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.

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. 

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