Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Roger Angell, Then and Now

At a party last weekend attended by a number of savvy baseball historians, I managed to wow them with a little artifact I didn't remember I had until a few weeks ago. Going through one of several cartons of old correspondence, I found the letter reproduced below, sent to me in 1980 by Roger Angell.

Only a few hours before I passed the letter around, Angell received the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding contributions to baseball journalism. He was the first non-member of the BBWAA to win the award, and it was long overdue. After all, he's been writing about baseball in the "New Yorker" since the Spink Award was created in 1962. For decades, the consensus has been that he is the best baseball writer of the past two generations. Only the absence of beat reporting in his resume gave the BBWAA an excuse to snub him all these years. Finally, at age 93, he received the award this year.

I wish I had also found the letter I wrote to Angell that prompted this fine response. I do know that I wrote to him after reading a "New Yorker" piece titled "Sunshine Semester," written in April 1980, after his annual trek to spring training. It later served as Chapter 10 in the Angell collection titled Late Innings.The content of my letter can be gleaned from his response. Here it is, followed by my discussion of the events which prompted his original essay as well as his comments to me:
                                                                                                                                                     May 27
Dear Gabriel Schecter:                                                                                                  
Please forgive my long delay in responding to your lively and generous letter about my recent baseball piece. It's extremely gratifying to hear from a fan who really cares about the game and who has gone to to [sic] the great trouble of writing back. I am feeling very cheerful about the old game, now that the strike has been averted, or at least postponed. For a while there, I really thought the owners were going to make it happen; their vengeful masochism knows no bounds--or almost no bounds. From what I hear, we should all be grateful to Edward Bennett Williams and the new Houston owner, whose name is McMullen, I think, who saved the game from the hard-liners. Every year, I tell myself that I won't underestimate the stupidity and greed of the owners, and then I go right ahead and underestimate it.

Yes, I noticed that Garcia threw in Singleton as a young AL player, but he said it, so I kept it in. And yes, I guess I should have mentioned Yount, but of course the Brewers have so many good young players that it's hard to get them all in. Now I see that Bamberger will be back in the dugout in a couple of weeks--good news for us all, because he is a fine fellow. I'd like to see the Brewers win, but this new Yankee club looks very tough. The new Yankees are also a pleasant bunch to visit--an amazing contrast to their clubhouse in recent years.

Thanks again for writing.

Sincerely,
Roger Angell

*************************************

I'm glad that Angell was feeling cheerful enough about the game to write to a total stranger (and I don't mind that he misspelled my name, joining the always-expanding list of people who have done so). In "Sunshine Semester," he had expressed doubts about his obsession:

"Each year, just before spring comes, I begin to wonder if I shouldn't give up this game. Surely it must be time for me to cut short my abiding, summer-consuming preoccupation with scores and standings and averages, and to put an end to all those evening and weekend hours given to the tube and morning hours given to the sports pages. Is there no cure for this second-hand passion, which makes me a partner, however unwilling, in the blather of publicity, the demeaning emptiness of hero worship, and the inconceivably wasteful outpourings of money and energy that we give to professional sports now?. . . .Every year, I think about such things, often in the middle of the night, and I groan and say to myself, 'Yes, all right, this is the last year for me, no more baseball after this.' But then, a few days or weeks later, back in the sun in Arizona or Florida in March, I change my mind."

In his Spink Award acceptance speech, a mere 34 years after he wrote the above, Angell still lamented being an unwilling partner in the crasser aspects of baseball. As so often happens with the things we love, their essence captivates us at the same time that the business of it manages only to appall us. So it was with Angell in 1980, when a strike by the Players Association cancelled the final week of spring training. The players also voted to strike again on May 23 if their dispute with owners was not resolved (hence Angell's relief four days after the deadline). In April, he despaired of the prospects for a resolution:

"I cannot pretend to any mild neutrality about the issues involved; it has been perfectly plain to me from the start that the twenty-six owners and the league presidents and their advisers have determined that the basic structure of free-agency, which has governed the movement of senior players (players with six years' service in the majors), must be radically altered or they will close down the game. They are serious about this."

