. It was really a great, classy thing to do.
Dave: He's still going at it.
Angell: He pitches tonight in Cleveland. We'll be on the edge of our seats here.
I saw him this spring, and he had no expectation, coming back. He really had folded his hand. Last winter, I think in January, he went to a charity bowling event run by John Franco here in New York. Franco and Al Leiter were there, and they said, "Why don't you come back? You didn't get a fair shot last year. No one made you an offer. We could really use you on the Mets." Fred Wilpon, the Mets' owner, was there, and he said, "We'd love to have you try."
He thought, Why not? I saw him in spring training and I'd never seen him so happy. He told me that when he was a young pitcher with the Royals, a couple of old pitchers, Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorf, had said to him, "When the time comes, don't quit in the fall. Never quit in the fall. Your arm is killing you. Your brain is all messed up. You're worn out. If you're going to quit, quit in the spring." David said, "This way, if I can't do it, I can quit on my terms. I'll just say, 'Fine, goodbye.'"
Dave: Even the minor details in your profile of Bob Gibson are fascinating. I had no idea that he played for the Harlem Globetrotters. We hear a lot about Gibson these days; for example, when people talk about pitchers throwing on the inside half of the plate. He's also associated with major league baseball deciding to lower the mound.
Angell: In 1969, they lowered the mound because of him.
I see him once in a while. He's still the same, an exceptional guy. He's very quiet and reserved. I spent a lot of time with him doing that long piece.
He's something. He really didn't like fraternizing. He thought all batters were a pitcher's enemy. I think he half-thought that maybe, somehow, by some weird chance, this weird, forty-year-old, balding writer with eyeglasses would come up to bat against him some day. I told him that, and he said, "Yeah, that could happen." Old time players say that of all the guys, he was the most ferocious. He had a burning concentration and the most powerful sense of competition.
I'd first noticed him after he struck out seventeen batters in the opening game of the 1968 World Series against the Tigers, which is still a record. Well, we went to the clubhouse in St. Louis, and black athletes, we didn't know them as well as we do now. He was silent and scary. He wasn't smiling. Someone said to him, "Were you surprised by what you did today, Bob?" He said, "I'm never surprised by anything I do." You could see the reaction going back in the rows of writers, saying, "What did he say?"
I hung around, as I often do, and most of the writers went away. I asked him, "Have you always been this competitive?" He looked at me, and he said, "I think so. I've got a four-year-old daughter and we've played about three hundred games of tic-tac-toe, and she hasn't beat me yet." And he meant it! He meant it!
Dave: Another pitcher who's getting a lot of attention right now, with Jane Leavy's book, is Sandy Koufax.
Angell: I always felt that was the biggest mismatch between a batter and a pitcher. He had an amazing fastball that seemed to rise violently at the end, and also this great, breaking curveball. I remember batters backing out after he'd thrown something by them, looking out there, just giving him a look. What was that? Astounding.
A lot of it came from his very long fingers. And the arch of his back; when he bent backward it looked like a bow launching an arrow—you can see it in old photographs. Jane Leavy's book was excellent.
Dave: These days, given your choice, what parks would you like to visit?
Angell: I'll go back to Fenway, although they just changed it. They put some seats on top of the wall. I don't mind that. I haven't been to Wrigley Field for a while. I like a lot of the new parks, the ones that are sort of based on Camden Yards, although the outfield itself at Camden Yards is much too small. It's constricted, the corners; a lot of cheap home runs get hit there.
I really love Pac Bell: a super park, just terrific. We?re going to run a feature about it in the New Yorker in a month or so. One of our artists who lives out there, a cover artist named Mark Ulriksen, has done this huge panorama showing all of Pac Bell and the Bay and the view of the Bay Bridge and everything, and Barry Bonds hitting a splash job, and some dogs jumping in the cove after it, stuff like that. And of course you can't talk about Pac Bell without talking about Barry, who is the most amazing phenomenon of modern baseball, I think. Just extraordinary.
Dave: Speaking of the New Yorker, have they bronzed your desk?
Angell: No, I'm in there every day and nobody notices. I'm just the oldest guy around, that's all.
Dave: When Susan Orlean was last here, she was raving about a trip to the Dominican Republic. She'd seen a game there, and she talked about how much fun she'd had. I asked her, "Are you going to write something for the New Yorker?" She said they already had a pretty good baseball writer there.
Angell: Ha! But I hope I'm not the only one. We've got some young writers. I'm not trying to fence this off. There's plenty of room.
Dave: You've done a lot of editing over the years. One writer you've worked with is John Updike. What has that been like?
Angell: We've been doing this for years. It's prime work for an editor.
