Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Exception Well Worth Making

In case you were wondering what it would take to get me to return to my baseball blog, the answer, it turns out, was simple:  honor Roger Angell, the best baseball writer I've ever encountered. This past week, the BBWAA, for the first time, bestowed its highest honor, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, on a journalist who is not a regular beat reporter. It is worth taking a little time to explain why this exception was made.

Since its inception in 1962, the Spink Award has gone to a reporter who spent a long time covering a major league team on a daily basis. Even illustrious writers so honored back in the 1960s who were more famous for non-baseball subjects, like Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, began their journalism careers by covering one team. Runyon covered the New York Giants and Lardner the Chicago White Sox. By the end of Runyon's first year in New York, he had ballplayers sounding like early versions of Nathan Detroit and the other Broadway characters he later brought to life in his short stories. Lardner witnessed so many colorful figures on the White Sox that he soon amalgamated them into the "You Know Me, Al" narrator who made him famous.

More recently, the Spink Award, like its counterpart, the Frick Award for broadcasting, has become more of a reward for longevity than for sustained brilliance. That is one reason why it seemed unlikely that the BBWAA would break away from that increasingly insular tradition and honor someone like Roger Angell, whose claim to baseball fame has been a sestet of collections of the essays written over the course of several decades for The New Yorker magazine, where he has been a long-time editor.

As any writer can tell you, if you survive to Angell's current age of 93, you are bound to accumulate a body of work that is massive in scope yet quite possibly uneven in quality. Angell may be the exception to this general truth as well. I've been reading him for several decades now and have never failed to be entertained and enlightened by his writing. Any time I open up a new edition of The New Yorker and see Angell's name in the table of contents, it's a good day.

In the same week when Marvin Miller was once again denied election to the Hall of Fame, it is heartening to see a nonagenarian receive some kind of award. Even after Miller obliged a lot of powerful people at the Hall of Fame by dying at age 95 so they wouldn't have to witness his induction, he didn't get elected. That makes me doubly happy for Roger Angell, and very happy for myself because I'll be able to attend the ceremony at which he receives the award and hear what he says about the honor and about the game he has loved and described so beautifully.

"Unafflicted by daily deadlines or the weight of objectivity," Angell wrote in the Foreword to his first collection, The Summer Game, "I have been free to write about whatever I found in the game that excited or absorbed or dismayed me." Over the course of several decades, he has covered nearly every aspect of baseball, even the business end of it, though for my money the one thing that has always set him apart is his sheer descriptive power, how he takes something that we fans all saw happen, and make us see it in a vivid and intriguing way.

One thing that marks great writers (of all subjects and styles) is that they make us see why this thing over here is remarkably like that thing over there which we thought was utterly unrelated. My favorite example is his description of the swing that Bernie Carbo took at a low-inside pitch from Rawley Eastwick. Carbo was lucky to touch the ball but it prolonged his at-bat, and he smacked the ball over the center field fence at Fenway Park, the famous home run which tied Game 6 of the 1975 World Series and set the stage for Carlton Fisk's even more famous home run.

Many of you have seen footage of Carbo's foul ball on what today's announcers might call an "emergency hack." Roger Angell described a "wholly overmatched" Carbo as "flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet." Has any other writer discerned the resemblance between the World Series and a lawn party? The simile came out of nowhere but Angell's vision, but I haven't seen the Carbo footage since then without seeing how perfectly apt the simile is.

I'm not the first observer to liken Angell's writing to prose poetry, and much of it fits Alexander Pope's definition of "true wit" as "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." Nothing shows this better than his descriptions of Luis Tiant, which I'm going to share at length here. It is from his essay on the 1975 World Series, titled "Agincourt and After" and appeared in his second collection, Five Seasons. If you have seen Tiant pitch but haven't read this before, you're in for a treat and some spectacular flashbacks. If you never saw Tiant pitch, you might think Angell made some of this up for effect. But no. This is what Tiant looked like:

"We were treated to the splendid full range of Tiantic mime. His repertoire begins with an exaggerated mid-windup pivot, during which he turns his back on the batter and seems to examine the infield directly behind the mound for signs of crabgrass. With men on bases, his stretch consists of a succession of minute downward waggles and pauses of the glove, and a menacing sidewise, slit-eyed, Valentino-like gaze over his shoulder at the base runner. The full flower of his art, however, comes during the actual delivery, which is executed with a perfect variety show of accompanying gestures and impersonations. I had begun to take notes during my recent observations of the Cuban Garrick, and now. . .I arrived at some tentative codifications. The basic Tiant repertoire seems to include:

"(1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch, the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

"(2) Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball, he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.

"(3) The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.

"(4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

"(5) The Slipper-Kick: In the midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.

"(6) The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4, above): While he is pivoting, an F-105 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eighty feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.

"All this, of course, was vastly appreciated by the Back Bay multitudes, including a nonpaying claque perched like seagulls atop three adjacent rooftop billboards."

If a writer can think in such terms, I as a reader am willing to follow him wherever he wants to go. And if he merely wants to sit still and tell stories, count me in. I think I'll go read his chapter "Stories for a Rainy Afternoon," also from Five Seasons, to my wife. The chapter contains seven gems, including the famous Richie Ashburn "Yo la tengo," the saga of two baseballs in play at the same time, Hack Wilson's greatest throw, Clint Courtney's rain-delayed at-bat, and Tommy Lasorda's cautionary tale about autographs. She'll love 'em. Do yourself a favor. Grab a copy of any Angell book and start reading.


Perry Barber said...

"Five Seasons" made me fall in love with baseball. It's been the best romance of my life! And the great writing here on "Never Too Much Baseball" renews the romance with every post. Thanks, Gabriel.

Unknown said...

A worthy tribute to a worthy awardee. Well said, Mr. Schechter, and congratulations, Mr. Angell.