Angell devoted the next five pages to listing the owners' arguments and debunking them--the eternal hand-wringing about rising salaries, the claim that owners were losing money even while the value of their franchises was multiplying, the pleas of poverty in an industry that was booming, and their insistence on controlling the movement of every employee in their business, even if it meant shipping a happy and productive employee to another city where he had no desire to be. (Yes, employees. To this day, I've only heard one player express this truth; Greg Maddux, after the Braves declined to renew his contract in 2003, stated bluntly that he had been "fired". Here is Angell's final point:

"Finally, it should be understood that in the opinion of a great many baseball people--including this sideline expert--the owners' idea of allowing a club that loses a free agent to tap the middle levels of the buying team's roster will effectively put an end to the entire free-agent process. Very few clubs--perhaps none--would risk adding a free-agent star if this meant losing a solid current player or a coming star. . . .The owners' offer does stipulate that only an owner who has lost a 'prime' player--that is, a player for whom at least eight other clubs have said they intend to bid--can pick from the signing team's roster, but there is nothing in the proposal to prevent every club from making a token bid for each free agent from now on. The owners, it is plain, wish to turn back the clock. The players, for obvious reasons, refuse to give up the rights they have earned."

Hence the comments in Angell's letter about the close call that spring. A couple of maverick owners slowed down the hard-liners who wanted to undo the victory gained in the courts by the players in 1975-1976. The strike, as he noted, was "averted, or at least postponed." One year later, it struck with the force of a hurricane, shutting down the major leagues for two months. But in May 1980, we baseball fans--and Angell, above all, is the consummate fan, relishing and describing every aspect of the game on the field with the appreciation and discernment of an art lover at a great museum--could breathe easy, sit back, and enjoy the summer-long distraction of games, games, games.