He's a very meticulous and precise craftsman. I just do his fiction. What I get is almost perfect, which is not the case with a lot of very good writers. A lot of very good writers need a lot of editing. John needs a little editing. He's almost the only writer now who'll ask for proofs up to the minute we're closing. He'll ask me what I think—he'll try to get a proof by email or something and look it over to correct and change and change. And he'll ask me, "Which do you think is better?" He'll read a line, then again with some variation.
I always cite him when I talk to younger writers because young writers write something and think it's meant to be that way, that God made it that way. Experienced writers know that what they've done can always be better; a book is just something you had to let go of in the end. It's the last proof. John is very much that way.
Dave: Any favorites among his fiction?
Angell: There's so much. I love that last collection of the Maple stories, Too Far to Go. A wonderful book.
I'm writing a piece right now, a memoir about automobile trips, driving around when I was in my teens, and before that, in the 1930s. Driving was different. So I'm doing a collection of things that happened, and I suddenly remembered a wonderful story of John Updike's called "The Happiest I've Been" [originally published in The Same Door]. I mentioned it to him, and he reminded me of the name. It's a story in which a young man embarks on a car ride from Pennsylvania to Chicago. A couple of different things happen, but the man says at the end, "Twice since midnight a person had trusted me enough to fall asleep beside me." A beautiful ending.
Dave: You contributed an introduction to a new edition of E. B. White's book, Here is New York. "Many of White's places and references in Here is New York are long gone," you wrote, "vanished from sight and almost from memory." The book is certainly outdated as a tour guide, but it?s a fascinating record of the city.
Angell: As he noted in later editions, all the details he mentioned kept disappearing. But it certainly isn't outdated. That line at the end about the single flight of planes that can destroy a whole city—everybody certainly discovered that and read it over again after 9/11. Amazing.
I was an editor with Holiday at the time, and I think he wrote that for me. Typical of him, and typical of a lot of writers, he was full of doubt about the whole thing. He didn't know if it was any good. He did it over and over again. I talk about him a lot with young writers, too, because his writing always seemed so effortless. Writing is hard. It's really a difficult thing to do, and you have to make it seem effortless so a reader won't be scared away or feel gloomy in advance.
Andy [E. B.] White wrote the first page of Charlotte's Web about seventeen times. There's an annotated Charlotte's Web where you can see all the variations.
Dave: Writing children's literature, in particular, would probably seem especially easy to people who don't write.
Angell: Well, it's not. I think it's hard to write good children's books. It scares me a lot. There are a lot of children's books, but not many of them are really good.
I think Andy was almost fifty when he wrote the first one, Stuart Little. He liked the voice. And by this time, he knew a lot about life on a farm; he had a small farm of his own up in Maine. The second book is full of what happens on a farm. The big thing with children's books is you can't write down; you can't say, "What would a kid think of this?" You're writing the best book you can, and you're making it as clear as you can. And that's why he ended up writing a couple of the best books ever.
Again, I cite him to beginning writers because it never occurred to him that when he was done, if he would be famous at all, he would be most famous as a children's book writer. He did this after years and years of doing other stuff. It just seemed natural.
You can't tell. It never occurred to me that I was going to spend my life writing about baseball. I had no such plan. No such plan. And at no point did I say to myself, What I am is somebody getting together a body of baseball writings. I think of this as one piece at a time and hope that I'm still enthusiastic about the game, that if something happens I'll want to write about it.
Dave: But at some point you must have thought, I've been doing this for an awful long time.
Angell: I've noticed, yes. But you have to get into each game. You have to get into each season. You never know what it's going to be.
The Barry Bonds phenomenon is absolutely unique. I had no idea that this guy we'd seen play and who was a pretty good player and was not a great guy—a guy you really didn't like talking to, he made it as difficult as possible—would suddenly lock himself in and go on playing and playing and stay locked in, as the players say, to a degree that no other player has achieved before. The rate of home runs and the way he's played over the last three years—there's nothing in baseball history like this, the combination of power and speed. He is alone at the 600 Club of stolen bases and home runs; he's also alone at the 500-level and the 400-level. That's really quite something.
Dave: Earlier in his career, you were writing about his failure to perform in the playoffs.
Angell: Over and over, he failed.
This thing about Bonds is interesting. There's a retired baseball writer living in New Jersey, about my age, named Charlie Einstein. He moved with the Giants out to California when they became the San Francisco Giants. He was the first chronicler of Mays, wrote the first book about him, and knew more about Mays than anybody else. In my piece last fall—it's the last chapter in this new book—I quoted a San Francisco writer named Ray Ratto saying that we have to admit that Bonds is probably the third best outfielder who ever played, and he's not going to get any better because the other two guys are Mays and Ruth and he'll never pass them. Bonds is annoyed to be constricted this way.
