The death this week of writer Roger Angell was important enough to merit a news item on the BBC’s website.
I mean no disrespect to any other baseball writer to say he was more than just a baseball writer. In many ways that was the point with Angell; he was a gifted wordsmith who directed his talents to a wide array of different topics. We were simply fortunate that one of his great passions throughout his life was baseball.
There are a few collections of his writing available, one of which is ‘Game Time: A Baseball Companion’.
Back in December 2008 I co-wrote a review of this title with my friend Joe Gray for my now-defunct (albeit still standing!) BaseballGB website. Angell’s passing made me revisit that piece and I found that years of website coding upgrades have added a bunch of weird references where punctuation (quote marks, semi-colons etc) used to be.
Therefore, I thought I would tidy it up and reproduce it in full here. Much as it’s slightly bizarre to be confronted with the fact that I co-wrote this nearly 14 years ago, it’s comforting that I still feel the same way about the book today.
‘Game Time: A Baseball Companion’ (Harvest, 2004), 398 pages
It stands to reason that British baseball fans would want to discover as many great baseball writers as possible. Buying a copy of ‘Game Time: A Baseball Companion’ should therefore be high on your list of things to do.
During his career writing about baseball for The New Yorker since 1962, Roger Angell has consistently proved to be one of the finest commentators on the game. This collection brings together essays and shorter “takes’ from that first year up until the Angels’ triumph over the Giants in the 2002 World Series. His prose is easy and enjoyable to read: elegant but never overly wordy; insightful but never condescending. Just as importantly, his simple love of the game is always at the heart of everything he writes.
Every piece of writing on display makes you appreciate the great game of baseball even more. As both Joe and I have a copy of this book, we thought the best way to honour the writing would be to concentrate on two pieces each, rather than to gloss over the whole collection. Joe writes about two of the shorter “takes’ first (the second actually being a collection of three written in different years), before I cover a couple of the essays.
Takes: Digging up Willie
Although he does not state it in this short essay on Willie Mays’ home-run number 501, Angell has a good chunk of outfield in his heart allocated to the legendary Giant. In the essay, the reader accompanies Angell on a hunt for details on a home-run that Mays, when asked to remember a favourite round-tripper, described as the only dramatic one he hit in his career (from a catalogue of 660).
Angell has something similar to a ball in the dirt to work with, from Mays’ answer:
“Home run against Claude Raymond, in the Astrodome. Somebody was on first, and it tied the game. Jim Davenport won it for us in the eleventh or twelfth inning. Raymond threw me thirteen fastballs, and I fouled them off. The ball went over the fence in left-center field. What year? You’d have to look that up. Ask Claude Raymond; ”he probably knows it better than I do”.
Angell’s pre-Internet quest to find out more about this home-run leads him, “after several cases of mistaken identity (several four-baggers not quite fitting the description)“, to number 501, although the description that he is given suggests that only four pitches were fouled off before the swing that did the damage.
Curious about the discrepancy between the four foul-balls mentioned in this account and the thirteen described by Mays, Angell gets in contact with Raymond, the pitcher who served up number 501. Raymond confirms Mays’ description, leaving Angell satisfied that he now has the correct details to publish in The New Yorker.
In wrapping up the case, Angell treats the reader to the fact that Mays hit home-runs in every inning up to the sixteenth, and then dryly quips: “Too bad none of them were dramatic”. And then, right at the end of this story, comes a pleasant little twist sure to make any baseball fan want to smile. The twist works better after reading the actual essay, and that is what I strongly recommend you do.
Takes: Three Petes
Here, Angell joins together three short pieces on Pete Rose. The first, from 1981, consists mostly of quoted text and illustrates the supreme confidence that Rose had in his batting ability. The second piece, written after Rose’s record-breaking hit number 4,192, on 11 September 1985, contrasts the media circus surrounding the breaking of Ty Cobb’s record with the lack of attention given to Cobb passing Honus Wagner’s then record mark of 3,430 on 20 September 1923. The thorough and skilful treatment of Rose’s record satisfied the statistical hunger I get any time that I read about one of the game’s greats.
It is the third piece, however, that I was most interested, being written in 1999 following the naming of MLB’s All-Century Team, 10 years after Rose signed an agreement to a life-time banishment from baseball for betting on the sport.