The bulk of "Sunshine Semester" reviewed doings in spring training in 1980. In addition to my two nitpicky points to which Angell responded in his letter, I'm sure I mentioned some of the wonderful writing and insights which prompted me to contact him. Here is an assortment of gems from that essay:
  • [after detailing the lengthy manual for young players prepared by the Milwaukee Brewers, which included 18 reminders about taking a lead off first base, 23 cutoff plays for first basemen, and 34 hitting tips] "One of the wonders of baseball is that every aspect of the game is visible, but another wonder, I know now, is how much of it we can watch, summer after summer, and never see at all."
  • [describing the unique batting stance of John Wockenfuss] "Wockenfuss waits up there in a righty stance, with bat held high, and with his lead, or left, foot placed on the ground a bare inch or so in front of his right foot, heel to toe. He opens up with the pitch, of course, but until then he looks exactly like a man trying to play ball while balancing on top of a back-yard fence."
  • [on Mets general manager Frank Cashen] "He is a rounding, Cagney-size man, with sandy gray hair, a pleasant, Galway-touched face, and a businesslike manner. Here, out in the hot morning sunshine, he was wearing gray pants, a blue oxford button-down Brooks Brothers shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a green golf visor, and a tan knitted tie--the only necktie I observed anywhere during spring training."
  • "Clubhouse churlishness, in any case, is not a new phenomenon, and these recent outbreaks bring to mind the bad-tempered Jerry Grote, an excellent catcher with the Mets for many years, who habitually sneered at and foully reviled members of the New York press who had written less than rave notices of his work in a given game. Then, early in a season near the end of his tenure, it was observed that Grote was trying to be a tad more lovable and sweetly forgiving in his demeanor toward the same writers, at least to the point of no longer addressing them with homosexual or incestuous epithets. One columnist, making note of this unexpected sociability wrote, 'Why is Jerry Grote saying hello when it's time to say goodbye?'--a line first coined, about another player in another time, by the late Frank Graham."
  • [on Billy Martin, newly managing the A's after leaving the Yankees] "Billy, in his office, looked unchanged--the same cold eyes, hollow cheeks, and thin, apache-dancer's mustache. He is fifty-one years old, but he still has an infielder's body; his hands are large, with long fingers. He often bites the corners of his fingernails as he talks. He speaks in a quiet, low voice, almost a monotone."
  • "Young teams are fun to watch, but no one on the Mariners is more entertaining than Willie Horton, the club's designated hitter and senior statesman. Horton is thirty-six now, and his increasingly senatorial embonpoint, when viewed--as I have viewed it--at widely spaced intervals, gives the curious impression that his head is shrinking. Lately, he has adopted a unique, forward-topping, Leaning Tower of Pisa batting stance, which he checks, just short of demolition, as the pitch is delivered."
  • "Earl Weaver, a Torquemada-like persecutor of the arbiters. . ."
I could read such musings all day long and endlessly marvel at his ability to see how one thing resembles something quite unrelated, like John Wockenfuss balanced atop a fence or Willie Horton's head seeming to shrink as he put on middle-age weight (yes, I had to look it up--"embonpoint" means stoutness). The other thing that sets Angell's essays apart are the quotes. Perhaps no writer has ever been a better listener than Angell, whose quotes get to the heart of the matter and the spirit of his subjects. I'll finish off here with three dandy quotes from "Sunshine Semester":
  • Earl Weaver: "I don't go in so much for that strategy. You have a man on second base and one out, and the batter hits a ground ball to the right side and he's out at first, and everybody says 'How pretty! How nice!' But that makes two out, and then the next man comes up and swings from his ass to score the run from third and he strikes out, and everybody says 'Look at that stupid son of a bitch!' If you're always givin' yourself up, the way the book says, they'll say nice things about you, but what you're really doing is passing the blame along to the next man."
  • Billy Martin: "Each club you go to, you change your style. Here I'm molding. When I managed at Detroit, there was a lot of ability and some good older players, and I had to break up cliques. In Minnesota, they had great talent, so it was more a question of working on finesse. Texas was like this club, with a lot of young arms and inexperience. When I went to the Yankees, I had to throw the freeloaders out of the clubhouse and stop the country-club atmosphere."
  • Dave Garcia [on attending an NFL game with Don Zimmer]: "Zim loves football. . . .I said, 'Zim, I'll tell you what. I got this piece of paper here, and I'm going to keep score.' He said, 'Hell, Dave, there ain't no way to keep score in football,' and I said, 'Well, if a wide receiver is out in the open on the field, and the passer hits him on the hands with the ball and he drops it, isn't that an error?' Zim said yes, he guessed so, and I said, 'All right, now it's the same thing, only this time the passer throws the ball five yards over his head. Isn't that an error?' And Zim said sure it was. So I said, 'What about missed open-field tackles, and what about the blockers opening a big hole in the line and the runner running someplace else and getting nailed for a loss?' And Zim said, 'Hell, yes--all errors.' Well, sir, I watched the kept score, and when the game was over I counted up, and there was twenty-eight clear errors on my piece of paper. I showed it to Zim, and he said, 'God damn! And that doesn't even count all the errors they made there in the line, where you can't see what's happening.' So don't anybody try to tell me which is the harder game to play."
I'll leave you with that. Do yourself a favor. Pick up the nearest Roger Angell volume and start reading. Anywhere. It doesn't matter whether you've read him before or never at all. You'll want to follow him wherever he travels on the baseball landscape, and you'll wish he could live forever and keep writing more. As we baseball folk like to say, he's on a pace to. 




Thursday, July 10, 2014

My Favorite Whatever

In the blog I posted the other day, I carped about the all-too-common practice of referring to teams in the singular even when it is clear that the speaker or writer is referring to the entire team. Part of my tirade consisted of my response to the question: "Are you a Yankee fan?" My response: "Yes. I like Ichiro. Which one do you like?"

A couple of people have responded to this sarcasm by saying (more or less), "Fine, your favorite Yankee is Ichiro. Since your main team is Cincinnati, if I committed the hideous sin of asking 'Are you a Red fan?' what would be your answer? Would you just name one guy or would you admit that you like the whole team?"

My reply: "Yes." Of course I would.