A few weeks after that piece appeared I got a letter from Charlie Einstein, saying, "I agree with that. I think Ratto is right. And that means we've got to pick the second three-best outfielders. If you think about it, they would be Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron. That brings us to the third string of greatest outfielders ever, who'd have to be Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, and Ty Cobb." And at the end of his letter he said, "Now, who among us is going to be the guy to go to Stan Musial and tell him he couldn't even make the third team?"
This is stuff I love. You can do that in the winter.
Dave: There's a lot of talk these days about competitive balance. One new book, May the Best Team Win, identifies a big shift toward imbalance in the nineties. But you can read other material that talks about how lopsided it was back in the forties when teams were going bankrupt and so forth.
Angell: Exactly. The Yankees used to win so often that a number of years ago—this was long before I got a computer—I got the Baseball Encyclopedia and I looked up how the Yankees had performed against the second division clubs. There were eight clubs in each league then, so this was how they'd performed against the bottom four clubs in their league in the nineteen-thirties, -forties, and -fifties, counting each series against the White Sox and Senators and Browns, whatever it was. That's 120 separate series, if you count it over thirty years. The Yankees won 112 of them, or maybe 108 of them, and a couple were tied. They lost about six. That is a tilted playing field. The second division clubs were almost always the same.
Everybody says "the good old days when everybody had a chance." In the good old days, nobody had a chance. In the eighties and nineties, a huge number of different teams got into the postseason. Now it's going the other way because they're willing to spend so much money.
Dave: The threat of contraction wasn't a pleasant experience for any number of reasons, but I think part of the reason it left such a poor taste was the fact that the Minnesota Twins were a target. They've been competitive most seasons, they won a couple of championships not too long ago, and they have a loyal fan base.
Angell: They were slated to die at the end of last season, and they ended up in the postseason. You really never know. That was a very popular turn of events because nobody much likes Bud Selig.
Dave: Is Bud Selig unfairly maligned?
Angell: Maybe a little bit, but he's very much an owners' representative. Commissioners have always been that way, but not to this degree.
He knows baseball through and through, but I don't think his instincts are always the best. I mean, when they ended the All-Star game with a tie because they'd run out of pitchers he looked so grim and horrified. He consults with the umpires, and it looks like someone has died. He says, "Well, we're not going to play anymore," and everyone boos. All he had to do was send out one of the local good guys, Paul Molitor or Robin Yount—there were some great guys there—to take the microphone and say, "Hey folks, you look for something different in every baseball game and this time there's really something different." They would have cheered.
We've seen Bud and Don Fehr for so long in these gloomy labor settings that I think we're looking for new faces. And I'm tired of how baseball keeps trotting out these ancient heroes, the same old guys. They bring them up at All-Star games and cite them over and over again. We're sick of this. Give us all a break. Let's do this some other way. Let's do it in a way that's more fun. There are a lot of aspects of baseball that are fun. I think they could find a way.
Dave: If I'm a casual fan coming to game, what are three things that I should look for to begin to appreciate baseball?
Angell: I wouldn't guide a fan. I'd let him decide. You're going to be enormously distracted at first because a huge Jumbotron board will be going off all the time. It's going to be like going to a rock concert. This is not what you expected. The setting of baseball is different. The old silences have disappeared. It takes some getting used to.
I would just pick out a couple players. Pick out someone whose batting style you like. Try to watch him. Watch a pitcher if he's doing well. Try to figure out what he's doing. Watch the way somebody runs. Watch what's happening in the outfield. Something will come along, and your eye will probably lead you in advance to something worth watching. Or else not. Maybe it will be horribly boring and you'll sit there and think, Well, at least I'm not watching television.
You can also try to think about how to get out of the ballpark when it's over, how to get your car out. I'm going to write a great treatise someday on how to get your car out of the ballpark.
I discovered Angell's writing in USA Today of all places; the national daily had excerpted a passage from Season Ticket that sent me straight out to buy the book. In a chapter called "Not So, Boston" about (can you guess?) the 1986 season, Angell wrote:
Glooming in print about the dire fate of the Sox and their oppressed devotees has become such a popular art form that it verges on a new Hellenistic age of mannered excess. Everyone east of the Hudson with a Selectric or a word processor has had his or her say, it seems (the Globe actually published a special twenty-four-page section entitled "Literati on the Red Sox" before the Series, with essays by George Will, John Updike, Bart Giamatti—the new National League president, but for all that a Boston fan through and through —Stephen King, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and other worthies), and one begins to see at last that the true function of the Red Sox may not be to win but to provide New England authors with a theme, now that guilt and whaling have gone out of style.
Roger kindly fielded my phone call at his home in New York on April 16, 2003.