By Tom Robotham
On the evening of May 21, I was watching the Mets play the Colorado Rockies. It turned out to be a disappointing game: an 11-3 rout that decisively deprived the Mets of a double-header sweep. But as I headed for bed, it wasn’t the loss that was on my mind: it was broadcaster Gary Cohen’s mid-game announcement that baseball writer Roger Angell had died.
Since Angell was 101, the news hardly came as a shock. But in light of what he meant to me as a role model, it saddened me.
I am certainly not alone in my admiration. The broadcasting team spoke of him with the deepest respect. The announcement was all the more moving because Cohen began, not with the news, but by reading, without preface, a passage from one of Angell’s essays in his 1977 collection Five Seasons, which my father gave me the year it was published.
“It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.”
The passage was well chosen—for as Cohen noted (as did The New York Times in its obituary), Angell wrote about baseball more as a fan than as a professional sports journalist.
That is what struck me about Angell’s writing when I began to read Five Seasons, then started reading everything else he wrote thereafter when it was published in The New Yorker. I’ve enjoyed other baseball writers: Tom Boswell, in particular, as well as baseball books by former players Tim McCarver and Keith Hernandez. A lot of the beat reporting for daily newspapers, on the other hand, is merely informational. Angell’s prose was different: He knew the game better than most, and his insights into its nuances were riveting. But he never cast himself as an expert. Instead, he wrote as a fascinated observer, with a light touch, as if he were musing on the subject over beers on some front porch, or in the cheap seats at Shea.
GIVEN HIS UPBRINGING, it makes sense that he became the writer that he did, and developed his particular style. His stepfather was none other than E.B. White, surely one of the greatest American essayists of the 20th century, and his mother—Katherine Sergeant Angell White—was one of The New Yorker’s first editors. Angell himself went to work there as a staff writer in 1956, the year I was born.
He didn’t start out as a baseball writer or a journalist of any other kind. For years, he was the magazine’s fiction editor and worked with some of the biggest names in 20th century literature, Nabokov and Updike among them. The beat for which he became best known began almost randomly, in 1962 when, as the Times notes in Angell’s obituary, legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn asked him to “go down to spring training and see what you can find.” (I smiled when I read that, since it so perfectly sums up what made Shawn’s New Yorker so great—the faith he placed in his writers to come up with something marvelous, even though he had no idea what that might be. But I digress.)
The timing was fortuitous, as the Times notes, since 1962 was the year that the Mets were created. The very fact that they were awful made them all the riper as a subject for a writer like Angell, who brought to his work both a passion for the beauty of the game—the subtleties like infield shifts and players’ distinctive mannerisms as well as the high dramas of diving catches and mammoth homers—and a wry sense of humor.
One paragraph in the Times piece gave me pause, though: Angell “disliked sentimentality about sports,” it stated, offering, as an example, his dismissal of “the stuff about connection between baseball and American life.” The piece then goes on to quote an interview Angell did with Salon, back in 2000, in which he proclaimed that he “hated” Field of Dreams.”
I happen to have loved the movie. The first time I saw it, in fact, it made me cry because of the ways in which it drew from the mists of personal memory the feeling of playing catch with my father or the sense of possibility that I had when I stepped onto my Little League field when I was 8, even though I was terrible.
No matter. Angell was a role model for me, not an idol. I didn’t always agree with his observations, but I love this one, from his collection Season Ticket, and it seems to contradict the quote in the Times:
“Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up,” Angell wrote. “It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out, but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game resembles the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. But nowhere is this metaphor more insistent than in baseball’s sense of slippage; our rueful, fleeting awareness that we tend to pay attention to the wrong things—to last night’s rally and tomorrow’s pitching matchup—while lesser and sweeter moments slide by unperceived.”
BASEBALL, IT SEEMS TO ME, is a perfect metaphor for life, and Angell often alluded to this, especially as he got older—into his autumn, as it were, where I now find myself.
Angell never overdid the metaphors, though. His great gift was his attention to those “sweeter moments” he mentioned. The opening essay in Five Seasons is a prime example. Titled “On the Ball,” he begins by reflecting on the ball itself, an object of remarkable, layered complexity that nevertheless seems like such a simple thing when you pick it up. His meditation on it is so filled with wonder that when I reread it the other day, it stirred in me with yearning to go out and play catch so as to feel again the sensual pleasures of the ball’s weight and texture and the satisfying thwop it makes when it lands in your glove.
It was essays like this one that I had in mind when I sought permission in the early summer of 2000 to spend a week with the Norfolk Tides and chronicle a home stand—not the play-by-play, though there was some of that, but the richness of details: the grossly under-appreciated work that goes into maintaining the field; the various struggles of individual players, revealed to me in interviews during batting practice; the coaches’ wealth of knowledge (the pitching coach, during a conversation in the dugout one afternoon, taught me the grips for every kind of pitch); the different sense of perspective one gets from watching a game from the dugout, say, as opposed to the last seat in the upper deck of left field; the quirkiness of fans who attend every game in bizarre getups; the calls of the vendors; the fraternal atmosphere in the press box, and the roar of the crowd as a ball is hit into the bullpen.
That list of details, in fact—sights, sounds, smells and textures—doesn’t even begin to cover it.
“Baseball opens your eyes,” Angell wrote at the beginning of another essay.
Not for everyone, of course. For the casual fan—not to mention those who think the game is dull—most details go unnoticed. Many of them had gone unnoticed for me until I wrote that piece on the Tides. But that likely never would have happened—I probably wouldn’t have even thought of it—had it not been for Roger Angell. He opened my eyes. And for that I will be forever thankful.