Upon further review, I wondered what smart-ass response I could come up with if asked "Who's your favorite. . ." for each franchise. Here you go:

Red: Erik the
Astro: the Jetsons' dog
Ray: Charles
Ranger: Aragorn
Cardinal: Richelieu
Twin: Danny DeVito
Angel: Gabriel, of course
Royal: Grace Kelly
Cub: Jimmy Olsen
Tiger: Tony the
Mariner: Coleridge's ancient one
Brave: Huxley's new world
Dodger: Jack Dawkins (see Dickens)
A: 11th-grade English
Marlin: the one that got away from Ted Williams
Brewer: Gerard Adriaan Heineken
Giant: Gargantua
Indian: Crazy Horse
Rocky: Raccoon
Pirate: Jean Lafitte
Philly: cheesesteak
Blue Jay: Stellar's
Oriole: Bullock's
Diamondback: crotalus atrox
Padre: Father Flanagan
Yankee: Hank Morgan (see Twain)
Met: the one where Pavarotti sang
National: League [Senator: Alan Simpson] [Expo: 1964 NY World's Fair]
White Sock: what I wore to play on my high school tennis team [plus one gray one]
Red Sock: Schilling's bloody one

There you have it. Any more questions?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Vin Scully Is Wrong, and I'm Right

Yes, the title of this piece is a sensationalist headline, designed to grab your attention and draw you in to read further. Vin Scully is wrong--about something, perhaps about only one thing--but my point here is not to single him out for criticism. He is far from the only baseball announcer to make an all too common mistake.

Vin Scully's voice is the most recognizable to make the mistake, and he does it at the start of every broadcast. "It's time for Dodger baseball!" he announces in the most pleasing voice ever to grace the airwaves. But wait--there is no such thing as "Dodger" baseball. That would be game played by a lone Dodger. The games Scully has been announcing since before even I was born are played by the "Dodgers." That's the name of the franchise: Dodgers.

Think about it. Would it be correct to say "The Dodger scored one run yesterday" or "The Dodger will be on the road next week"? Of course not. It's the Dodgers. The team scored one run. The team is going on the road. Yet here's Vin Scully telling us he's about to describe something called "Dodger baseball." Just because our most beloved broadcaster says it before every game, it is not necessarily correct. In fact, it's dead wrong.

Scully would be correct if he said, "It's time for Dodger Stadium baseball," but he doesn't say that. When I've brought up this issue to many people, their response has been, "Well, in that case, why is it called Dodger Stadium?" Or Yankee Stadium. Or some other team's stadium. The simple answer is that because the "s" sound is already present in "stadium," it is linguistically more difficult to ask a speaker to double up on the sound. Try it. You have to pause slightly between words when you say "Yankees' starting lineup" if you wish to say it correctly.

There have been a handful of exceptions to the ballpark-naming rule, most tellingly Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The builders of that venerable cookie-cutter did not merely wish to honor one veteran; they wanted to honor all veterans,and however you wanted to pronounce it, that was fine. Similarly, you couldn't call the Pittsburgh cookie-cutter park "Three River Stadium" without maligning at least two of the rivers.

Other exceptions were Royals Stadium (now Kauffman Stadium), Seals Stadium (the first home of the San Francisco Giants), and my favorite of all, the only home park of the team immortalized in Ball Four, the Seattle Pilots. That park was named after the man who opened it in 1938, the man who owned the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, and, not coincidentally, the Rainier Brewing Company. It was called Sick's Stadium. Much better than Sick Stadium, a moniker which could fit all too many places where major league ball has been played. But I digress.

There is only one instance when it is correct to use the singular form of a team name:  when you are talking about an individual player. Vin Scully would rightly say "Sandy Koufax is the only Dodger to pitch four no-hitters" or "only a Dodger would think of doing something like that to a Giant." But it would not be correct to say "Sandy Koufax joined Carl Erskine as the only Dodger to throw more than one no-hitter." If there were two of them, they were Dodgers, not a Dodger.