What I wanted to know was what Angell, among the most intelligent of baseball writers that the game has ever known, thought about the prospects of Rose’s admission to the Hall of Fame. It is not until the final paragraph that Angell makes it certain that he is pro-admission, while noting that if it ever happens it will be on the Commissioner’s terms. Having likened the way that Rose handled the scandal to Shoeless Joe coming out of the cornfield in Field of Dreams earlier in the essay, Angell signs off with the sentence:
“Do it, Pete, and we will come”.
Depicting a baseball landscape in 1976 that had undergone rapid change, Angell finds that the humble baseball scout had remained the symbol of a forgotten time. Fast forward to 2003 and Michael Lewis could be found writing the same thing in Moneyball, only in a much less sympathetic tone.
Angell clearly felt (feels?) a lot of warmth to the men who spend day after day travelling long distances for the game they love. Whereas Lewis revelled in the growing rise of statistical analysis driving the dinosaurs to extinction, Angell captured the quality of these baseball men at a time when the MLB Scouting Bureau was putting many of them out of jobs. Angell walked in the footsteps of the then Angels scout Ray Scarborough as he sought to bring life to the anonymous scouting reports produced by the Bureau on several top high school and college players shortly before that year’s amateur draft.
We are taken into a world of strong friendships (“It’s a fraternity”, Scarborough explains), where years of hard work could go unnoticed to the general baseball fan yet were treasured by the men who devoted their lives to it. A life on the scouting road might be tough, but it’s also full of characters and great stories that the scouts are always ready to share. And that’s what really stands out about Ray and his colleagues: the willingness to pass on their considerable baseball knowledge to other people. After Scarborough succinctly explained the mechanics of a young hurler, Angell noted:
“All this was perfectly evident to me as soon as Ray pointed it out. I had the curious feeling that I was listening to a brilliant English instructor explicating some famous novel or play. I thought I had known some of the passages by heart, known them almost too well, but now I began to hear different rhythms and truths. An old text had become fresh and exciting again”.
It’s an essay that could have been written in 2006 rather than thirty years earlier and it’s a joy to read.
One of Angell’s most famous essays, The Distance is a revealing portrait of pitching legend Bob Gibson. Written five years after he had retired, Angell draws the reader’s attention to Gibson’s greatness firstly by compiling the case through statistics (his seventeen strikeout performance against the Tigers in the 1968 World Series, his 1.12 earned-run average in the same year etc) and then through the gripping testimony of his teammates and opponents.
After reading such compelling evidence, it seems strange that Angell was partly moved to meet Gibson because it was his first year of eligibility to the Hall of Fame and that he believed “baseball up to now has never quite known what to make of Bob Gibson, and has slightly but persistently failed to pay him his full due as a player and a man”. How could his special talent cause such confusion? Well, people didn’t really know Gibson, predominantly because he had no desire for them to know him.
Gibson was a proud man, a black American who had grown up battling against racism, a fierce competitor whose focus was on winning baseball games. He didn’t waste any time on the mound and was never caught kidding around with opposing players. It was ’business’ to Gibson, not show business. For some people who watched him and, most specifically, the people who reported on him, this wasn’t enough.
Consequently, he makes for a fascinating subject. Angell uncovers the man behind the pitcher and what made him refuse to play the role of all-round “sports hero’ away from the mound. In doing so, he is able to explore more widely the demands placed on sportsmen. Angell states:
“It is my suspicion that both sportswriters and fans are increasingly resentful of the fame and adulation and immense wealth that are now bestowed so swiftly upon so many young professional athletes”, adding “that there is indeed a wish to own them; to demand ceaseless, inhumanely repeated dazzling performances from them on the field, and to require absolute access to their private lives as well”.
It’s a position that Angell, someone who loves the pure pleasure of watching a ballgame and who does not seek to burden it with any greater moral, philosophical or spiritual meaning, calmly casts aside.
The Distance shows that Bob Gibson was too proud a man to create an artificial public persona; that this won him no favours during his career but is something we should admire as part of his strong-willed character in retrospect.
Not many books deserve a 1,600 word review, but Game Time surely does. It’s a book that you will go back to and pick up off the shelf at regular intervals and deserves a place in every baseball fan’s collection.