When someone goes out on a low-hanging limb and asks me "Are you a Yankee fan?" my response (these days) is "Yes, I like Ichiro. Which one do you like?" In earlier times, it has been Paul O'Neill, Ron Guidry, Bobby Murcer, Jim Bouton, and Moose Skowron, to name nearly every Yankee of whom I have been a fan. My smart-ass response is usually followed by "I mean the team? Do you like the team?" "Oh, the team. No, I'm not. You asked me about individuals." Any attempt my interlocutor makes to continue this line of questioning is met with further obfuscation and/or ball-busting. So don't get me started!

Of course, Vin Scully is not the only broadcaster to refer to his team erroneously in the singular. My "local" team, the Mets, has a very fine lead announcer in Gary Cohen, but he drives me nuts (albeit not a long jouirney) every time he says something like "Duda drove in the Met run in the second inning." Partly I'm dismayed because this means that the team's scoring is probably over for the day, but mainly it's because the team scored the run, and the team is the Mets. Cohen is a lifelong fan of the Mets, as I am, and he should know better. If he wants to say "Duda was the first Met to score in the eight-run second inning," that is just fine with me. I might doubt his veracity, but not his usage.

I do a lot of baseball reading and edit a lot of baseball books, and I can report that the average writer treats the singular and plural as virtually interchangeable. The manuscript I'm looking at right now says "Pirate hurler" in one paragraph and "Pirates pitcher" in the next. Yet both pitchers were employed by the Pirates.

Perhaps the height of confusion came in a rare baseball article a year ago in the AARP magazine. Here's a sentence from the article: "Veteran fans can see a little of Juan Marichal, the Giants right-hander of the 1960s, in the high-kicking rookie on the mound — or a touch of Dodger legend Pee Wee Reese in the soft hands of the new kid at short." 

There you have it, in one fell-swoopish sentence: the team from San Francisco is the Giants, while the team from Los Angeles is the Dodger. Do you suppose the AARP writer got his information from listening to Vin Scully? That would be a shame.

I know it's my problem that the confusion grates on me. Perhaps it's one of those usage quirks that we should indulge simply because it has existed for so long, like referring to the "foul pole" even though it's in fair territory. I guess my beef is that it is not simply a conscious choice to perpetuate an accepted phrase. More and more, the singular and plural are being used interchangeably because the speaker/writer hasn't thought about it at all, much less thought it through enough to realize that when you refer to something about a team, you should use the team's actual name.

Would a political observer discuss a "United Nation peacekeeping effort"? Did disc jockeys herald "Hey Jude" as "the latest Beatle #1 hit?" Are we witnessing the dawn of a new era in "United State" soccer? Of course not.

Come on, Gary Cohen, get with it! Are you a "Met" fan, or do you like the whole damn team?

The subject of apostrophes and the possessive case will be discussed at the next breakdown.

          *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

A couple of people have responded to this carping by saying (more or less), "Fine, your favorite Yankee is Ichiro. Since your main team is Cincinnati, if I made the mistake of asking 'Are you a Red fan? Which one is your favorite?' what would be your answer?" Here's a list of what my response would be for every major league team.

Red: Erik the
Astro: the Jetsons' dog
Ray: Charles
Ranger: Aragorn
Cardinal: Richelieu
Twin: Danny DeVito
Angel: Gabriel, of course
Royal: Grace Kelly
Cub: Jimmy Olsen
Tiger: Tony the
Mariner: Coleridge's ancient one
Brave: Huxley's new world
Dodger: Jack Dawkins (see Dickens)
A: 11th-grade English
Marlin: the one that got away from Ted Williams
Brewer: Gerard Adriaan Heineken
Giant: Gargantua
Indian: Crazy Horse
Rocky: Raccoon
Pirate: Jean Lafitte
Philly: cheesesteak
Blue Jay: Stellar's
Oriole: Bullock's
Diamondback: crotalus atrox
Padre: Father Flanagan
Yankee: Hank Morgan (see Twain)
Met: the one where Pavarotti sang
National: League [Senator: Alan Simpson] [Expo: 1964 NY World's Fair]
White Sock: what I wore to play on my high school tennis team [plus one gray one]
Red Sock: Schilling's bloody one

There you have it. Any more questions?